I’ve just finished reading Chris Mooney’s and Matt Nisbet’s Science article about communicating science to the general public. It’s right on target.
When it comes to defending evolutionary biology, the success one will have is far less dependent on marshalling the appropriate facts than many scientists would like. Since the Scopes trial 80 years ago, the evidence in favor of evolution has only increased–one discpline that supports it, genetics, was in its infancy, and another, molecular evolution/population genetics, didn’t even exist. Yet we don’t really seem to have made a dent, if public opinion polls are to be believed*. While the scientific evidence is necessary (and why would you want to defend a lie anyway?), it is not sufficient.
In my experience, when the evolution/creationism debate is framed as ‘God versus evolution’, we lose. I think this stems only partly from dogma, but for the ‘muddle in the middle’, it stems from a search for meaning. When the debate is framed as ‘medical/scientific/technological progress versus theopolitical extremism’, we win (got Vichy science?).
This is why the Discovery Institute recently trotted out Michael Egnor–they wanted to undermine the ‘utility’ of evolution.
One point that is often forgotten is that evolution is part of the ‘culture wars.’ Consequently, there’s an opportunity for evolution, particularly as the theopolitical right begins to fall out of favor. If support for evolution can be cast as part of being a member of the Coalition of the Sane, support for evolution will increase. If the thousands and thousands of hits I’m still receiving for this post about a crazy creationist expounding on peanut butter are any indication, there’s a strong vein of public opinion to tap here. And the success of my ‘argument’ (which was non-existent) had nothing to do with evidence or logic, but simply that a lot of people don’t like TEH CRAZY!!! We need to use this.
But there’s another thing that bothers me about some of the criticism I’ve read so far. That is the idea that communicating science is somehow not science. For example, the blogger tristero** writes:
But truly, I don’t think it’s a working scientist’s job to explain anything outside his field of expertise. What does PZ Myers know about politics, or care? It’s his job to do and teach science. Let the pr flacks frame the issue.
(Fellow ScienceBlogling Jonah makes a similar point)
I won’t speak for PZ, but I will speak for the Mad Biologist: I call bullshit. I ‘do’ science (I’m an NIAID/NIH funded researcher). But that’s just one component of what I do for my job: public policy and outreach are integral parts of what I do on a daily basis. That public function is not only informed by my research, but it also leads to the design of certain projects. Dealing with the public is not something I do in addition to science; that is science. In other words, ‘doing science’ is much more than just basic research. If there is a failing in our graduate education of scientists, it is that the all of the other skills needed, such as basic communication and management skills, are completely neglected (granted, many faculty members, having done nothing other than academic science, are spectacularly unqualified to teach these skills). Somewhere, the communication of science to the public became something mostly separate from science. The evolution sociopolitical controversy illustrates the consequences of this attitude.
That’s something I definitely want to reframe…for scientists.
*I’m not sure the polls are accurately reflecting what many believe which is that God somehow is involved in the origin of life and organismal evolution, but that life also is governed by materialist processes. Frankly, I don’t think most people care enough to bother working through the contradiction.
**I don’t mean to pick on tristero (I’m a big fan of his blogging); others have made similar points, but not as succinctly.