Monday, April 09, 2007

The Value of Being Naive   posted by Matt McIntosh @ 4/09/2007 01:44:00 PM

Go read Hawks on Nisbet & Mooney:

This kind of cynical strategy is the province of used car salesmen and other charlatans. And it's easily exposed by any clever critic who happens to be watching . . .

My point isn't that these critics are right, but that such criticisms pretty much write themselves! A scientist trying to "frame" in this way is going to end up discredited unless they retreat to the facts anyway. This is, after all, why scientists are typically so cautious in print -- because they work in a field where bad arguments are quickly torn apart by their critics. Why in the world would anyone think politics would be any easier?

This is pretty much right, and I just want to add that this is especially bad advice to give to scientists, because scientists wouldn't be scientists if they were really good salespeople. Spinning is not their comparative advantage, and "fight the enemy on his own turf" is awful tactical advice. Scientists owe whatever respect and deference they're given to the fact that they're percieved as being interested primarily in the truth: their reputation for earnestness and lack of guile is a big part of their cred. The best way to get people to regard you as honest is to really be naively honest.

People may be dumb in a lot of ways, but they generally know how to spot when someone's trying to sell them something, and telling scientists that they should behave more like salespeople will result in them being regarded in much the same way—and they are never going to be better salespeople than professional demagogues. I can think of no better way to erode whatever benefit of the doubt that scientists currently enjoy in our culture. If scientists try to play the political game, they're going to lose. Better to try to stay above the fray than get dragged in and trampled for sure.

Labels: ,