Monday, July 6, 2009

Romeo, Juliet, and Trigonometry

A basic question lurks here, perhaps so big and obvious as to escape notice:

[H]ow long do we have to keep making the same mistake, of trying to defend science and reason in a manner that we ourselves find persuasive, but that does not appeal to non-scientific audiences or even grasp where they are coming from?
Or as Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it in this video, successful education requires "facts plus sensitivity:"

Certainly, the best educators, whatever the field of study, will find some common ground with the taught and will make the material relevant, interesting, compelling, and so on within their audience's terms and frames of reference. Education can't get far without this, whatever the topic and whatever the audience.

Yet not all subjects stand an equal chance of connecting with all audiences.

This cannot be denied. Convincing people to take an interest in classic poetry and drama can start, among many other places, with Romeo and Juliet, a story to which hormone-addled teenagers are naturally drawn.

There is no counterpart to that drawing power in trigonometry or organic chemistry. Blaming math and chemistry teachers for this would be insane. But that's what the 'framing science' crowd is doing.

In the case of touchstone questions where science intersects with ongoing cultural conflicts, the challenge is even greater. Consider evolution versus creation. It is not only that the narrative (if you will) of evolutionary science suffers the same deficit as organic chemistry or trigonometry, but that it explicitly contradicts a counter-narrative that swaddles its audience in comfort, affirmation, and connection.

So, sure -- reach out on values and make connections. Do so imaginatively, vigorously, and enthusiastically. Use every available scrap of flair, charisma, charm, and je ne sais quois. But in the end, it simply cannot be reasonably expected that people will be equally drawn, in terms of raw emotive appeal, to The Origin of Species as they are to Genesis.

How fruitful -- nevermind that, how rational is it -- to berate PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, or for that matter, Charles Darwin, for not having a story to tell that's as emotionally compelling as the world's extant creation myths?

Not very. The challenge is asymmetrical, and should be understood and assessed accordingly.


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Adam said...

On the contrary, I've read some pretty breathtaking accounts of evolution (and evolutionary theology) myself. I don't see any reason why a scientific view of things has to be devoid of a sense of wonder and progress. In fact, I'm much more inspired by evolutionary perspectives now than I ever was by creation myths.

Dale said...

Adam, I'm inclined to agree, but I think it's indication that you and I don't see the world in typical ways.

I think evolution is an amazingly beautiful "story." That it's true, and provable, and continuously productive of astonishing new findings makes it all the more so.

Then again, I also think trig is beautiful (what I remember of it). And chess. And algebra. And even chemistry, sometimes.

But for lots and lots of people -- the very ones that are proving difficult -- it has to compete with a narrative in which THE CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE has selected them -- them and the people they count as kin -- as the very center of the universe. HE has a PLAN for their lives and what-not.

Jeeeeyyyzzuuuusss died for them! What the hell did Darwin do for them? Collect dead specimens and masturbate on a boat for several years, then write about it? And what, pray tell, did the animal kingdom ever do for them, besides provide hideously deformed copies of MAN, who was created in GOD's IMAGE?

The universe, in this view, was created as a stage-play in which they would be the central dramatis personae, either pleasing or displeasing the audience of GOD.

When the curtain falls, they either get a standing ovation (heaven) or they get the nastiest review ever (hell). Either way, it's totally about them and their performance. Everything else is just scenery and plot swerves.

If we're going to play the averages, as I think we must, the smart money continues to favor the creation myths in terms of raw emotional appeal.