Friday, December 17, 2021

"No Evidence" = Terrible Communication

Scott Siskind has a terrific post pointing out that the phrase "no evidence" is used in two contradictory senses in a way that muddies understanding of science and knowledge.

For example, early in the pandemic you might have read articles with titles like "No evidence for airborne transmission of novel coronavirus" or "no evidence linking Covid to indoor dining." Which did not mean those things were not true, just that nobody had yet done a real study about them. Once people started studying them they were quickly shown to be correct. But

On the other hand, here is a recent headline: No Evidence That 45,000 People Died Of Vaccine-Related Complications. Here’s another: No Evidence Vaccines Cause Miscarriage. I don’t think the scientists and journalists involved in these stories meant to shrug and say that no study has ever been done so we can’t be sure either way. I think they meant to express strong confidence this is false.

You can see the problem. Science communicators are using the same term - “no evidence” - to mean:
  1. This thing is super plausible, and honestly very likely true, but we haven’t checked yet, so we can’t be sure.
  2. We have hard-and-fast evidence that this is false, stop repeating this easily debunked lie.
This is utterly corrosive to anybody trusting science journalism.

I agree completely. I think one of the reasons people don't trust science is that science journalism does not explain to what extent things are known and accepted; the results of the latest cutting edge experiment are presented the same way as something like orbital mechanics that we can calculate to five decimal places. 

It is not enough to say that studies show something, or that scientists accept something, without at least attempting to convey the strength of the evidence and the degree of the agreement. Unfortunately science journalists are under huge pressure to offer yes-or-no, true-or-false takes on every question, because that is all a big portion of the public will accept. But they could do a lot better.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

To a scientist, believing in something for which there is no evidence is absurd. It might be true, and you might have a very strong sense and inclination that it is true, but to act upon the assumption that it is true, without evidence, is the height of irresponsibility to a scientist.

Also, it is my sense that scientists tend to be relatively polite and humble people who prefer to couch their statements in non-absolute terms. This perception of mine, if accurate, may in fact tie into science's overall comfort with uncertainty - everything in science is treated as suppositional, even the things for which there are overwhelming amounts of evidence, like gravity. There's a quote by Richard Feynman which I think demonstrates this mindset exceptionally:

“You see... one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it's much more ~interesting~ to live not knowing, than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we're here ... but I don't ~have~ to know an answer. I don't feel ~frightened~ by not knowing things. By being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell, ~possibly~. It doesn't frighten me.”

Scientists, as a rule, aren't very good at communicating scientific fact and consensus to the general public, because they think and speak in a fundamentally different way that the average person does.

The job of a scientist is to work on science - not to translate it and restate it in a way that the public can understand despite being largely science illiterate. That's the job of a science educator, not a scientist.

This is much like how most automotive mechanics aren't terribly good at communicating complex automotive issues to the general public - they know their stuff when it comes to fixing cars, but there's a reason when you go to the auto shop they have a specialized customer service representative sitting behind the front desk, not one of the actual technicians. The guys in the garage turning the wrenches aren't expected to have to try to explain complicated and unintuitive things to ignorant customers - they're just there to get those things done, and they leave the explanations to other people who are trained for that purpose.

Scientists generally are NOT good communicators when it comes to informing the general public - but it's insane that we expect them to be! In virtually every other field and industry, we have zero expectation for specialists to be experts both in their own specialization AND in communicating with the general public... but for some reason, we think that's how scientists should work?

Science needs spokespeople, that's all.