Adventures in Ethics and Science

Commenting on my last post, Karl thinks PZ and I have missed the boat:

Janet said

“Science isn’t just putting forward a point of view, it’s inviting the audience to check it out and see how it holds up. Nothing for sale — the audience already has the critical faculties that are needed.”

no! No! and NO!
They do not. You and PZ are extremely intelligent people. You seem not to be able to accept how much less intelligent most of the populace is. After all, if they had critical faculties, they would be college graduates. They don’t know and don’t want to know how to “check it out”. They need to have it spelled out in simple words – with pictures.
Think of who have been the most popular exponents of science in the last 20 or 30 years – Sagan and Feynman. What made them popular? Presentation! Demonstration! Pictures! Even in teaching college classes they were lively, animated, entertaining – fun to listen to.
You, who write all these science blogs are brilliant, informative, but duller than …(can’t think of a witty metaphor).
You seem to have the same attitude as a Republican administration toward the working class. They don’t know what life is like when you don’t have a couple of mil in the bank. Why would you need Social Security – just invest 40 or 50K in the stock market every year. And YOU seem to think that everyone has an IQ of 120 or higher. Just hit your local library, or the Internet, and read all the wonderful blogs explaining about science.
Well that can’t happen. We need programs on network television that are attention-grabbing, dramatic, lively and geared towards the mass audience.

(I’ve taken the liberty of adding bold emphasis to a couple of Karl’s sentences.)

First thing, let me state for the record that I’m all for lively, dramatic, attention-grabbing demonstrations from scientists, whether in the classroom or for mass audiences. Pictures, demos, and clear explanations in plain English (or whatever the local language — you know what I mean here) are all Very Good Things. If scientists had TV time — not hidden away on PBS, but on a not-completely-obscure network — clearly, they’d need to do some real thinking about how to maximize the impact of the visual medium in communicating their message to the TV-viewing audience.

Showing is often more effective than telling. Exciting your audience is better than boring them. There are plenty of scientists who get this. (I’ve taken classes from a bunch of them.)

But what Karl takes issue with is my assumption that members of the mass audience for scientific communication have the necessary critical faculties. Karl asserts that if the folks in question had the necessary critical faculties, they’d be college graduates — and there are quite a lot of folks who aren’t college graduates that the scientists would like to reach.

(A quibble which is probably beside Karl’s main point: I doubt that there’s a regular correlation between having good critical faculties and being a college graduate. I know lots of people with those critical faculties who aren’t college graduates because they’re kids, others with those faculties who never went to college — some because they figured they weren’t smart enough for college. Similarly, I know some college graduates who maybe would have trouble reasoning their way out of a paper bag — but that could be a temporary problem that will fade once the beer and the dust from the No. 2 pencils clears from their systems.)

But here’s the thing: I think it’s a mistake to represent the critical faculties at the center of the scientific enterprise as fundamentally different from the critical faculties that are part of the “common sense” equipment that comes standard on your everyday human being.

Yes, of course, scientists are using these critical faculties to do some pretty heavy lifting, putting together bigger and more complicated chains of inference and poking them more vigorously to see if they’ll hold up. But, to a larger extent than most members of the public (and maybe, most members of the scientific community) realize, your average human being could have done that heavy lifting, too — it’s just a matter of taking the time and effort to bulk up those critical faculties. There are plenty of folks walking among us who could have been scientists but didn’t follow that path. Sometimes it’s because they pursued something they enjoyed more. Sometimes it’s because some wrong-headed teacher made science look really hard AND really dull (or made a point of saying that science was beyond the abilities of “people like YOU”).

Given a chance, could you locate a few people who NEVER had critical faculties that could be developed to the point they would need to be to understand anything about science, let alone to do it? Sure — but it would require some hunting. PZ may live in a region where all the kids are above average; here we’ve got the full range. And, if the elementary school kids are any kind of reliable indicator, the critical faculties that I’m talking about are there with a vengeance .

So, what’s the trouble with adult audiences? I’ve already pointed to one, and Karl points to the other.

The one I pointed to is the pernicious message that folks are fed (often by teachers who have some kind of problem) that science is just for super-geniuses, and that no one with normal intelligence can understand anything meaningful about it. So, just don’t worry your pretty head.

The one Karl points to is that some adults don’t want to use their critical faculties to evaluate scientific claims. Yes, thinking is hard. (I do it for a living — I know it’s hard!) And, sloth is my favorite deadly sin, too. (To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only one with its own animal mascot.) So, if you can avoid thinking about things, maybe you will. Once you’re an adult in the world and there are no more science tests, maybe you can wallow for awhile in not thinking about science.

This is really different from not being able to use your critical faculties, however. When you stop going to the gym, your muscles may shrink — but they’re still there. Same with critical faculties.

And, if you have the critical faculties — whether or not you’ve dusted them off and used them recently — do you want some slick spokesperson treating you like you don’t have them? Do you want some patronizing spokesmodel to say, “Honey, just trust me”? Is that the approach that’s going to sell the message?

I don’t thinks so. And, I don’t think Karl thinks so either — ’cause the patronizing, paternalistic approach sure doesn’t require demonstrations or pictures. An audience needs to do some imaginative work to get what the pictures and demos are adding to the words. That imaginative work is work with the critical faculties. If the audience for scientific communication is to walk away with more than just a feeling of satisfaction at having been entertained — if the audience is to learn anything — those critical faculties need to be engaged. Otherwise, why not just send ‘em to the multiplex to watch things blow up?

There is something fundamentally democratic about the very idea of science — we all come into this complicated world with sensory organs and our wits, and somehow together we can make some sense out of the place. Specialization, of course, matters quite a lot; mastering the information accumulated so far and the new techniques for getting more involves a lot of hard work. But let’s not get all Calvinist and decide there’s a scientific “elect” who are the only ones who could ever grasp what science is about. It matters that the public understand the basis for our scientific knowledge, and how this differs from the bases of other kinds of knowledge. Scientists need to keep trying to explain this — clearly, vividly, in as many different ways as they can think of.

But, there’s no way to get the important difference about science across except by engaging the critical faculties.

I think Karl is right that a lot of people have made a decision to put their critical faculties on ice. Perhaps the trick for scientists is to make using them look cool.


  1. #1 beajerry
    February 20, 2006

    Interesting points.

    I tend to believe that the majority of people find science fascinating and will follow it with interest no matter how it’s presented. Deep thinkers who boil down complex subjects into interesting pizzazz are fun, and it does influence people to learn and grow.
    But sensationalism is a fine-edged sword. It’s all too easy for it to be used by the dark side to pump out intelligent-design-type absurdities, and we all saw how threatening that kind of mind-terrorism can be last year.

    You are right about critical faculties needing exercise in everyone. Critical thinking is taught in a roundabout way through primary and secondary education, and it should be concentrated to a more rigorous requirement – a required course.

    And look at the popularity of shows like CSI. The masses love it! It’s delicious critical faculty food.

  2. #2 razib
    February 20, 2006

    it’s just a matter of taking the time and effort to bulk up those critical faculties. There are plenty of folks walking among us who could have been scientists but didn’t follow that path.

    1) yes, most people have critical faculties, they just apply it selectively. i know many fundamentalist christians who have spot on critiques of astrology, and many people who are into astrology who laugh at the idiocies of young earth creationism. also, re: time and effort, the sharpness of critical faculties in many areas are contingent upon the knowledge base you bring. ph.d.s in science can’t always catch bullshit in the humanities and vice versa, and so it isn’t a surprise that the ‘common man’ finds ID, etc., appealing, intelligible and plausible.

    2) i think that the (# number of scientists)/(# number of people who could be scientists) is probably lower that 0.1. That is, the vast majority who could be scientists aren’t. but, i think the (# number of people who could be scientists)/(# number of people) is probably less than 0.05. the vast majority of people can’t be scientists (at least ph.d. level).

  3. #3 Unlearned Hand
    February 20, 2006

    One thing to be cautious about is making scientists into high priests – to do so makes science susceptible to the sort of skepticism that is better used in refining inquiry, and makes the public dubious of the pronouncements of scientists. An example of public skepticism almost gone amok:

    I think avoiding this trap requires showing the work whenever possible. When we consider a momentous issue like climate change, much of the public is content to put their heads in the sand because “scientists disagree.” In the public forum it’s made out as a matter of opinion, not a matter of rational interpretation of the data. Presenting a conclusion and viewpoint does not preclude demonstrating the supporting data.

  4. #4 Laura
    February 20, 2006

    I have one word for you: “Mythbusters.” Seriously, it’s a great science-y show. They do actual math. They find out facts. And they sometimes blow things up. Plus they’re funny. And the other thing I like about the show is the premise. They take an urban myth and either refute using science or it sometimes turns out to be true. To me, the whole premise teaches people to be critical thinkers, to say to themselves, “Can that be true? How would I prove that to be true?” That kind of think applies to more than science, of course. Think politics.

  5. #5 Gerry L
    February 20, 2006

    Important to remember: There is no perfect way to teach. People have different learning styles, and no single technique is going to work for everyone. People who are logical can be reached with logic, but — believe it or not — some people don’t appreciate logic. Let’s not spend time arguing about the BEST WAY to educate the public, let’s find MANY WAYS to reach MANY people. (With the understanding that some will be unreachable.)

  6. #6 razib
    February 20, 2006

    One thing to be cautious about is making scientists into high priests

    scientists already are i think….

  7. #7 Karl
    February 20, 2006

    Janet said
    “But here’s the thing: I think it’s a mistake to represent the critical faculties at the center of the scientific enterprise as fundamentally different from the critical faculties that are part of the ‘common sense’ equipment that comes standard on your everyday human being.”
    “it’s just a matter of taking the time and effort to bulk up those critical faculties.”
    “if the elementary school kids are any kind of reliable indicator, the critical faculties that I’m talking about are there with a vengeance .
    I must break my reply into two parts:
    1) IF, what you say is true (and part 2 will argue against that), then the problem is with our educational system, which, despite 40 years of effort to change (the length of time that I’ve been involved), still is based on rote learning. I can only speak with experience about mathematics teaching. I was a math whiz in high school, got a BA in math education and an MS in math. And yet I did not UNDERSTAND Algebra until my second or third year of college because it was taught to me in grade school and high school as manipulation of symbols and not as behavior of numbers.
    I taught everything from 5th grade arithmetic to college calculus and always tried to get students to understand before teaching them to manipulate symbols. Last year (after retiring), I tutored one third grade student in arithmentic and got to observe how it is currently being taught. It is still based on rote manipulation skills with no understanding of why it works. (Apologies to all the teachers who know and do better than that).
    Too many kids have had all the curiosity driven out of them becasue the teacher was required to teach for some state-mandated test and didn’t have time to allow students to think, explore, and UNDERSTAND.
    2) I don’t believe that the implications of what you say (above) are true. First, I don’t think it is a question of common sense. I think that it is a question of “intelligence” – of a certain kind. And I know the arguments against “intelligence”. But I think that is irrefutable that different people have different “abilities” (if not “intelligence”). And it is not denigrating to point out that certain people (notice I’m not talking about groups of people here – just individuals) have lesser abilities in one area than others do. Two areas where this is most obvious are music and athletics. Would you say, for example, that in athletics “it’s just a matter of taking the time and effort to bulk up those critical faculties”. Do you think that someone with poor motor skills, slow reflexes, less than perfect eyesight could become a professional athlete? Certainly with patient training, lots of examples, and INTEREST they could improve – but never to the PhD level.
    In music, do you think that anyone, again, with proper training, etc. could become a professional musician? There are physical limitations involved here also (“ear”).
    Then why would you not think that different people have inherently different “critical faculties”?
    You say “When you stop going to the gym, your muscles may shrink — but they’re still there”. And how would you re-train those unused muscles. First, you would have to find a way to interest the person in doing so. Then you would have to start that person on short distances and light weights before asking him/her to run a mile or lift 200 pounds.
    So, in either case (in whatever ratio the two factors are involved) there are many people who, at this point in their lives, are incapable of, or uninterested in, understanding Science (Evolution) at the level that it gets discussed on these blogs. To reach them the material does need to be simplified, illustrated, presented in short segments.
    I think Randy Olson’s ideas need to be seriously considered.

  8. #8 Unlearned Hand
    February 20, 2006

    Karl said
    “In music, do you think that anyone, again, with proper training, etc. could become a professional musician? There are physical limitations involved here also (“ear”).
    Then why would you not think that different people have inherently different “critical faculties”?”

    I really, really would have liked to become a professional musician. I have certain inadequacies in various capacities that would be necessary for the enterprise. This does not rule be out from being a very high level consumer of music. (When I talk to real musicians, I am often mistaken for one of their tribe – I know what’s up.)

    Judge Posner similarly prefaces his book on jurisprudence with the statement that he is not a producer of philosophy but a consumer of it. This is analogous of the use we would hope any non-practitioner in a field would be able to do with public output of the field – evaluate it openly but critically and see what use it is to assembling their view of their own world.

    So what’s necessary to be a consumer of a discipline? I don’t think it requires anything innate. The efforts necessary in the process of being a consumer might vary from person to person, but critical thinking is not reserved for the Einsteins of the world.

  9. #9 jlady
    February 21, 2006

    There is also the difference between being able to understand concepts and being able to do the calculations behind those concepts. I am horrible at higher math–there was a certain point in precalc where I just could not do the actual calculations anymore. That has not stopped me from understanding a great deal of where the more basic levels of calculus come from or from understanding things in the sciences that I simply do not have the math ability to deal with myself. The weird looks I get for being able to explain this or that economic, physics, or astrophysics concept completely out of the blue are quite wonderful sometimes, and yet it is disturbing that people seem to think a language major can’t get her head around those things.

    Science doesn’t need to be dumbed down so much as presented so that a non-scientist non-mathmetician with a basic education can at least understand where the science is coming from. It also needs to be presented so that a non-scientist non-mathmetician understands the value of that science.

    In short, we need Numb3rs for science. We need a non-forensics version of something like Crossing Jordan. The last I checked, most of the audience for those two shows didn’t have the degrees necessary to hold the jobs of the main characters and yet if people couldn’t stand or understand the math or science they would not be watching them.

  10. #10 Kim
    February 22, 2006

    Well, in the good old days of my childhood (long ago and far away) there was a great kids science show…but it lasted only a couple of years. The mainstream networks had been forced to include it in their programming during a push to de-cartoon Saturday morning, then they were able to put together some work-arounds (read this as lobbying efforts, if you’d like), and “BEAKMAN’S WORLD” disappeared. If you’d like to check it out for your kids (or for the non-scientific adults that you know), there is a “BEST OF…” video and a short book of experiments with explanations on how they work. My twins fell in love with the video at age 7, we did lots of the experiments from the video, read the book for ideas on cool things to test. Both my husband and I despair at the science education the boys are getting in public school (we are trained as a geologist and physiologist, respectively), so we work hard to supplement their non-science education with efforts at home. Wish we didn’t have to, wish the schools were willing to pay trained scientists to teach science, but I don’t see that happening in the near future, do you?

  11. #11 Anon
    February 26, 2006

    Note that Sagan and Feynman were also masters of their fields. It is much easier to explain something interestingly when you understand it well. Which it is not clear most scientists do. Of things along the axes to which science applies selection pressure, perhaps. But communication and perspective seem rarely there.

    Consider Sagan’s astronomy. Which devotes an unusually large portion of its effort to terminal intro classes. You might hope to find them robust. Yet many current texts, indeed many current astronomers, think our white sun is yellow. Yellow. An historical artifact of spectroscopists using Vega, which is blue, as a reference. Nice star, lousy white point. Nor intended as one. But most astronomers are not spectroscopists, and “yellow relative to Vega” gets shortened to “yellow”, depending on the listener to understand the context. Which some don’t, and “yellow” takes on a life of its own. Aside from the occasional embarrassment of someone’s miscalculations landing them on the front page of the New York Times saying the universe is teal, there is little corrective pressure. So it persists.

    As long as science communication can’t even manage to convey something as basic and simple as the color of the sun, even to other scientists, even within the field, what hope of broader success?