I don’t think for a moment that you (or for that matter, Matt or Sheril) are creationist apologists. But you are successfully pissing off a lot of evolutionary biologists…like me, even though I should be incredibly receptive to your argument.
I’ve always argued that the creationist controversy is a political, not scientific, controversy. I would go so far as to claim that among the evolutionary biologists I know, I’ve been one of the staunchest advocates of bare knuckles political responses to creationists (even if those bare knuckles are enclosed in a velvet glove). Likewise, I’m fairly politically active, and I understand the need to communicate to non-scientists–I did work for two years in a non-profit organization that was involved in legislative affairs. And I’m not completely hapless when it comes to communicating to various audiences, including journalists and politicians. In terms of religion, I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not an atheist–in fact, when I spoke at the Boston Skeptics Society (and if the Baptists ever want to invite me too, I’m game), I explicitly stated “evolution isn’t a cultural marker.” Hell, the title of the talk was “Defending Evolution the Right Way: As a Fundamental Part of Biology and Biomedicine, Not As a Cultural Icon.” So I’m not using evolution as a proxy for a larger cultural and theological fight.
Here’s the problem: you keep coming to evolutionary biologists with a problem (the perception of evolutionary biology), and you don’t have a solution. Do you think there’s a single evolutionary biologist who is happy with public opinion regarding evolution and creationism? But you’re not giving us concrete solutions.
Between teaching and research, along with all of service obligations expected of us (including public outreach), we have too much to do. When we are then told that we need to somehow organize a pro-evolution movie production (which we have no idea how to do since we’re scientists, not movie producers), that’s not helpful.
Many of us also don’t have the time, or, frankly the contacts, to engage in the activities you’re suggesting. Just as you don’t have the training and the professional network to conduct science, most scientists have no experience organizing public policy meetings or political campaigns. As I’ve learned from personal experience, political networking, if not a full-time job, is a huge drain on time. I don’t know a single scientist who isn’t overcommitted, and if something doesn’t appear to have a significant payback, we simply can’t devote time to it. And we certainly don’t need meetings or white papers (while I was visiting DC, I mentioned this to a colleague who is a paleontologist–and who does a considerable amount of public outreach–and he was not impressed. He called meetings and white papers “a necessary evil, at best, when they lead to something.”)
If you and the rest of the ‘framers’ were to give concrete communication suggestions, they might be adopted (at least by some of us). For example, I’ve suggested that one talking point is that many of the breakthroughs in medical genetics can’t happen without evolutionary biology (I’m not going to go through the whole argument here). When I propose something like that, I provide a concrete set of actions that can be criticized, refined, and, most importantly, adopted by others. But the jeremiads are wearing thin.
I’m going to turn the tables and offer some suggestions to you and other science communicators. First, stop pissing off scientists. Not only do you need us, because we produce and understand the stuff you’re communicating, but if you can’t communicate effectively to us, then why should we believe that you can communicate effectively to others? Second, shoulder some of the blame yourselves. Professional scientists are pretty good at doing science. We are not, however, communications specialists, nor is that a job to which most of us can dedicate significant amounts of time (and despite the disdain some around here have for communications, it is a full-time job). Maybe the problem of communicating science to the larger public can’t be laid entirely at the feet of working scientific researchers. Perhaps the communication problem has something to do with the communicators too? As the Uncredible Hallq put it:
If Mooney wants to help on the creation issue, and is worried about people just taking cues from their religious leaders, here’s what I’d recommend he do: do some serious journalistic legwork, documenting the misinformation being spread by Evangelical churches and similar local groups… Put it in a book with accessible explanations of why what they’re saying is false. While recognizing the need to keep it accessible, you need to actually explain what wrong with what’s being claimed and not merely assert that it’s wrong if you want to win anyone over. Then go around promoting the book with a focused message designed to reach people who may not buy it. If you like, think of it as framing the issue in terms of “religious hucksters vs. honest scientists.” This is what I’d do if I were a journalist with one high-selling book already under my belt.
I would also focus on the argument of how and why discarding evolution would be harmful (e.g., combating emerging infectious disease). I’ve argued that we need to make a positive, active case for evolution, and not against creationism–put them on the defensive and make them defend what we both think is destructive foolishness. Trust me, many scientists would be glad to help, even on ‘deep background’ (I’ve done so myself).
We need solutions, and like it or not, you’re in a perfect place to provide some. And recognize both our limitations and yours.