“Facts are meaningless,” Homer Simpson says. “You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true. Facts, schmacts.”
A recent article in the New York Times, “Survey Shows Gap Between Science and the Public,” seems to indicate that the American populace shares Homer’s position. The disconnect between scientists and the public is enormous, according to the research conducted by the Pew Research Center discussed in the article. For example, one third of Americans surveyed believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. A mere two percent of scientists hold this belief. I use this example not to start a debate between creationism and evolution, but to point out what I think is a glaring fact: a large percentage of the public simply does not believe in science or trust scientists. This, however, is not necessarily their fault.
The Right Wing in this country has done an excellent job undermining science and scientists, be it the science-based warnings about global warming, the science of evolution, or the research around sex education. And, they do it the same way regardless of the topic.
Here is the step by step guide for you future conservative media strategists:
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1) Find someone with passable scientific credentials who will support your position on a given issue.
2) Fund that individual to conduct “research” that will favor your argument.
3) Roll out the findings of this “research” as proof that there is genuine debate about the issue.
4) Gain publicity for your argument by parading your expert in front of Congress or Fox News (preferably Fox News).
5) Claim that your opponents don’t agree with your expert because they have a harmful, political agenda.
6) Use the fact that the public is now confused about whom to trust to advance your own harmful, political agenda.
7) Rinse and repeat as necessary.
My colleagues and I here at SIECUS combat this strategy every day, as we are forced to deal with research that isn’t really research, polls that aren’t really polls, and opposition groups who are trying to couch their moral objections to comprehensive sex education in pseudo-science. Time and time again, I am forced to explain to reporters that Dr. Stan Weed’s and Dr. Doug Kirby’s opinions should not be considered equally just because they both have “Dr.” before their names. And, time and time again, I feel as if we are fighting a losing battle in terms of educating the public. Not only does the public not necessarily care about the nuances of condom failure-rate statistics, but they are hearing one number from us and another number from our opponents, and tend to just throw up their arms and come to the conclusion that neither side is particularly trustworthy.
Besides, it is just so much easier for our opponents to confuse the issues than it is for us to clarify them.
What is the answer then? How do we promote our message that comprehensive sexuality education is important without relying on facts and figures that people won’t trust anyway? The truth is actually very liberating; instead of getting mired down in the data and journal articles that seem to take up so much of our time, we can simply think about what caused us to want to be advocates in the first place. I guarantee you that it wasn’t a study showing a slight decrease in contraceptive use among rural teens. No, it is our fundamental beliefs that are our most convincing arguments.
I work in this field because I believe in education. I believe that I want to be on the side that promotes more knowledge, instead of less. I believe that everybody loves and should have the right to love whomever they wish. I believe in common sense. I believe that people need to know how to protect their health. I believe that everyone should have control over their own body. I believe that families come in all shapes. I believe that I have the best interests of young people in mind.
If we can distill our messages to our core principles, regardless of our specific fields, we can bypass the resistance that the public has developed to science- and statistics-based arguments, and find which values and principles we share with them.
Don’t get me wrong, there will always be a place for statistical arguments and we should never put down our journal articles or stop conducting our double-blind studies, especially when we are dealing with educators, policy makers, medical professionals, and others who have the time and inclination to develop a true understanding of the issues. What we must realize, however, is that the modern public takes a different kind convincing, based on a different kind of logic: the logic of belief, sincerity, and common sense.
It will not be an easy transition to make but, again to quote Homer Simpson, the Chinese have the same word for crisis and opportunity: “Crisitunity.”