You can’t wish the conflict away

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.


  1. #1 David Marjanovi?, OM
    March 20, 2008

    Emphasis added:

    Real life example: When I was a wee hippie tyke, on the verge of leaving the Mormon church for good, I saw What the Bleep Do We Know? And for somebody raised in an environment that had encouraged a certain mystical mindset, Bleep looked downright intriguing. I totally thought the Ramtha person was full of shit, mind you, but the bits about the hormones and body chemicals effecting us looked interesting and given my limited knowledge (thanks, Mormon upbringing!) I found the movie to be pretty neat. So I googled it. And found that the whole thing had been paid for by the Ramtha cult. Found discussions of the shoddy science work. Found people explaining the motivations of the film makers. And as I read more and more critical reviews, I realised where I’d been duped and how. People exposed the crackpot ideas for what they were….just like PZed is doing for Expelled right now.

    Praise Google!

    Shouldn’t PZ be going after the higher levels? (What are the higher levels here? Behe and Dembski?) Not the Code Pink level arguments?

    ScienceBlogs has a search function supplied by Google. Which is to say: it works. PZ has shredded Behe and Dembski repeatedly, and linked to other blogs shredding them. Just open your eyes and look.

    PZ, suppose I take a dislike to you and I decide I’m going to do what I can to tear down your reputation by spreading falsehoods about you. I tell folks at the local cafe that the P in PZ Myers stands for “Preposterous.” I tell the bus driver that you got your degree through a mail order company. I tell everyone you were arrested for streaking at a Twins game.

    Since the conflict can’t be wished away, Can I expect postings from you like “I Was Not Streaking at that Twins game, dammit,” or “I spent ten arduous, boring years getting that damn degree! Shut Up you dumb mick!” or “It actually stands for Pretzels!”?

    Two words for you: Kerry, Swiftboat.