Chris Mooney has a new article out with the title of “Enablers” in which he charges that scientists are essentially drawing attention to creationism, global warming skeptics, etc. by actively refuting pseudoscience. What should we do instead? Well, there doesn’t seem to be much of an answer to that;
Couldn’t all the energy and resources bestowed on rebutting our enemies be better used to help promote our friends–perhaps, say, by devoting resources to getting the word out about individuals who have written pro-environment books? Rather than reacting, couldn’t we be setting the agenda?
Given the present state of mass media and that well-written science books can sometimes be hard to come by, I don’t think saying “Give a hoot, read a book!” is the solution. What “setting the agenda” would actually mean is left ambiguous, but while I agree that there needs to be a bigger push behind positive science education, I think the active refutation of pseudoscience is also very important. It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation; if reporters write about the release of Expelled and no one says anything to refute it, then it seems like they’re on to something. If science groups issue statements about how Expelled is bunk, then they’re just part of the evilutionist orthodoxy. In the second category, though, it can at least be hoped that people can be directed to another resource, learn something about evolution, or become interested enough about the topic that they start to look at the subject more themselves. (I realize this isn’t the case for everyone, but I first became intensely interested in evolution after I found out there were people who said it never happened.)
I also get the feeling that there’s a bit of disparity between the reaction of the science blogosphere to Expelled and the public reaction to the film. In the science blogging community, Expelled is denigrated almost daily, and it’s a hot topic. Outside of people already invested in the issue, though, it doesn’t seem like people are paying much attention. Creationist groups already interested in seeing it will likely rent out some theaters on the opening weekend, but who really wants to spend 12 bucks watching Ben Stein lecture them about science? The film might be in shiny, expensive packaging, but if it’s as boring as it looks it’ll have more success over the long run being sold at Christian bookstores than in the theater.
Journalists often like to make up controversies when they might not actually exist. Every time there’s a high-profile case of a man cheating on his wife, you see articles like this that make it seem as if the scientific community is hotly debating whether we’re “meant to be monogamous” or not. It’s pretty clear that we’re socially monogamous animals but that nature does not dictate morality, so the cookie-cutter reporting techniques serve to confuse more than they enlighten. Given this reality of the way stories are written, I would imagine that reporters will continue to call scientists for quotes when creationist movies come out or global warming denialists get together for a convention. What are they supposed to say? “I’m not going to say anything; that’s emboldening the creationists,”?
Perhaps I’m a bit miffed about Mooney’s article because of the curt way it ends. Playing on the “bad scientist” theme (where scientists are all arrogant know-it-alls), Mooney writes;
We know so much, we scientists, we science defenders. We ought to know better.
Strong words for an article that offers plenty of criticism but almost no constructive suggestions other than “Shhh!”