I try to be careful when using the term “ignorant.” The dictionary definition could apply to anyone who is “unlearned” or “uneducated” in a particular area, i.e. I am nearly completely ignorant when it comes to quantum physics. I have always felt that the common usage of the term is more charged, however; that it not only indicates a lack of education but a lack of desire to learn anything about the subject at all. This probably stems from the root word, “ignore,” but whatever it’s derivation it is certainly not a compliment. It was somewhat unsettling, then, to read a review paper by an authority on ancient whales that asserted the public did not understand the evolution of whales due to 1) the obfuscating tactics of creationists, and 2) the public’s ignorance of published research. The first problem is still quite frustrating, but are we really expecting the public to keep up with what is going on in the technical literature?
If I was not at a large university I probably wouldn’t be able to learn as much as I have from technical papers. The subscriptions Rutgers holds to various journals has allowed me to get my hands on thousands of papers that have greatly aided my self-education. Before I made a concerted effort to seek these resources out, however, I never knew that I had the opportunity. Even if I had, if all publications suddenly became open access and all archives were digitized, there would be more jargon-filled material than I could possibly read. Can we really blame the public for not keeping up with what is printed in journals each year?
When it comes to the impoverished understanding of evolution in America it is easy to blame the media for misrepresentation. Yet as frustrating as bad reporting might be it does not exonerate scientists from doing what they can to educate the public. Indeed, we have little room to complain if we are not actively working to keep the public up to date through easily-understood essays, articles, books, documentaries, and other mass-media venues. New discoveries about whale evolution provide a perfect example. Years ago I remember watching an episode of the TLC show PaleoWorld that featured the evolution of whales from mesonychids. Since that show aired I had never heard differently, so I was quite surprised when I e-mailed an archaeocete researcher two years ago and found out that whales had evolved from artiodactyls. I felt a little embarrassed for being so out of date but then again I had not seen any updated accounts of whale evolution.
Even now one of the most impressive evolutionary transitions ever documented has received sparingly little attention in popular outlets. The popular book on the subject is still Carl Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge, and while I don’t mean this as a knock on Carl’s excellent work the content of the book is sorely in need of an update. Stephen Jay Gould had also tackled the topic a few years earlier in an essay collected in Dinosaur in a Haystack, but I can’t think of any more recent popular accounts. Maybe I have not paid close enough attention, but it does appear that we keep pounding the rostrum, demanding good science coverage, but are doing sparingly little to actually bring it to the public.
I can’t blame the public for not keeping up on the latest research printed in technical journals. For most of my life I was unaware that such publications existed, and even if I knew of them I would probably consider their contents indecipherable. We cannot continue to blame the public for not being aware of science if we continue to talk amongst ourselves and expect the interested parties to come to us. This is particularly true in a media landscape dominated by the creation/evolution debate. There are far more books and articles about the offense some people take at having an ape ancestry than how we know chimpanzees are our closest relatives in the first place. There is certainly a place for refutations of creationist nonsense but we should not let our opponents dictate the content of the debate; we need to better communicate scientific discoveries simply because they are so fascinating. If we continue to just mutter amongst ourselves about the “unlearned” perhaps we are the truly ignorant ones.