Wednesday, 05 March 2014 09:00

Far Afield—Believing In Science at the AAAS Meeting

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RembrandtA masterpiece of 21st century science
will be rejected by those who see the discovery
as a threat to their moral framework and self-identity.
Photo illustration by Rembrandt and Johnny Chang.

One of the pleasures of the AAAS Annual Meeting is walking through walls. Science can be a windowless warren if you stick with what you know so sometimes it pays to step out. At AAAS, you can seek out a symposium on some outlandish topic just to view unknown terrain. Sometimes you glimpse far horizons. Sometimes you are fogged in.

Say you were in Chicago this year for the AAAS session on "Reconstructing and Deconstructing Paintings." You could have discovered an entire field, "cultural heritage science," which is what used to be called art restoration but is presented here with a major dose of exotic X-ray imaging techniques and materials chemistry. You could have heard Joris Dik from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands describe how new techniques such as synchrotron radiation X-ray fluorescence elemental mapping and micro X-ray absorption near-edge spectroscopy could find a "lost" Van Gogh under a disputed Van Gogh.

Art conservators have been X-raying old paintings almost since the discovery of X-rays in 1896. Traditional artists' oil paints used metals such as cadmium and lead for color, which show on X-rays. But the thinness of paint layers and the use of a white lead "ground" to prepare a canvas for use (or re-use) has long frustrated finer resolution. These new imaging technologies can see around and through these metal-laced paint layers with much greater resolution. Dik provided a startling example in Rembrandt's group portrait, "The Syndics of the Draper's Guild," which to older eyes was the box label for Old Masters cigars. It shows six figures, five of the lordly syndics in wide-brimmed hats and one employee, their clerk, wearing a modest skullcap. Using his newly developed mobile macro X-ray fluorescence analysis unit, Dik and colleagues discovered that Rembrandt had painted and then overpainted the clerk's face in three different locations before settling him in the center of the painting, the only figure looking directly at the viewer. Twenty-first century imaging discovers 17th-century PhotoShop?

If a new technology can illuminate an iconic painting, could research from another discipline throw light on a basic question affecting basic research and technological innovation: How do people make up their minds about science? And can you change minds? For anyone active in basic bioscience, it is no secret that there is a vast gulf between the lab world and what the public knows—and thinks—about our science. If it registers at all with the general public, the latest research is usually presented either as "cures in the making" or controversies about "playing god." The result can be either oversell or blind opposition.

Yet both scientists and citizens have a vital interest in how science is regarded—or disregarded—in addressing such scientific issues as GMOs (genetically modified organisms), stem cell biology, and the teaching of evolution. These kinds of issues pop up so regularly in our research and technology-driven society that there is a whole vocabulary for it. It is "post-normal science" where "facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decision urgent." Breakthrough discoveries are inherently based on "fragile" evidence and yet the accelerating "nano-bio-info-cogno" or NBIC "convergence" quickly drags purely scientific disputes into the public arena because of "ethical, legal or social implications" or ELSI.

The vocabulary comes from the field of cognitive social psychology where the question of how and why people make up their minds about science has been on the table for years. At AAAS, it crystalized around a panel, "How to Rebuild Trust in Science; Insights from the Social Sciences," organized by the German Research Foundation (DFG). This would explain why some of the most interesting panelists were from German universities where devising elaborate cognitive social psychology experiments into public acceptance of science seems to be red hot. Mario Gollwitzer of the Philips University Marburg and Michaela Maier of the University of Koblenz-Landau described how they try to get at the mechanisms of belief. Maier looks at how the public filters news reports on ambiguous or "fragile" scientific evidence surrounding the long-term safety of nanotechnology. She re-edits real media reports on nanotechnology in the environment into pro, con, and balanced versions before testing them on volunteer subjects. She is trying to get at the question of whether it is possible to talk to the public about unresolved scientific questions without influencing the outcome.

Gollwitzer studies the impact of violent video games or rather the impact of scientific studies on players. In effect, Gollwitzer uses violent video games as his experimental system for looking more closely at players who identify themselves as hardcore "gamers." In the experiment, a group of gamers and non-gamers were asked to contribute to a fake online forum in which a "study" on violent video games was presented. The reported "outcome" of the study was manipulated so that the results showed that violent video games had either a strong correlation with negative impacts or none at all. The likelihood of posting a negative comment on the study was correlated with how strongly the respondent identified as a "gamer." In short, the more you think of yourself as a "gamer," the less likely you are to accept any scientific study that is seen as a threat to your self-identification.

Gollwitzer's findings were depressing. Your framing beliefs—your core morality or ethics or political beliefs plus your self-identity, say as a "gamer" —are a greater predictor of your attitude toward science than anything else. If you perceive that specific scientific evidence is a threat to your core beliefs and identity, you will dismiss all scientific investigations. "It may be impossible to build trust in the science if it threatens their moral values," Gollwitzer concluded. Transfer that to the whole evolution-creationism conflict and you can see why proof doesn't change minds.

On the up side were Maier's findings that even when reporting on a genuinely unresolved scientific question, it does no harm to report ambiguous or nuanced evidence to those whose basic value system includes trust in scientific authority.

Actually it's not trust so much as deference to scientists that determines your openness to scientific evidence, according to Dietram Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, whose talk introduced the language of ELSI, NBIC convergence, and post-normal science, even as he stressed that these terms were not his inventions. Similarly he credited "deference" as a pivot for belief in scientific evidence to his Wisconsin colleague, Dominque Brossard. Deference rests on a nested set of beliefs that science is a superior form of inquiry, that it is politically neutral and systematic, and that science acts in the broad public interest.

Deference thus becomes a perceptual filter, independent of specific knowledge of the subject. This drives yet another nail into the coffin of the so-called "multiple deficit" theory, according to Scheufele, that it is the public's poor scientific education that causes them to reject complex scientific questions out of ignorance. Experiments have shown that lay people can be tutored in great detail on a scientific controversy, score well on fact quizzes, and still reject scientific evidence as contrary to their core beliefs. "The same information will mean different things to different people," Scheufele explained. The best predictor of a "pro-science" attitude is deference. In today's complex scientific environment, there is really no choice for most pro-science people, says Scheufele. The majority of the public will never be exposed to science at a high enough level for them to make evidence-based judgments.

Using Scheufele's explanation of deference, a cell biologist who knows RNA silencing can defer to a materials chemist talking about the experimental validity of synchrotron radiation X-ray fluorescence elemental mapping. But what does a cell biologist say to an "intelligent design" proponent who sees in the flagellum only more evidence for irreducible complexity?

You can say that you respect their moral beliefs, the panelists suggested. You can appeal to their belief in a greater good, they offered. Or you could "flip" how science is taught in schools, suggested another panelist, Martin Storksdieck from the National Research Council, transforming science students from fact retrievers to active participants in the process of discovery.

And scientists could stop acting so smug. "Scientists feel they have the truth," Storksdieck said, and they grow impatient with irrational resistance. "If you insist that the other is irrational, then the other perceives you as irrational."

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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