Saturday, February 16, 2008

Scientists Yelling At Each Other

Matthew Nisbet of Framing Science fame announces a panel discussion on science communication as follows:

A major challenge for scientists will be to craft communication efforts that are sensitive to how religiously diverse publics process messages but also to the way science is portrayed across types of media. In these efforts, scientists should adopt a language that emphasizes shared values and has broad appeal, avoiding the pitfall of seeming to condescend to fellow citizens or alienating them by attacking their religious beliefs. Part of this process includes "framing" an issue in ways that remain true to the science but that make the issue more personally meaningful, thereby potentially sparking greater interest or acceptance.
The shortcomings of scientific communication is likewise the substance of Flock of Dodos, the Randy Olson film on the culture wars surrounding evolution and science teaching. Olson's despairing conclusion is that genuine biologists have been out-flacked and out-politicked by the forces of the cdesign proponentsists, who peddle antiscientific hokum that presumably "sparks acceptance."

While overtly disavowing the stereotype, Olson nonetheless takes scientists to task for being charmless, fashion-challenged, slightly threatening nerds who can't finish three sentences without using obscure words, making condescending gestures, and presuming to know what they're talking about on exotic subject matters. He evokes the specter of Stephen J. Gould and pines for his rare talent for mingling scientific acumen with humanistic outreach.

I think it's worth asking how well this Nisbet/Olson theory of science communication holds up. I see serious problems with it.

First, while Stephen J. Gould did promote evolution with admirable grace and charm, he was no hero in the American heartland, let alone among religious believers concerned with the topics he addressed. He had more than his share of scrapes and conflicts with the cdesign proponentsists throughout his career -- this characteristic collection of Gould's statements don't mince words on the conflict between religion and science, notwithstanding his famous proposal of non-overlapping magisteria, a feat of hairsplitting that multiplied his enemies on all sides and did little to negate conflict. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentson's putdown of Dan Quayle: I've been reading Stephen J. Gould since the 1980's. Stephen J. Gould was a hero of mine. Stephen J. Gould is no Stephen J. Gould. The notion that his death was the terminus of a Camelot of successful science popularization is a delusion, and not a helpful one. Likewise, Carl Sagan is no Carl Sagan in the relevant sense.

Here's one of Gould's broadsides, which is remarkable only for how comfortably it would fit in writing by Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Michael Ruse, PZ Myers, Philip Kitcher, Niles Eldridge, Steve Pinker, Jared Diamond or any other contemporary defender of science:
The most important scientific revolutions all include, as their only common feature, the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos.
I picked this quote purposely because it illustrates the second flaw in the Nisbet/Olson theory of science communication, namely, that the scientific outlook can only be so "personally meaningful." The universe does not, in fact, exist for the sake of homo sapiens; our dramas writ however small or large are not significant in the grand scheme of nature. In fact, in scientific terms, there is no 'grand scheme' to nature at all. Meanwhile, human-centered 'grand schemes' are the implicit or explicit starting premise of every religious account of the universe. No scientific finding, up to and including life-saving cures resulting from deep knowledge of evolution-informed biology and chemistry, will ever compete with faith-based convictions that a god made the universe and a a plan for each person.

While science advocates can and should take every opportunity to relate science to the realm of personal meaning, it must be recognized that science simply cannot win the argument framed in these terms. The "appeal to common values" made for science must look to other values. Here are a couple that can work.
  • Elegance/Aesthetics. There is an astonishing beauty to the findings and explanatory power of science and mathematics. Nothing delivers "aha" moments quite like science and math -- I will always remember the moment when Mrs. Macewicz derived the quadratic equation on the overhead projector in junior high, and there were many such moments to come in math and science classes, too few though they were. A shitty chemistry teacher didn't keep me from being entranced with the periodic table and Avogadro's Constant. And whose spine doesn't shiver upon hearing the tale of the tiktaalik's discovery?
  • Intellectual Curiosity. There is great satisfaction to be had from understanding nature's intricacies and complexities, in extracting durable and fruitful answers from the chaos. The answers thus derived are infinitely more satisfying than the non-answers of religion, e.g., "god did it." Still, this is not for everyone if only because it gets progressively more difficult after the introductory chapters.
Those are two; there are more shared values to which to appeal in the promotion of the scientific outlook. Science advocates should not assume these will approaches will work, however. There is nothing in the furniture of the universe that makes it inevitable that mankind will, on balance, choose reality (messy, difficult, counterintuitive) over delusion (comforting, easy, clean).

Finally, I think it's worth noting that anti-science advocates -- climate change denialists, cdesign proponentsists, others -- do not shrink from making pointed, negative, indeed even brazenly dishonest attacks on science and its advocates. What names have Al Gore and Richard Dawkins et. al. not been called in public, and what social pathology not attributed to "scientific materialism" generally and evolution particularly? Who has Exxon-Mobil not paid to say that Al Gore wants to destroy the economy? The anti-science folks are endlessly shrill, disrespectful, and dismissive, and they have nevertheless had a great deal of success at reaching and influencing large audiences. The framing professionals should take notice of this reality before engaging in their next round of hectoring leveled against the "arrogance" of public-facing scientists.

Postscript: I suppose it counts as a milestone that this is the 1,000th post of this precious, precious blog. Neat.

Post-Postscipt: Wherever he is today, Dan Quayle is still a prick, although eight years of G.W. Bush have made him seem thoughtful and competent as right-wing pricks go.

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