Role of Emotion in Skeptic Communities and Science Outreach

Popular science pages and blogs such as SciBabe, and the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe are a great new avenue of making sure scientific discourse can reach a wider audience. It is especially great when they also have Facebook pages, because with more and more people getting their information from social media, it becomes more important to have credible sources also sharing information on an easily accessible and widely-used forum. This would serve two main purposes:

  • stem the flow of misinformation from charlatans eager to take advantage of a gullible public
  • open communication channels between those with a scientific education, and those without.

Initially, I was  encouraged by the existence of these spaces; it even inspired me to revive my comatose science blog last year (oui, I am aware that it has been a good 8.5 months since my last post). However, a disturbing trend soon emerged. I noticed that comment sections on these posts almost invariably turn into a circle-jerk within the scientifically educated, or, when challenged by someone without a scientific background, not fully answering the question, mocking/deriding, or explaining in a way that someone with a high school science education wouldn’t be able to understand it. Today, I want to address a very specific statement I have seen repeated in these conversation, “Science doesn’t care about your feelings/emotions. Science cares about facts.” I bought that, for about 5.8 seconds. And only really, because for many many years I’ve been uncomfortable with my own existence as an emotional creature who cannot always be 100% rational. However, here’s where the argument, and therefore the goal of scientific outreach falls apart. Human beings are inherently emotional creatures. You cannot change people’s minds with mere facts, because people first need to care about why the facts are important. To draw a parallel with scientific papers, facts are like raw data. They don’t mean anything except to a very small fraction of people who know how to analyze and interpret the data. At some point, you need to disseminate the data, interpret it, and explain the importance of why the facts matter. This to me, seems a key failing of amateur science educators, and dare I get a little bit political, also a key failing of those who try to “fact-check” politicians who are peddling an outrageously bigoted narrative. At this point it seems important to make note of two groups that you cannot “fact-check” because they do not care about the facts and will not be affected by emotional appeal either. 

  • You cannot “fact-check” people who already know the facts but are invested in pushing their narrative for personal gain. E.g., politicians with corporate ties, “scientists” paid off by oil companies to deny human-caused climate change, etc.
  • You cannot “fact-check” stubbornly ignorant people who are already closed-minded and believe that anything that challenges their personal world view is lies and propaganda. E.g., religious extremists, tin-foil hat-wearers, people getting their medical information from instead of medical practitioners who went through the rigors of medical school.

The above two are, in my opinion, lost causes and I wouldn’t necessarily waste my time nor energy with them, unless they are the current administration of a major economic superpower and have the power to influence policies that can affect the well-being of other people. Here’s the third group you cannot simply “fact-check”, but you can appeal to them using emotion. Those who are on the fence, with no clear opinions, but are vulnerable to emotional manipulation by the above two groups (who have a vested interest in increasing their numbers such that they can influence larger change, as such is the nature of democracy).  I’m not saying the facts are not important, but it is also important to present the facts in a way that also demonstrate the importance of standing with the facts. E.g., will their children’s life be in danger? Are they endangering other people’s children; can they live with themselves if their neighbour’s kid who is immunocompromised dies from a preventable disease that was spread from their unvaccinated children. Yes, some people, genuinely don’t care, and will keep misusing the phrase “survival of the fittest” right up until the moment their own children fall deathly ill, and yes, some people will literally not stop peddling the same bullshit even after sacrificing their own children to their strongly held world view (those same people sometimes are also merchants of “miracle cures” that rely on other people also denying science based medicine). But I am optimistic that most people are not this way. As such, I implore the more educated people to stop mocking the less-educated but not bat-crab-looney-tunes/snake-oil-merchants, and provide them with the resources more gently, and with an appeal to emotion.

Yes, it is very satisfying to insult the more obstinate ones who are not willing to learn. I encourage mocking them, because it should be unacceptable to spread unscientific garbage. But the way to get people to care about facts is to appeal to their emotions.

I would like to attribute this revelation to my PI, who agreed to do an interview last year when I was first re-jump-starting this blog. I wanted to know how to get people to be more critical-thinking, rational people, who weren’t steared solely by emotion. I was locked into the idea that to be rational, we have to forsake emotions entirely, but it frustrated me that people wouldn’t calmly and rationally think through facts but immediately jump to how it made them personally feel. And most of the time, anything that challenges your current worldview is uncomfortable for most people.

Her answer is that you can’t keep people from being steared by emotion; people have to first care about being critical-thinkers and the only way to do it is by appealing to their emotions. Caring is an emotion and if you can get people to care about the importance of facts, they would be more willing to educate themselves.

Anti-science groups are experts at the tactic of emotional manipulation. They show photos of screaming babies being stabbed with horse needles, they appeal to your emotional sense of having ownership of your child’s body/well-being. They tell you that you, the parent should have the final say and it feels good and powerful. It’s about time we used our basic human characteristic for progress: for better science education for the public, for more critical thinkers and less “alternative fact”-ers. You know what feels good and powerful? Being able to protect yourself and others from preventable diseases, and not having 16 children just so maybe 1 or 2 will survive to adulthood, knowing you tried to make the Earth a better place to live in instead of stripping its resources for your own miserably short-lived life, contributing to the ever-growing body of knowledge… I know it’s not just me.


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