Monday, July 31, 2006

Causing Offense - why should PR matter?

I recently managed to offend someone who emailed me asking for questions. Not intentionally, but poorly chosen words written out of frustration aren't any less upsetting. I shan't mention any names, he knows who he is, and for causing that upset I feel I must publicly apologise.

But why should this actually cause me to feel upset at myself as well? Aside from generally feeling a heel for causing another human being to think less of me, it's probably tainted any chance of him taking on board my responses to his questions. And it was clear to me that however much he knew, he (a) was offended when I tried to teach him what he already knew (which he didn't tell me he already knew) and (b) wasn't all that interested in accepting the fact that some of what he thought he knew, he didn't. He wasn't an AIDS dissident by any stretch, but someone with a brain on their shoulders who wanted to understand more, albeit with a large chunk of preconceived ideas and dislike of AIDS scientists/doctors in general, and certain specific individuals.

The Dissident movement has for some time been ahead of the game with PR - the ability to reach the laymen. Even Duesberg's scientific literature is massively oversimplified and dumbed down in order to make sense to the lay reader. Key concepts such as "antibodies mean the infection has been fought off" are easy to sell, even if they're lies. The reader not only feels that they have been informed of something, but it's easy to remember, and in their own mind instantly catapults them to the standard of a PhD in immunology. They feel able to criticise the scientists, for example, for failing to take into account whether HIV PCR cross-reacts with human sequences, not knowing that, of course, this was not only thought of even before the test was developed, but is controlled for in every HIV PCR reaction of human tissue.

Books and popular magazine articles have been written from people like Maggiore, Scheff and Farber, while the orthodoxy write academic papers in journals that are hidden in medical libraries or behind expensive pay-per-view web portals. The dissidents have also had a large online presence for years, in fact many of the sites suffer from not being updated with more recent literature - most likely because it would contradict their stance. The orthodoxy has only recently managed to respond with organized efforts like and here at AIDSmyth. The simple fact of the matter is that most of us working in the field have far better things to do with our time! The other thing is that, to scientists, PR is worthless. You simply have to tell someone the truth, show them that it is the truth, and you're sorted. How you package it is irrelevant. Sadly that isn't the case in today's society of soundbites and spin. As orthodox scientists trying to educate the masses, we almost find ourselves having to pre-empt Dissident spin by hunting down potential articles that can be misconstrued and preparing to counter them. What a waste - to have to retell the story simply because someone misunderstood it. This particular person made several important comments about the fact that as orthodox scientists, much of what we say gets ignored simply because of the way it gets said. Which to me would be laughable if it weren't so sad. I would say though, from bitter experience, that if we are to get through to the fence-sitters, or even to show the dissidents that they are horribly, dangerously wrong, then we too need to learn the art of good PR.

Most of the orthodox sites from places like the NIH aren't specifically aimed at counter dissident arguements, which need to be targeted at individual dissident myths rather than simply stating standard healthcare advice and information. And of course they suffer from being part of "the AIDS establishment" and therefore corrupt and worthless.

I'm reminded of the double-bind Brian found himself in, in the movie "Life of Brian".

"I'm not the messiah!"
"Only the messiah denies his true self!"
"Oh alright then, I AM the messiah!"
"He IS the messiah!!!"

If you believe the PR hyperbole, then how can the orthodoxy win? Which should make you ask yourself, if I take away the PR, then what difference does that make?

Next time you get a cold sore, or a shingles outbreak, or meet someone with hepatitis B or C - ask yourself if antibodies really are a sign of a cleared infection, or if the dissident camp maybe, just maybe, don't have a clue. And also ask yourself why they are working so hard to win hearts and minds, when surely the truth should be self-evident.

And a point to make to the orthodox crowd reading this - we do need to watch how we say things. Not just in terms of giving the dissidents an intellectual crack to get into (which we then have to spend time filling) but in terms of professionalism and full-disclosure. This guy's biggest gripe was that the docs implied that (say) viral load measured whole infectious virions, when of course it doesn't, as detailed extensively here. Again it doesn't matter if the intent is to mislead or not, if the perception is that it is. Communication is a two-person thing, speaker and listener. Misunderstandings are often as much caused by one as by the other...


Blogger SkookumPlanet said...

I wanted to give you some kudos for your work here, and a comment about the battle you're engaged in.

This is the same dilemma, caused by the same failings [both in the "skeptics" and in the medical-science community], and amplified by the same new realities of mass communications that are present in the evo/ID and global warming issues. And this is only the beginning. There will be many more wars between the forces of science and those opposing it.

It's now clear to any vested interests how to twist the realities of science into a sociopolitical "reality" to their liking. With scores of millions of dollars buy a fake, manufactured scientific opposition and then buy an adept, long-term psychomarketing campaign to convince enough voters it's reality. And real science gets screwed.

Last spring I spent a couple months, and a couple weeks this summer, commenting about this on Scienceblogs. I cautioned against both the archaic conceptions of mass-communication that seem common in the science community, and a dismissive attitude toward the persuasion industry. I met with some resistance.

My main concern is for the good guys. While it's necessary to do what you're doing [many thanks] it's not sufficient. Any field of science can now be politicized, so scientists need to understand what's happening, how to counter it, and that the environment they work and live in has irrevocably changed. Lack of knowledge may eventually allow these techniques to be used against scientists personally -- all scientists need to emotionally accept this changed world in order to protect themselves and their profession. Seems only a small fraction understand this. Average Americans, outside their immediate social milieu, exist in a virtually 100% designed and manipulated environment. Thinking, or rather believing, that facts or information or education or, we've learned recently, even actual reality are adequate to counter this new media environment is highly irrational. The apparently widespread belief that things can be changed without getting immersed in the persuasion game is doomed, doomed, doomed.

An example from another field. Only in the past few months have some professional bioscience organizations finally taken some tentative official steps to counter the rising tide of ID. Blue-ribbon committees have been established, a precambrian approach! In blog commenting I've said repeatedly that no scientist would approach another field of science the way this social communication problem is being approached. At the very least, it's a behavioral science question. There's plenty of theoretical, experimental, and applied knowledge about this -- it drives our economy -- yet by and large, the science community can't be bothered with paying attention. Cognitive science is beginning to show us the human brain evolved primarily as an emotional decision maker, not primarily a rational one. Such resistance indicate a long, miserable road ahead. I still come across arguments that for scientists to engage with creationists in any way is to lend them validity. This is cluelessness about the real world that is profound. When you find yourself in a hole....

It's a problem about science education only in the very long term -- many decades. Immediately it's about a highly specialized type of communication, through media conduits with individual strengths and weaknesses, to huge masses of extremely distracted people, and in an HIGHLY competitive environment where many decades of research and application results are being utilized by high-stakes, big-money players whose survival depends on the results!

This is not an arena scientists can master effectively one by one.

As a non-scientist, I've come to see this as more of an internal professional, indeed, perhaps a professional ethics issue. I've seen discussion of how impractical it is to advance any sort of professional changes in this area of public communication due to the realities of a scientific career. But, after considering that, I don't buy it. The professional pressures in science, to an important degree, arise from the science community itself. If the profession[s], as a whole, decide it wants to alter some of the system's incentives, it could be done.

What you're doing should be recognized and lauded by the AIDS research community. Ideally, by now, you, or someone, should be running workshops on this at medical conferences. How close is that to reality?

So, I'm unlikely to be back, but want to offer encouragement. I hesitate to suggest an additional task, but hope you're not shy in sharing this work with your colleagues. Thank you.


P.S. If you're interested in more details, you can google SkookumPlanet. Focus on Scienceblogs. There are a couple hundred comments of mine. Most comprehensive at Chris Mooney's on global warming. A lot on PZ's too -- Coulter and goddless blogging topics have a number. A recent Daily Transcript on stem cells is another one.

P.P.S. I'll also note [generally, with exceptions] that one can tell by analyzing the actions and techniques of skeptics/dissenters in many areas like this, that they are pursuing a fundamentally amoral approach. Whether they realize or not is immaterial. You've outlined some of this above and, let's face it, it's dishonest. These turn out to be ends-justify-the-means people. This becomes obvious when they enter the public communications realm and begin misinforming citizens.

So, when you said "Communication is a two-person thing, speaker and listener." really, once it goes public it's "communication is a public thing, message [presenter] and audience through a specific medium." As you say, just presenting pieces of data and expecting all else to derive appropriately from that is, at best, futile effort. More accurately, it's a fantasy.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Bennett said...

Hi Skookumplanet.

Thanks for taking the time to write in. Not much I can add to your words really! One thing of note - there was in fact a short workshop/seminar held this year at the AIDS conference in Toronto. Dr John Moore spoke there (mostly to journalists and editors I think) about the importance of media responsibility - while not addressing scientists about the importance of media spin, he himself is at least well aware of the importance of spin in the dissident campaign. Maybe it was the start of things to come. Sadly I know that many of the key AIDS researchers became exhausted and exasperated with the whole sad story of AIDS dissent a decade or more ago, and frankly don't have the emotional energy to put into a PR campaign.

Anyhow, thanks for your insight and input - much appreciated.

8:56 PM  
Blogger SkookumPlanet said...

Sadly I know that many of the key AIDS researchers became exhausted and exasperated with the whole sad story of AIDS dissent a decade or more ago, and frankly don't have the emotional energy to put into a PR campaign

Exactly. Just further evidence why it's inappropriate for science to confront such important matters on an ad hoc basis. I don't have an answer about how to go about changing this inside science/fields. But I'm convinced, like in any other area of endeavor, that if a decision were made en masse to do so on a priority basis, so many smart and clever people would figure it out pronto.

Perhaps some internal lobbying campaigns need to happen. Or a book analyzing the media-writing on the wall specifically for scientists. Or a book showing that funding declines and anti-science trends did not bloom into influence by accident or via natural social mechanisms, but rather have been intentionally fostered, massaged, and manipulated, and continue to be so, to provide voting blocks to give a specific political faction national power. Or a couple of buddies, a medico/evo biologist/cog sci guy and a social psychologist/sociologist should have a beer together and decide they've stumbled upon an important new hybrid field of study and start it out by researching why scientists don't get it or why they can't take action. There's all sorts of potential.

Ah, well. Things will get worse, of course, not better if left to drift as is. For example, imagine the AIDS denialists effects if there were a financial or religious incentive behind them, as in global warming and intelligent design. Or a political incentive! It's very frustrating to watch from the outside. I can't imagine how it actually feels to be up against it constantly.

3:18 AM  

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