Uh-oh. Chris Mooney has roused the wrath of both Brian and ERV with his argument that people on the science side should avoid reacting to the anti-science ranters, because we’re just promoting their lies for them.
I sort of agree — it is true that we can’t criticize these loons without simultaneously bringing them to wider attention. But that’s the operational dynamic, and if Chris could come up with a strategy to educate and rebut that doesn’t actually involve mentioning the stupid things people say, I’d like to hear it. I don’t think it exists.
We do have a real problem. Science is providing a perspective that does not support tradition, that often reveals an uncomfortable reality like global warming or our familial relationship with worms, and it’s difficult — there are no simple, intuitive paths to understanding the details of our disciplines. Religion, creationism, climate skeptics, the whole spectrum of ideologies that deny reality are easy: they are selling comfortable lies, the lies your parents and grandparents and whole darn family hold, the lies that make promises that the whole universe likes you personally and will help you out, the lies that require no intellectual engagement to support. You don’t even need to be able to read a bible, as long as you can thump it.
And now we’re supposed to ignore those easy liars, and simply set up our own little science clubhouse, make it look all spiffy and beautiful and lively, and wait for the hoi polloi to rush to join our side. Get real. Reality and hard work vs. wishful thinking and pretty reassurances? Who do you think will win the membership drive?
We must counter the superficial advantages of the anti-science side by directly countering their claims. Look at it this way: if one side is promising a million dollars for free, and my side is promising an opportunity for hard work, I don’t win by announcing that I don’t have a million dollars, but I do have some tools. What I have to do is show that they don’t have a million dollars — I have to go straight for the dishonest advertising practices of my competition and expose them.
This is the flaw in Chris’s proposal. It allows falsehood and error to stand unquestioned. That won’t work. It’s how we got to the situation we’re in today — by allowing generations of people to dwell in their hothouses of dishonesty, never intruding, never confronting. We’re not going to succeed by continuing a policy of neglecting the fraudulent hucksters.
That was also a theme of Nisbet’s awful AAAS panel, an advocacy of cowardice, either avoiding all conflict or trying to coopt the grifter’s ways. That’s a disaster in the making. Those of us who are already on the side of science can see the beauty in the natural world and we can too easily delude ourselves into believing that everyone else will, too … but it’s not true. We are battling people who promise their adherents immortality in paradise, a world of perfect plenty that will never fail, and while there may be horrible diseases out there, they only strike immoral wicked sinners. If there were any truth to those promises, heck, I‘d be joining them.
The conflict is necessary, as is bringing the battle right to them and confronting them with their failures. You don’t persuade people to shun liars by letting the lies pass.