“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.