Mike the Mad Biologist

I’ve just finished reading Chris Mooney’s and Matt Nisbet’s Science article about communicating science to the general public. It’s right on target.

When it comes to defending evolutionary biology, the success one will have is far less dependent on marshalling the appropriate facts than many scientists would like. Since the Scopes trial 80 years ago, the evidence in favor of evolution has only increased–one discpline that supports it, genetics, was in its infancy, and another, molecular evolution/population genetics, didn’t even exist. Yet we don’t really seem to have made a dent, if public opinion polls are to be believed*. While the scientific evidence is necessary (and why would you want to defend a lie anyway?), it is not sufficient.

In my experience, when the evolution/creationism debate is framed as ‘God versus evolution’, we lose. I think this stems only partly from dogma, but for the ‘muddle in the middle’, it stems from a search for meaning. When the debate is framed as ‘medical/scientific/technological progress versus theopolitical extremism’, we win (got Vichy science?).

This is why the Discovery Institute recently trotted out Michael Egnor–they wanted to undermine the ‘utility’ of evolution.

One point that is often forgotten is that evolution is part of the ‘culture wars.’ Consequently, there’s an opportunity for evolution, particularly as the theopolitical right begins to fall out of favor. If support for evolution can be cast as part of being a member of the Coalition of the Sane, support for evolution will increase. If the thousands and thousands of hits I’m still receiving for this post about a crazy creationist expounding on peanut butter are any indication, there’s a strong vein of public opinion to tap here. And the success of my ‘argument’ (which was non-existent) had nothing to do with evidence or logic, but simply that a lot of people don’t like TEH CRAZY!!! We need to use this.

But there’s another thing that bothers me about some of the criticism I’ve read so far. That is the idea that communicating science is somehow not science. For example, the blogger tristero** writes:

But truly, I don’t think it’s a working scientist’s job to explain anything outside his field of expertise. What does PZ Myers know about politics, or care? It’s his job to do and teach science. Let the pr flacks frame the issue.

(Fellow ScienceBlogling Jonah makes a similar point)

I won’t speak for PZ, but I will speak for the Mad Biologist: I call bullshit. I ‘do’ science (I’m an NIAID/NIH funded researcher). But that’s just one component of what I do for my job: public policy and outreach are integral parts of what I do on a daily basis. That public function is not only informed by my research, but it also leads to the design of certain projects. Dealing with the public is not something I do in addition to science; that is science. In other words, ‘doing science’ is much more than just basic research. If there is a failing in our graduate education of scientists, it is that the all of the other skills needed, such as basic communication and management skills, are completely neglected (granted, many faculty members, having done nothing other than academic science, are spectacularly unqualified to teach these skills). Somewhere, the communication of science to the public became something mostly separate from science. The evolution sociopolitical controversy illustrates the consequences of this attitude.

That’s something I definitely want to reframe…for scientists.

*I’m not sure the polls are accurately reflecting what many believe which is that God somehow is involved in the origin of life and organismal evolution, but that life also is governed by materialist processes. Frankly, I don’t think most people care enough to bother working through the contradiction.

**I don’t mean to pick on tristero (I’m a big fan of his blogging); others have made similar points, but not as succinctly.

Comments

  1. #1 Christopher Gwyn
    April 7, 2007

    That a scientist should, or should not, speak on issues not directly related to the research he or she does is fine. However each and every one of those scientists is also a person, a citizen of a nation, a sentient resident of this planet, etcetera. With that second category comes permission to, and a responsibility to, speak your mind and make a productive use of all of your skills and knowledge when you speak.

  2. #2 Jim RL
    April 7, 2007

    I agree with you. Scientists need to speak up. If more scientist had been speaking out all along for evolution and climate change we probably wouldn’t have these psuedoscientific “debates”. The fact that scientists are right won’t matter at all if fundamentalists convinve enough people that they are right and that science is a direct assault on their values. We need people to trust science, and believe scientists.

  3. #3 tristero
    April 7, 2007

    Mike, We have a mutual admiration society here. I thoroughly enjoy your posts. And I don’t think we disagree. I’ll go even further: you were right to call “bullshit” on my comments. It was sloppy, unfocused writing.

    My concern is this: I simply love trying to puzzle through a challenging article on physicis in Scientific American, or reading a book like The Making of the Fittest. I worry that it will be harder to find intellectual challenges on the layperson’s level if the emphasis on reaching the public switches even more than it already has towards the “usefulness” of scientific research or its importance to “me.” I would much rather have major scientists try to describe the details of their research in a lay article and not worry how it will make my life better (unless, of course, that is the direct point of the research!). There are plenty of people who can try to explain its larger importance, if there is any. (I’m not talking about communicating to grants committees or students, but to laypeople.)

    And you’re quite right. I did not, and still do not, take into account that doing science is more than test tubes. I’m very ignorant about science in the sense you mean. As an outsider to the science community, that’s not surprising. And perhaps that’s your main point, that making this aspect of science clearer to people like me is vital. If so, I completely agree.

    Finally, I agree that good writing and social skills, etc. are important. As a musician, I know many people first hand with the same problems that scientists are alleged to have in speaking with others. But in truth, those skills are more important for the scientist than they are for the public. Thelonious Monk was, often, barely coherent. Where he spoke most eloquently was at the piano.

    I think that’s true of many, not all, great scientists as well. I want to *hear* their work. I don’t need to have them explain why they think I should think it’s important. I wouldn’t presume to waste their time asking them to.

    I hope that’s clearer.

  4. #4 Edward
    April 8, 2007

    Yes! I think most scientists, not just the ones who post here, will agree with you Mike.

    I couple of years ago, I went to a talk by Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. From the talk I gathered that she is an atheist – I forget the exact term she used. She spoke very strongly of keeping religious/philosophical beliefs out of the debate. She spoke of going to a park with a friend who is a Christian. The park was one known for its sedimentary rocks, and she said that while she saw evidence for her views in those rocks and her Christian friend saw evidence for the hand of God in those rocks, they both agreed on the age of the rock (billions of years, if memory serves).

    The creationists WANT a philosophical debate on Christianity vs. Atheism, because they know they will probably win the minds of the American public, if the debate is framed in those terms.

    Scientists, many of whom, like myself, believe in God, would generally prefer to have the debate framed in terms of rationally looking at the evidence in front of our faces vs. blindly following dogma.

  5. #5 coturnix
    April 8, 2007

    The ‘fellow scienceblogger’ is James, not Jonah.

  6. #6 Bob Calder
    April 9, 2007

    I would like to remind everyone that there has been some thought put into this subject. If you remember, when Jay Gould was President of AAAS he gave us a list that included something like, don’t get into a debate with Creationists.

    I guess we failed him. *grin* But seriously, it is difficult for someone who is used to civilized discourse to be comfortable with the “talking points” style of browbeating your oponent and using ad hominem attacks.

    I’m sorry I can’t find it easily but maybe somebody else remembers the editorial he wrote on the subject. But I have appended a link to another bit he wrote that addresses the subject of communication. I hope you guys don’t mind but I think he was the best science writer in the known universe and his thoughts on it cannot help but be pertinent.

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/286/5441/899

    Here is the first paragraph to tease you:

    Take Another Look
    Stephen Jay Gould
    An argument in three points and a conclusion. Point 1: Disunity. My graduate students usually enjoy my assignment of the Origin of Species. They then ask me about the technical monograph that Darwin must have popularized in order to write his preeminent book. And I reply that the Origin is Darwin’s singular attempt, suitable for public and professional consumption alike, to foment the greatest revolution in the history of scientific thought. I then assign Galileo’s two volumes of 1632 and 1638, both written as dialogues in Italian, not as academic treatises in Latin, so that all his literate countrymen might find them accessible.

    He shows his students examples of good science writing for a broad audience. How droll.

  7. #7 Coin
    April 9, 2007

    …some thoughts…

    I cannot read the original article, as I don’t have access to Science, so following this cross-scienceblogs argument about the article from my perspective has mostly been just a baffling attempt to reconstruct Mooney and Nisbet’s original argument from the shadows cast by varying people’s perspectives on it…

    But something that keeps sticking out to me in almost every discussion I see about this article is that people keep drawing a distinction between “teaching” and “communicating to the public”. Perhaps I’m missing something about this argument which would be clearer if I’d read the article, but otherwise in every way this seems to me like an utterly false choice. Teaching is communicating to the public. That is the point of teaching. That is what teaching means. Obviously one is going to need to communicate to average television watchers differently than one would communicate to a biology grad student, and it probably is not reasonable to expect someone who’s good at the latter kind of communication to also be good at the former. But in the end, if the scientific community is not successfully communicating the ideas of science to a wide audience, or not communicating them in a way that their applicability or relevance is clear, then what this really says is that the scientific community is not very good at teaching. Maybe we’re very good at teaching within the confines of the higher educational system. But the number of people this system reaches is limited, and the entrance process selects for the certain kind of person that the system is likely by itself to be effective at communicating to.

    I also take issue to the implication I’ve seen a few times that somehow we have to make a choice between being accessible and offering “the facts”– people disagreeing with Mooney and Nisbet seem to frequently be implying that by engaging in “framing”, we would find ourselves either “dumbing down” the science or else bending the truth to make it easier to sell. One could make the argument that these are inevitable consequences of framing, but I doubt Mooney and Nisbet intended to offer this choice as a natural part of framing, or would agree that the choice necessarily exists. If the choice exists, then the option we have to choose is obvious: Science is made of facts, so if we have to step away from facts to communicate science then there’s no point.

    But we don’t have to choose one or the other; it’s surely possible to present scientific issues to the public in a managed context relevant to them and their lives, while still doing so in a way which is both honest and consistent with the facts. It’s absolutely true that framing is just spin, and it’s totally understandable why anyone would see spinning as an activity as something scientists should be above. But just because something is spin doesn’t always mean it’s dishonest, and sometimes it is inevitable that a fact will be presented with one spin or another. Spin of any sort should of course never be allowed to infect actual scientific research and writing– but at some point that scientific research and writing is going to get communicated to the public, and if people within the scientific community do not step forward to ensure that the facts are presented with an honest and accurate spin to begin with, then there is a very long line of people just waiting to jump in and apply a dishonest spin instead.

    For one thing, I really don’t mean to pick on tristero, but if we do as he suggests and “let the PR flacks frame the issue”, they will not pick an honest spin. Scientists may shy from applying sensationalist spin to their discoveries, but the university PR departments absolutely do not. This leads to a kind of indirect science by press release, where the media, lacking the credentials or resources to do real science reporting, just grabs whatever the most “interesting” looking thing is off the heap of science PR releases and write it into a dramatic headline (“NEW GENE COULD CURE EVERYTHING, SCIENTISTS SAY”). This means that when a vacuum develops because those scientists doing valid and accurate scientific research consider it beneath them to manage the presentation of their work to the media, the media simply ignores that research and instead concentrates on the less scrupulous presenters of scientific information that know how to catch their eye, magnifying the visibility and importance of dodgier research. When this happens, it does not promote either science literacy or the credibility of the scientific community.

    I guess what I’m trying to get at is that we seem to keep thinking that we must become dishonest or stop being fact-based in order to spin or frame things. But I think really when you come down to it, science is going to have a spin, it is going to have a frame, once it moves through the lens of the media. The only decision the scientific community has is whether or not it is going to have a hand in ensuring that inevitable spin is an honest one. And I think that rather than worrying that managing that spin will taint science’s ability to teach knowledge accurately and factually– though we must take whatever steps necessary to ensure that concern does not come to pass– the bigger worry should be that by doing nothing, science by inaction abdicates its responsibility to pass on accurate and factual knowledge to the public.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2007

    There is the practical point that a version of the origin of life that follows one any one of the extant “god and science can co-exist” arguments (such as in Miller’s “Finding Darwin’s God”) … which might make more people like us … is not only intellectually dishonest, but following the very strong, current, case law, cannot be practiced in a public school because it would violate the Establishment Clause. For good reason.

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