Should Scientists be Advocates?

Via Jerry Coyne, I came across this essay over at the BioLogos website. The author: Steven Benner. The title: The Dangers of Advocacy in Science. The key paragraphs:

This provides another reason why it is easy to be confused about what science is and what scientists do. The imagery of science and scientists is widely expropriated in the public square by non-scientists.

The temptation to participate in the public dialogue as an advocate is considerable. I myself have been interviewed by reporters who become impatient if I actually practice science before their eyes. It is generally simpler give an answer rather than to present the context, including all of its uncertainty.

For this reason, it is important, here and elsewhere, for scientists to emphasize that uncertainty is central to science, and advocacy is disruptive of it. When a scientist becomes an advocate, he loses for himself the power to use scientific discipline to discern reality.

no, No, NO! This is totally wrong.

A while back I saw a panel discussion featuring various Nobel laureates in science. One of them was Murray Gell-Mann. The subject of hubris among scientists arose. As I recall, Gell-Mann suggested that, if anything, scientists suffer from excessive humility. All working scientists know the feeling of being proved totally wrong about something, and this sometimes makes them reticent in expressing certainty when it is appropriate to do so. He mentioned evolution specifically in this regard.

I’m with Gell-Mann! Responding to a journalist’s question is precisely the wrong time to equivocate, or to luxuriate in the sheer uncertainty of it all. Scientists are advocates, or at least they should be willing to be when the opportunity presents itself. If you are being asked for an opinion about evolution, or vaccinations, or climate change (to pick three big-ticket examples) you should be perfectly happy to take a clear stand, and to be very cross with the people on the other side. Sometimes there really is certainty, or something near enough to amount to the same thing, and in those instances it would be a mistake to pretend otherwise.

The only people you will turn off with excessive certainty are the ideologues from the other side. Most other people will equate an imprecise answer with weakness. When you have one side braying that global warming is a hoax, for example, you do not respond with a discourse on the difficulties of interpreting evidence. People are looking for answers, not science lectures.

Benner is also wrong, to put it kindly, when he says that in becoming an advocate you lose the ability to employ scientific discipline. It is not as though non-advocate scientists are perfect evidence sifters, after all. And being an advocate does not mean shutting off your brain to any new evidence relevant to he matter at hand. If the scientist is advocating for a good cause, he is probably helping other people to discern reality via science. The person who says evolution is solid science and creationism is nonsense has not sacrificed his objectivity on the altar of advocacy. Quite the contrary. He is the one perceiving things clearly and he is doing his small part to help other to the same clarity.

Benner’s essay has helped bring into focus for me what it is I find so objectionable about outfits like BioLogos (which is devoted to dialogue between science and religion). I have a low opinion of the arguments they make on behalf of reconciliation, but if other people disagree then what’s that to me?

The problem comes when they start telling people how to communicate. After all, they do not simply presume to disagree with people like RIchard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers. They then go on to lecture that they are “hurting the cause” with their bombast. This decays rapidly into claims that, to the extent that atheists are permitted to advocate for science at all, it should only be done from a position of such abject obsequity that there is no danger of calling much attention to themselves.

Benner’s essay is very much in this mold. Now it seems that is not just vocal atheists that are the problem, but vocal scientists of any kind. More precisely, if they are vocal and confident in their views. The whole attitude promoted by BioLogos and their supporters seems to be that scientists must constantly be walking on eggshells and measuring their words in speaking to the public. We are way beyond trivialities like, “Express yourselves in ways that are likely to resonate with your audience,” or “Don’t be needlessly insulting.” Instead we are perilously close to advocating a position of pure defeatism.

The anti-science forces have great success in getting their views across. Their success is not the result of an excessive concern for ambiguity or a lot of hand-wringing about what people will think of them. Perhaps we should take our cues from what works, and not from any armchair theorizing.

Comments

  1. #1 kevin z
    May 5, 2010

    Your last sentence says it all. And the funny thing about that is it a scientific approach. Therefore, the “armchair theorizers” will inevitably disagree and claim scientists do not get it or get how to communicate. In fact, all I see are scientists communicating very well over online mediums and even popular print media. I would love to see a real thorough review (or do one myself) of various studies on science communication. I can think of some fabulous experiments to do that I’d write about if I weren’t typing from a phone right now.

  2. #2 Yannis Guerra
    May 5, 2010

    There is actually some research that may point towards a good “scientifically based” reason on why to approach science communication with certitude.

    See http://arxiv.org/abs/1004.5009

    One of the things that always deranges me is that scientifically sound people, when they talk about topics where they have “opinions” they suddenly forget completely all the scientific method. All this pointless discussion between the “new atheists” and the “accomodationists” won’t ever finish, because it’s only that…pointless discussion. AS Kevin Z suggest, do experiments on that. See which one gives you a better result, then iterate the experiment, changing the characteristics of the test, until you have covered this aspect, and have a good scientific answer. Like that, even if you don’t like it, you have an answer. If you continue being against it (whatever the result is), then clearly you don’t care about science, you only care about being right.
    Jason, I don’t really have the math expertise to evaluate that paper precisely. It sounds ok to me, but I am sure you know better. Also their “opinions” about the topics that they cover on the paper are somewhat non scientific, but the mathematical approach doesn’t seem to be biased.

  3. #3 Jaime A. Headden
    May 6, 2010

    I’m not sure I get you: You seem to be arguing that as scientists, people should advocate to fight against religionists who are “anti-science,” which is almost certainly by acting in the same forum. This is certainly what Meyers and Dawkins do.

    The argument is one of oppositionism, rather than comprehensionism or … I dunno, SCIENCE, wherein questions are asked for the sake of elucidating a truth we do not know. As an example, asking “Does God exist?” can be considered scientific, even if the answer is problematic or unanswerable given whatever context and using whatever criteria you have, while stating “God does not exist” is not scientific in any way. (It should also be important to note that Meyers and Dawkins are anti-Christian, and apply this, unscientifically, to religion in general, another unscientific fallacy.)

    At this point, one might think that adopting the position of opposition is itself simply unscientific, but I’d be repeating myself. With what other type of position do we have left? I only think that we cannot simply be oppositional, simply educational, in order to understand and learn about the questions we CAN ask. The only way I think we can do this is to talk to one another. I’m sure the Meyers and Dawksinses of the world are just plugging their ears and saying “nyah nyah nyah,” especially given how Dawkins views ANYONE who avers themselves of a religious (i.e., Christian) mentality.

    The position of Dawkins is, if anything, religious. The position in rejection of Benner seems to be the same thing. It may not be the right position, but you reject it on the wrong grounds, I think.

  4. #4 Henry
    May 6, 2010

    It depends. I get annoyed when scientists stray into prescription when it is outside their disciplines. It’s okay to say “Global warming is happening”. When you then go on to say “and therefore we should do X, Y and Z”, well, that’s a political/philosophical/economic question.

  5. #5 penn
    May 6, 2010

    Actually, Jaime you are factually wrong about PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. Both have explicitly stated numerous times that gods MAY exist and neither one has ever ruled out that possibility. What they claim is that there is no good evidence for the existence of gods, therefore they do not believe in them. It’s the same argument one could make for specific gods like Zeus or Thor or FSM (don’t unscientifically deny their existence now).

    Also, it should be noted that the only ones who will benefit by scientists hemming and hawing about all the uncertainty is the deniers. AGW deniers do not care about the actual evidence. They are not looking for an honest scientific debate. The same is true for creationists. There only goal is to stir up doubt in the minds of the public. Leading with the uncertainty plays right into their hands.

  6. #6 Adam_Y
    May 6, 2010

    It depends. I get annoyed when scientists stray into prescription when it is outside their disciplines. It’s okay to say “Global warming is happening”. When you then go on to say “and therefore we should do X, Y and Z”, well, that’s a political/philosophical/economic question

    Nope. That is an engineers job.

  7. #7 Joel
    May 6, 2010

    I’m currently reading a fantastic book called “Doubt is their Product” about how various industries used campaigns of (pseudo-)scientific doubt to avoid OH&S regulation (whilst thousands of their workers died). The same well-honed tactics were adopted by the tobacco industry (also discussed), global warming denialists and creationists. Of course we should play into their hands!

    But presumably it’s also inappropriate for scientists to be advocating regulation of hexavalent chromium or benzidine levels.

    /sarcasm

  8. #8 SLC
    May 6, 2010

    Re Jaime A. Headden @ #3

    In his characterization of the views of Prof. Dawkins, Mr. Headden has joined the 100% wrong club. Prof. Dawkins position as to the existence of god is as follows.

    1. Dawkins considers the existence of god a scientific theory.

    2. Unlike other scientific theories which are accepted in the scientific community, his position is that the advocates have presented no scientific evidence demonstrating the existence of god.

    3. In addition, his position is that the Christian and Hebrew scriptures make scientific claims that are demonstratively false. For example, the Hebrew bible makes the claim that god, under the urging of Joshua, caused the sun to stand still in the sky for a day. This claim is demonstratively false for several reasons. (a). It implies that the sun revolves around the earth. (b). Even setting aside item (a), it would require that the earth cease its rotation and its revolution around the sun for a day. Aside from the fact that no such event is recorded in other civilizations that existed at the time of Joshua, this would require total violations of the laws of physics to prevent the surface of the earth from destruction (Newtons’ first law of motion) and from immediately falling into the sun (Newtons’ inverse square law of gravity).

  9. #9 Valhar2000
    May 6, 2010

    Jaime, you are confusing SCIENCE (why SCIENCE, instead of science, or science?) with JAQing off. Two very different things: diametrically opposed to each other, in fact.

  10. #10 Valhar2000
    May 6, 2010

    Oh, and, another thing: writing comments in blogs is NOT “doing science”, even if the arguments presented and results discussed are entirely compatible with, and even borrowed from, the scientific enterprise: it never has been and it never will be. So if you are concerned that scientists that express opinions on blogs, in books or during interviews, are doing a service to SCIENCE by “not doing science”, kindly go down to the store and buy yourself a clue.

  11. #11 Valhar2000
    May 6, 2010

    Damn! I meant to write “doing a disservice”.

  12. #12 Larry Moran
    May 6, 2010

    Jason, I think it’s a bit more complicated than you’re willing to admit.

    There are many legitimate scientific controversies where scientists are guilty of misrepresenting the true nature of science. I’m sure you’re familiar with the disputes over evolutionary theory, for example. How often have you seen scientists advocating one particular position without ever mentioning that there’s another, equally valid, scientific viewpoint?

    Other controversies that fall into this category include the disputes over junk DNA, alternative splicing, what killed the dinosaurs, the causes of the Cambrian explosion, and the validity of evolutionary psychology.

    In most of those disputes, the criticism that Steven Benner levels is perfectly valid. We should recognize that and try to fix it.

  13. #13 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 6, 2010

    Larry -

    The internecine disputes among scientists over the minutiae of evolutionary theory are not the sort of thing we are talking about here. The issue was whether strong advocacy for a view by a scientist gives the public the wrong impression of science, or somehow compromises a scientist’s objectivity. Just as a scientists should not paper over areas of genuine controversy, it is also wrong, when addressing the public, to pretend there is doubt and ambiguity when there is not any. It is also rhetorically weak and ineffective.

  14. #14 SLC
    May 6, 2010

    Re Larry Moran @ #12

    To follow up on Prof. Rosenhouses’ comment @ #11, as a for instance, there is no controversy in the biology community as to common descent. There is no controversy in the astro-physics community as to heliocentrism.

    The point is that conducting arguments to a lay public audience as to the relative importance of natural selection and genetic drift as engines of evolution, which Prof. Moran is wont to do on his blog, is confusing to such an audience which does not have the background to understand the controversy (any more then such an audience has the background to evaluate discussions between physicists relative to string theory).

  15. #15 Larry Moran
    May 6, 2010

    The issue was whether strong advocacy for a view by a scientist gives the public the wrong impression of science, or somehow compromises a scientist’s objectivity. Just as a scientists should not paper over areas of genuine controversy, …

    Good. We agree. Scientists should not try to hide the fact that there is much genuine controversy in many fields. Strong advocacy without mentioning that others disagree with you is bound to give the public the wrong impression.

    So, what do you think of the latest papers on a cure for cancer or whether you should eat carbohydrates? What about “Ida” (Darwinius masillae)? Was that an example of how scientists should behave? Do you have an opinion on evolutionary psychology? Is that an area where scientists are behaving properly?

    Just think of all the so-called breakthroughs that have been hyped in the past year alone. It’s scientists, not journalists, who are driving this strong advocacy for the importance of their latest paper.

    I belong to a group called CASS (Centre for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism). We’re doing our bit to speak out against homeopathy and chiropractic and other anti-science beliefs. I’m all in favor of advocacy as long as it’s honest and truthful.

    But let’s not paper over the fact that many scientists are not behaving like scientists.

  16. #16 AL
    May 7, 2010

    As an example, asking “Does God exist?” can be considered scientific, even if the answer is problematic or unanswerable given whatever context and using whatever criteria you have, while stating “God does not exist” is not scientific in any way.

    This statement makes no sense at all. In fact, it contradicts itself. If “Does God exist?” is legitimate scientific inquiry, then it must ipso facto be falsifiable, which means “God does not exist” becomes a very real scientific possibility, and not as you say “not scientific in any way.” The only other consistent option is to say that any discussion and claim about God’s existence is entirely scientifically off-limits, though that’s not what was said here.

    I suppose the first objection to this would be the popularly accepted but not quite true claim that you “can’t prove a negative.” I can agree that for some definitions of god, it is not possible to falsify the claim that such a god exists. But this is most certainly not the case for all definitions of god. So depending on the particular theist’s definition of god, I am open to the idea that science can full well be used to refute such a thing, and to claim with a high degree of confidence that such a god does not exist (i.e. that particular concept of god has no referent beyond the language the concept was constructed in).

  17. #17 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 7, 2010

    Larry, I don’t think it’s advocacy per se you have a problem with. It’s advocacy on behalf of things with which you happen to disagree. You can go on a case by case basis and find instances of scientists behaving badly in their interactions with journalists. In many cases you have a combination of scientists wanting to inflate the importance of their work coupled with journalists looking for a sensational story, leading to distortions of science in the media. But that is neither here nor there. Benner’s essay was a blanket indictment of advocacy in science. He did not discuss specific cases.

  18. #18 Greg Byshenk
    May 8, 2010

    If I may comment on this from the Peanut Gallery…

    It may well be that “the internecine disputes among scientists over the minutiae” really aren’t the sort of thing that Jason is discussing. And it may well be that Benner goes too far in his criticism of advocacy. That said, the original post seemed to go too far to the other side, suggesting, with the Gell-Mann quote, for example, that advocacy is a non-problem. And it seems to me that Larry is correct in noting that “it’s a bit more complicated” than that, in that there are cases in which scientists publicly advocate for their own view — in cases where there is a real scientific question.

    I would add that I find this comment

    Larry, I don’t think it’s advocacy per se you have a problem with. It’s advocacy on behalf of things with which you happen to disagree.

    to misrepresent the issue as personal, when it is not. That is, if there is indeed real disagreement among scientists, then public advocacy that does not acknowledge that disagreement is a real problem. And if Larry, or others working in the field, disagree with some point, then that point isn’t a settled and non-controversial one (by definition, pretty much).

    I think that almost everyone would agree that there is no problem with a scientist publicly asserting some position based on the consensus within his/her field… provided that it actually is the consensus. But at the same time, scientists should be careful not to present their own view as the scientific consensus in cases when there is no such consensus.

  19. #19 Jaime A. Headden
    May 8, 2010

    My premise to which I was rebutted to by several of you above is simple:

    If the question of a god’s existence is scientific, it takes a premise “Does [god] exist?” and follows a formula “If [condition A,B,C,etc.] is true, [god] exists.” While the authors have argued several of these, the premise of the nature of the supernatural as being outside of the natural, and outside the purview of big-S Science (philosophical entity), is not scientific. You cannopt answer the question “Does God exist?” with a “Yes” unless you believe it is true, in which case you are a “religionist,” and you cannot answer it with a “No” unless you believe it is not true, in which case you are a … get this … anti-believer (itself a form of belief and one might say religious).

    I argue the question in both of its forms is not true: Dawkins and Meyers are attempting to refute a belief under the premise that it is a testable hypothesis, which is a fallacy, as the premise itself is not scientific. The argument “God exists” does not ask a question, and cannot be falsified. Ergo, it is not science.

    I am at this point rather interested in a patten I see in the so-called “New Atheists” in which avowal in the lack of existence of the JudeoIslamoChristian God is made perfunctory; the argument is made through the testimonal “God does not exist.” Such an argument only comes through belief (pretty much an aspect of a religious mind).

    It is also a part of my premise that Meyers and Dawkins avow a false premise in that they frequently confuse “Christian” and “religion,” and over use the term “God” due to their overfamiliarity with one class of religion. They ignore non-deific religions, such as Buddhism, although I hear a lot of behind-hand comments about Deepak Chopra (as if that matters).

    At some point, I hope to make it clear to some of you that atheism is itself a religious argument of the belief God does not exist (a specific God, mind, but as long as there is any sort of deity, its disavowal is atheistic). It is not the argument (scientifically) that a God has not been proven to exist scientifically, which should require no label, no movement, and total objectivity about the argument itself without reference to its adherents — but this is NOT the case with Meyers and Dawkins.

    Incidentally, I don’t believe in God. (It’s just that I don’t blieve there is no God, and I don’t think science can resolve the existence thereof by simple logic.)

  20. #20 Steven Benner
    May 8, 2010

    You might want to actually read my essay before commenting on it.

    http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/benner_scholarly_essay.pdf

    I was asked by BioLogos to discuss why Stephen Meyer’s book on intelligent design was not scientific. The essay was sufficiently successful that I was asked to write a 20,000 word essay summarizing my book (“Life, the Universe, and the Scientific Method”) about how scientists address “big” questions. BioLogos broke it into five segments, and added some transitional material.

    Had you read my essay, you would know my view: That science, because of its ethic of uncertainty, delivers more certainty than religion, with its ethic of certainty.

    I did not say that scientists should not become advocates. We do so all the time, for our pet theories or our life’s work; it would be superhuman not to do so. I merely stated the costs of advocacy (which is something more than reasoned argumentation): Once scientists become advocates, they start to cherry pick supporting data, ignore opposing data, and misrepresent the work of others. Scientist are humans, and are therefore NOT “perfect fence sitters”. Which is why this ethic is so important to teach and practice as best we can.

    Now, you seem to be making three points:
    (a) Can an advocate continue be a rational evaluator of facts relevant to his/her advocacy? An interesting question to defend, and it would be interesting to see it defended scientifically. My guess is that once the defenders are on public record, they would cherry pick data to support the advocacy position as much as Stephen Meyer does in his book. If they do it once or twice, they might be able to change their minds should they encounter some contradicting data. But do it three times, and I suspect that they would be just as dogmatic about their advocacy as is the most dogmatic ID-ers about theirs.

    (b) Some times, scientists “perceiv[e] things clearly”, are advocating “for a good cause”, and therefore are justified in becoming an advocate. This reflects an ahistorical naivete. For example, it was “known” 30 years ago that ulcers are caused by stress, spicy food, and stomach acid. A billion dollar industry was built on marketing antacids. Again, if you think that you have “perceived things clearly” and have “a good cause”, go ahead and cherry pick data as a shortcut to making the real argument. But do not be surprised if you are caught.

    (c) When non-scientists are “braying”, scientists should “take cues for what works” and do the same. In my view, this is quite short sighted. You write that “The only people you will turn off with excessive certainty are the ideologues from the other side”. Have you any evidence of this at all? In my experience, I have been impressed by the effectiveness of “speaking truth to power”. Braying does NOT work, in my experience, for precisely the audience that is important, the people who have no constructive interest in whether or not “common descent” is true, but who are concerned that their children in middle school are given the intellectual tools to survive in a technological world. The important part of the public is more intelligent than you give them credit for. They are perfectly capable of understanding a well-reasoned argument, as well as wondering whether scientists want to be the new priesthood.

    Besides, what are we doing here? Are we becoming enchanted by the debate at hand (which, incidentally, you are actually winning, despite your statements to the contrary)? Consider for a moment the opposite view: that scientists should be more concerned about increasing the number of people who think scientifically rather than winning any particular argument over “truth” of evolution, or the “truth” about ulcers, or the “truth” about climate.

    This is “teaching a man a fish” rather than “giving a man a fish”. Not as satisfying as writing a sarcastic blog post, I know; we had bloggers on Coyne’s site posting about the quality of their opponent’s hair. But I suspect that it will be more valuable in the long run.

  21. #21 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 8, 2010

    Had you read my essay, you would know my view: That science, because of its ethic of uncertainty, delivers more certainty than religion, with its ethic of certainty.

    Had you read my blog post, you would know that I said nothing regarding your views about the relative merits of science vs. religion. I have read your entire essay, and it contains nothing that alters my view of the part I commented on.

    I did not say that scientists should not become advocates. We do so all the time, for our pet theories or our life’s work; it would be superhuman not to do so. I merely stated the costs of advocacy (which is something more than reasoned argumentation): Once scientists become advocates, they start to cherry pick supporting data, ignore opposing data, and misrepresent the work of others. Scientist are humans, and are therefore NOT “perfect fence sitters”. Which is why this ethic is so important to teach and practice as best we can.

    In your essay you wrote, “When a scientist becomes an advocate, he loses for himself the power to use scientific discipline to discern reality.” Sure sounds like you’re saying that scientists should not become advocates. Your alleged “costs of advocacy” are nonsense. You can go case by case and find instances of scientists allowing their zeal for advocacy to cloud their judgment, but as a general statement about scientific advocates it is a vast exaggeration.

    Had you read my blog post you would know that the phrase I used was “perfect evidence sifters” and not “perfect fence-sitters.”

    Can an advocate continue be a rational evaluator of facts relevant to his/her advocacy? An interesting question to defend, and it would be interesting to see it defended scientifically.

    You were the one who made a blanket statement about the inability of advocates to maintain their objectivity. You didn’t seem so interested in defending things scientifically when you bluntly said that advocates lose their ability to use science to discern reality.

    My guess is that once the defenders are on public record, they would cherry pick data to support the advocacy position as much as Stephen Meyer does in his book. If they do it once or twice, they might be able to change their minds should they encounter some contradicting data. But do it three times, and I suspect that they would be just as dogmatic about their advocacy as is the most dogmatic ID-ers about theirs.

    The problem with Stephen Meyer and other ID supporters is not primarily that they cherry-pick data. It is that they are wrong on the facts. It is not “advocacy” that has harmed their discernment skills, it is their prior commitment to a particular religious view of the world. Your argument that you can advocate once or twice without doing serious harm to your psyche but after the third time you are over the cliff, is just silly.

    Some times, scientists “perceiv[e] things clearly”, are advocating “for a good cause”, and therefore are justified in becoming an advocate. This reflects an ahistorical naivete.

    Actually it just reflects an understanding that some scientific ideas come with such a high degree of certainty that it is sound public policy to take heed of them, and to oppose vigorously those using bogus arguments to reject them. Since I am sure you agree that public policy should be based on the best science available, I am shocked you would object to the idea that sometimes scientists are perceiving things clearly and are acting in a good cause.

    For example, it was “known” 30 years ago that ulcers are caused by stress, spicy food, and stomach acid. A billion dollar industry was built on marketing antacids. Again, if you think that you have “perceived things clearly” and have “a good cause”, go ahead and cherry pick data as a shortcut to making the real argument. But do not be surprised if you are caught.

    If you advocate for a view you run the risk of later turning out to be wrong. Gosh, that’s deep. I guess we’re stuck with a position of radical skepticism. Maybe we should just turn over the playing field to the anti-science forces, who get to operate unencumbered by your high evidential standards.

    When non-scientists are “braying”, scientists should “take cues for what works” and do the same. In my view, this is quite short sighted. You write that “The only people you will turn off with excessive certainty are the ideologues from the other side”. Have you any evidence of this at all?

    How about the extraordinary success, out of proportion to their numbers, of evangelical Christians in influencing the political culture of the US? How about the success of right-wing ideologues in injecting the ludicrous doctrines of supply-side economics into the mainstream of both political parties? How about the increasing success of anti-vaccination advocates in reversing one of the most effective public health measures ever undertaken?

    From the other side, how about the success of homosexuals in recent years in dramatically altering for the better their level of public acceptance? Or the similar success of civil rights workers in the sixties in changing public attitudes toward race?

    Did any of these groups (and I could list dozens more) achieve their success by endlessly reveling in uncertainty, or by listening to the people lecturing them about going slow and not being so “in your face” about their views? Or did they do it by relentlessly pressing for what they believed through whatever channels were available to them, and not worrying so much about the people who disagreed with them?

    Or, if theory is more your thing, have a look at the paper in comment 2.

    In my experience, I have been impressed by the effectiveness of “speaking truth to power”. Braying does NOT work, in my experience, for precisely the audience that is important, the people who have no constructive interest in whether or not “common descent” is true, but who are concerned that their children in middle school are given the intellectual tools to survive in a technological world.

    Are we talking about advocacy in general or evolution advocacy in particular?

    The proper manner in which to present yourself depends on the context you are working in. If you are giving a public talk to an audience specifically interested in what you have to say, then by all means go into the nuances and subtleties of the argument. But if a journalist asks you for a quote, or if you are appearing on some political debate show, that is flatly the wrong time to worry about nuance. If one side says, “Global warming is a hoax!” and the other side says, “Long-term climate modeling is very difficult and we should be clear that we can never be certain we have controlled for all relevant variables, but on balance our best evidence at the present time shows that global warming is a legitimate concern,” I know which side is going to win that debate.

    The important part of the public is more intelligent than you give them credit for. They are perfectly capable of understanding a well-reasoned argument, as well as wondering whether scientists want to be the new priesthood.

    Oh for heaven’s sake! The problem isn’t that people can’t understand a well-reasoned argument. It’s that, on scientific questions, most people don’t give a crap one way or the other about your arguments. Making well-reasoned arguments about evolution, say, works great when you are talking to the tiny subset of the population that cares about the minutiae of biology. But most people just absorb their ideas on these questions from the surrounding culture. Scream and yell over and over again about how evolution is a dying theory and that ID is the wave of the future, and people will start to believe it just from having heard it so often.

    Creationists understand this perfectly. You obviously don’t.

    Besides, what are we doing here? Are we becoming enchanted by the debate at hand (which, incidentally, you are actually winning, despite your statements to the contrary)? Consider for a moment the opposite view: that scientists should be more concerned about increasing the number of people who think scientifically rather than winning any particular argument over “truth” of evolution, or the “truth” about ulcers, or the “truth” about climate.

    I have no idea what you are talking about. By the “debate at hand” do you mean the debate over teaching evolution in schools? Because I said nothing about that in my post.

    I will, however, say something about that now. You are out of your mind if you think the science side is winning that particular debate. Public opinion is strongly on the side of “teaching the controversy,” (a state of affairs that is not the result of calm, well-reasoned, uncertainty-acknowledging discourse on the part of creationists). Despite numerous hostile court decisions we have creationism being taught outright in many high school classrooms. When evolution is taught at all it is usually presented in a perfunctory and apologetic way. If the courts ever step out of the way we will have some form of creationism taught in almost every public school district in the country. When that happens, all the well-reasoned arguments in the world are not going to do much good.

    I am all in favor of teaching people to think scientifically. I just don’t think giving wishy-washy quotes to journalists is pedagogically effective in that regard.

    This is “teaching a man a fish” rather than “giving a man a fish”. Not as satisfying as writing a sarcastic blog post, I know; we had bloggers on Coyne’s site posting about the quality of their opponent’s hair. But I suspect that it will be more valuable in the long run.

    Presenting science effectively to the public sometimes means not luxuriating in the details and simplifying things a bit. Not as satisfying as preserving your ivory tower purity or posting poorly-reasoned, pseudo-intellectual garbage on a website, I know, but ultimately more effective.

  22. #22 SLC
    May 9, 2010

    Re Jason Rosenhouse @ #21

    At the risk of invoking Godwins’ law, Mr. Brenner is, apparently, unaware of the strategy employed by the creationists and the IDiots, known as the Big Lie. AFAIK, this concept was introduced by one Josef Goebbels, Hitlers propaganda minister and goes something like this.

    If one is going to tell a lie, make it a big lie, tell it loudly, tell it often, and eventually people will come to believe it. Worked just fine for Hitler and, as Prof. Rosenhouse points out, would work just fine for the creationists and the IDiots if it were not for the judiciary.

  23. #23 Owlmirror
    May 10, 2010

    Maybe I’m just misunderstanding things, but it seems to me that Larry Moran and Jason Rosenhouse are arguing past each other.

    Jason seems to be arguing that advocating the scientific consensus is a good thing.

    Larry seems to be arguing that advocating that which is not part of the scientific consensus is not a good thing.

    Is this a fair and accurate summary? If not, why not?

  24. #24 Steven Benner
    May 10, 2010

    Oh for the love of Pete. Only 22 postings in, and someone is now claiming that unless scientists scream and lie like Hitler, Hitler is going to win.

    You need to read some serious history about how Hitler actually came to power. You might also wish to read the literature of the day from the scientists (including those at Cambridge University who, until 1954, published a journal called “Annals of Eugenics”) who were certain that eugenics was “settled science”.

    But away from Godwin and back to the subject.

    Whenever I explain why “creation science” should not be in the science classroom, I say: “Technology from my laboratory developed using Darwin’s theory of evolution helps personalize the care of some 400,000 patients annually infected with HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C viruses. This technology has $100 million in annual sales. Don’t you want your kids to learn how scientists do such things so that they can do the same, and get research jobs? You do? Well then, let us teach evolution to your kids.”

    This “wins the debate”. I never need to say: “Hey. I am a scientist. And I can tell you from my authority as a scientist that evolution is true.” I certainly never need to scream it.

    The most I get in returns is: “Well, if our kids were more religious, we would have fewer teen pregnancies and less drugs”. Which is what the parent are really worried about, not whether “common descent” is true. And so the response is: “Well, these things concern me as well. We need to address these issues directly, but this is no reason to undermine the instruction of science.” And then we move on. It is actually not a big issue.

    The first argument persuades. The argument from authority, even if screamed, does not. Even in Texas, the stronger argument was always that if you make Texas schools a hotbed of creationism, this will drive away jobs in the biotech industry.

    Jason’s comments, if read in their most favorable light, simply say that one should make one’s argument appropriate for the audience. No disagreement here.

    As for whether creationists are winning because they “scream and yell over and over again about how evolution is a dying theory and that ID is the wave of the future, and people will start to believe it”, I have never seen it myself. I asked for specifics; I got none.

    But if it cheers you gentlemen up, let me point out that creationism is not being taught in Florida high schools, and no court decision was needed to make it this way.

  25. #25 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 10, 2010

    But if it cheers you gentlemen up, let me point out that creationism is not being taught in Florida high schools, and no court decision was needed to make it this way.

    Now who is being naive? You have creationism being taught in plenty of Florida high schools. And you have evolution being soft- peddaled in many more. Florida’s science standards, like those of most states, do not allow for teaching creationism or ID. But there’s a world of difference between what is in the standards and what happens in the classroom.

    There have been recent, partially successful, attempts to get creationism into Florida schools. One reason these attempts are not more successful is that school boards can point to the hostile court decisions as a reason for not teaching creationism. Take that away and you will have a lot of school board “teaching the controversy” just to placate the vocal religious lobbies.

    Jason’s comments, if read in their most favorable light, simply say that one should make one’s argument appropriate for the audience. No disagreement here.

    It’s not simply that you make them appropriate for the audience, you also have to make them appropriate for the venue. In your essay you were specifically discussing your interactions with journalists. Contrary to what you said, in most cases that is the wrong time to lecture about the uncertainties of the scientific method. That is because (a) in most of the big ticket items that journalists ask scientists about there really is no significant uncertainty and (b) it is rhetorically weak.

    I’m glad we agree on the importance of tailoring your argument to your audience. We have come a long way from “advocates can’t discern reality!”

    Whenever I explain why “creation science” should not be in the science classroom, I say: “Technology from my laboratory developed using Darwin’s theory of evolution helps personalize the care of some 400,000 patients annually infected with HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C viruses. This technology has $100 million in annual sales. Don’t you want your kids to learn how scientists do such things so that they can do the same, and get research jobs? You do? Well then, let us teach evolution to your kids.”

    That’s a good answer. But I keep looking for the part where you emphasize that uncertainty is central to science, which was the advice you gave in your essay. Do you worry that by giving so confident an answer you have sacrificed your ability to discern reality?

    This “wins the debate”. I never need to say: “Hey. I am a scientist. And I can tell you from my authority as a scientist that evolution is true.” I certainly never need to scream it.

    So it’s a good thing that absolutely no one is suggesting that is what you should say. In your essay you said that advocates lose their ability to discern reality and that you should always stress the uncertainty of science when talking to journalists. That is the advice that has gotten you so strongly criticized in the blogosphere, and to judge from the answer you gave before it is not advice you follow yourself.

    You have changed the argument considerably. Your original essay was not about the relative merits of arguing from authority or arguing from more practical considerations.

    Any creationist worth his salt would reply to your argument by saying that your technology only requires microevolution, which everyone accepts, not macroevolution, which is just a dubious extrapolation that results from your dogmatic materialistic preconceptions. They would also point out they are just asking for open-mindedness and they would ask you why you are so afraid of presenting both sides. I know from experience that these arguments have great resonance with people. Don’t be so cocky about your success in winning the debate with your little feat of rhetorical cleverness.

    As for whether creationists are winning because they “scream and yell over and over again about how evolution is a dying theory and that ID is the wave of the future, and people will start to believe it”, I have never seen it myself. I asked for specifics; I got none.

    You have a lot of nerve asking for specifics when you provided none in your essay. Where is your evidence that scientific advocates lose the ability to discern reality? Or that emphasizing the uncertainty of science when talking to journalists is an effective device for communicating science? Or that your methods are “winning the debate&rdquo? You gave none.

    And I gave you plenty of specifics. I pointed to the rhetorical tactics used by creationists and the effects they have had on public opinion. I pointed to several prominent social movements that had great success in swaying public opinion but which did not follow anything like the sort of advice you are giving. I pointed to a recent research paper that suggests a conclusion precisely opposite to what you are suggesting.

    I would say that your zeal for your simplistic position has blinded you to the contrary evidence against it.

  26. #26 SLC
    May 11, 2010

    Re Steven Benner @ #24

    As I would have predicted, Dr. Benner is unable to discern the forest from the trees. The point of my comment was really not Hitler but the efficacy of the big lie. As a matter of fact, one need not point to the Nazi regime to prove the efficacy of the big lie; the controversy over global warming is an even better example. The global warming deniers have gotten great traction from the use of the big lie to convince the public that not only is global warming not happening but that the scientists who say otherwise are not only wrong but are felons. One need only observe the various opinion polls to see how effective they have been. Marc Morano is a standout student of Josef Goebbels.

  27. #27 david
    May 12, 2010

    Benner writes: “Oh for the love of Pete.”

    He is demonstrating what his idea of a good argument is. He puts his Oh phrase first so that we see it well, cannot miss it, to make a memorable beginning of his argument. In case you do forget, it’s “Oh for the love of Pete.” We may expect to look for who is this Pete.

    He begins with “Oh,” which is promising as much great literature begins the same. Then he talks of “love,” always a safe word to use. Then as finale we are enticed with “Pete.” But if we do not know who Pete is, and I confess I do not, we must await an explanation of where he may be found and a little bit about him, and as well we want to know what it is that’s “for his love” and what does that mean. Explanation not appearing or seemingly forthcoming, we should not hold our breath waiting.

    For it seems fair to say that Benner is ticked, ticked off, in a pique, a tizzy, and he would have us know it by this Pete phrase, he thinks he should be ticked by rights. He claims that in arguing with creationists, he is not ticked, or hides his pique, or suppresses it, until he can give his economic-benefit argument for evolution. He says that works. He tells us that he knows what goes on in the whole state of Florida, where creationism is not taught, approach works. Does he or may we assume he uses the enticing “for the love of Pete” on parents and kids? Seemingly depends on the degree to which Benner is ticked, which depends on how much authority he feels he has at the moment. More authority, more ticked.

    So we are left to wonder, I could start off, “Oh for the love of Pete.” Or, I could not, which is no help, and confusing thoroughly. And still no explanation of this Pete appears. I’m sure, I read it again as he requires.

    Reluctantly, o how reluctantly, I conclude this : Benner is showing his displeasure at being disagreed with, being questioned, being called out for writing something wrong, being challenged, and that “For the love of Pete” has no other meaning than to show his pique, which is his main emphasis, his lead-off, and he is writing intent on giving all opposition the what-for, how thoroughly offensive we are to him when we disagree with him, and we should somehow know better, which we do not. Please pardon “we” as it only surely includes “I.”

    Conclusion clearer while we see one ticked sentence following another, and turnabout being fair play, I feel free to find that “For the love of Pete,” and what follows, offensive, priggish, and the ignorant arguing of someone trying to deal with all of Florida. Instead of ticked however, I do rather feel sorry for Benner. I will never know who this Pete is, I fear, and I suspect the one seeking love is Benner himself. Oh.

    Therefore Benner I would wish you a big hug from someone somewhere who is not me, which does not change that in matters of knowing effective argument you are full of crap, your goals are puny, and one who would follow your example is not going to find this prude Pete either. Why you would advocate (yes, note, you advocate) that others do as you do, remains a mystery.

    Next year, when, if, you realize you have made no more impact on truth than a forgotten product commercial, you can begin to explain your explanation, for you to look good and lose no face of course. Many hugs to you from those you would not offend.

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