The recent outbreak of measles in America, and its relationship with the anti-vaccination movement, has led to a lot of online debate. Much of this debate is about how these “anti-science” parents and the movement they listen to is increasing the risk of disease for everyone. While the increase in risk is undoubtedly a real issue, I’m not convinced by the quality of the “anti-science” framing of the issue. I’ve said before on this blog that I think the rhetoric of “anti-science” is both unproductive and unrealistic, and I think this applies even more to the anti-vaccine issue than to the GMO issue where I originally discussed it.

Much of that argument was about things written on John Quiggin’s blog, and today he has again written a post about anti-science, this time in the context of the Republican’s newfound interest in anti-vaccination ideology. The comments illustrate the pointlessness of the anti-science label well, with partisan actors degenerating into a frenzy of accusations that their opponents are anti-science, mostly without any reference to any form of evidence, or based on the kind of one-sided “facts” that Quiggin has previously associated with anti-science rhetoric. However, near the top of the comments thread a commenter called “Jim Rose” has a link to a blog post by Dan Kahan, explaining his recent work on science communication on this very issue. In a recent experiment that I briefly mentioned in my last post on this issue, people’s attitudes were categorized on two dimensions of social deviancy and risk, and then they were exposed to different forms of science communication. Those exposed to an “anti-science” diatribe divided rapidly into a group who doubled down on their views and a group who supported the anti-science framing. Kahan’s conclusion is blunt and damning for the kind of “agnotology” favoured by people like John Quiggin:

The “anti-science trope,” in sum, is not just contrary to fact.  It is contrary to the tremendous stake that the public has in keeping its vaccine science communication environment free of reason-effacing forms of pollution.

i.e. the “anti-science trope” is itself anti-science, in that it does not reflect the reality of how people think about science in judging controversial issues, and is inconsistent with the best available knowledge about how to engage people with divergent views on important scientific issues.

Dan Kahan is a well-respected authority on this issue, and it’s interesting to note that he has attracted a comment from one well-known pro-science blogger, Skeptical Raptor, saying

Let me say that I’m gobsmacked as I read the conclusions. It may turn my world on its head …

Kahan’s findings on how to communicate science and how to engage objectors to particular scientific ideas basically completely oppose John Quiggin’s agnotology, and that of much of the scientific blogosphere, especially those on the New Atheist/Leftist fringe. They also back up my initial sense that this “anti-science” label is ignorant of both the reasons people take the positions they do, and the best ways to engage with them to change those positions. Kahan gives an example of a good way of engaging with anti-vaxxers, from a blog post by a pro-vaccination mother, and shows that it is nothing like what he calls the “ad hoc risk communication literature” that (in my opinion) characterizes much of the science blogging community’s response to these movements. I should also point out that I have defined a group of what I call the “scientific left,” who I roughly consider to be people like John Quiggin and myself, and Kahan’s findings (and the example he links to) are radically different to the way that the “scientific left” as I understand it engages with these movements.

There’s a lot of food for thought here, and a lot of ideas about how to better handle anti-vaccination, anti-GMO and (maybe) anti-AGW movements. It’s my personal opinion (on the basis of nothing solid, yet) that anti-AGW and pro-smoking movements are different to others, though I can’t at this stage say clearly why. I also think that the approach of people like Stephan Lewandowsky seems inferior to that of Kahan – there is value in identifying the conspiracy-theory side of AGW denialism, but the combative and confrontational nature of Lewandowsky’s work seems to disagree with Kahan’s approach. But Kahan’s work certainly suggests that the scornful agnotology of commentators like John Quiggin, PZ Myers and Dawkins, while fun to join in on from the inside, is potentially very counter-productive, and is itself “anti-science” by its own definition (which fact I find hilarious). This validates my initial suspicions about the term, and makes me think the scientific left has to do more – and be more scientific! – if we want to improve the use of science for the public good.