At last, some research in communicating evolution that I can agree with, because it corresponds to my prior experience and biases! Which is exactly the wrong reason to agree with it, of course, but it’s a start, and with some significant reservations, is an interesting foundation to argue over.
Here’s the abstract. It’s a paper describing general strategies for winning over participants in public debates about science, which basically says, in terms more familiar to us, that waffling accommodationists are losers.
Public debates driven by incomplete scientific data where nobody can claim absolute certainty, due to current state of scientific knowledge, are studied. The cases of evolution theory, global warming and H1N1 pandemic influenza are investigated. The first two are of controversial impact while the third is more neutral and resolved. To adopt a cautious balanced attitude based on clear but inconclusive data appears to be a lose-out strategy. In contrast overstating arguments with wrong claims which cannot be scientifically refuted appear to be necessary but not sufficient to eventually win a public debate. The underlying key mechanism of these puzzling and unfortunate conclusions are identified using the Galam sequential probabilistic model of opinion dynamics. It reveals that the existence of inflexible agents and their respective proportions are the instrumental parameters to determine the faith of incomplete scientific data public debates. Acting on one’s own inflexible proportion modifies the topology of the flow diagram, which in turn can make irrelevant initial supports. On the contrary focusing on open-minded agents may be useless given some topologies. When the evidence is not as strong as claimed, the inflexibles rather than the data are found to drive the opinion of the population. The results shed a new but disturbing light on designing adequate strategies to win a public debate.
So when you’ve got an argument going, and one side has the evidence but the other side has an inflexible certainty that the evidence is wrong, the inflexibles tend to distort the normal process of weighing the evidence and drawing reasonable conclusions — they suck in more uncommitted participants (called ‘floaters’) to their way of thinking, generating more inflexibles, strengthing the position of the anti-science side, leading to greater attraction to being wrong. The counter-strategy, suggested later in the paper, is to ‘get more inflexibles’ — winning over floaters so they drift over to your side has little long-term impact, it’s far better to build a larger army of forceful advocates for your position.
Now for the reservations, though. This isn’t real social science: dig into the paper deeper and you discover it is entirely theoretical, based on a mathematical model of human behavior. Hmmm. It’s all well and good to say that a population of autonomous agents with properties X, Y, and Z will behave in a particular way in a simulation, but, well, people tend to be very messy beings. I don’t have a background in this field to be able to say whether the model has good empirical support or not, so I’m not going to be able to say that the Pharyngula model for arguing over evolution, that is, by unreserved and loud advocacy that steamrollers the opposition as much as possible, has been proven to be correct.
But that’s what this paper says I should do anyway! If I want to persuade, it’s best to avoid those fuzzy little tentative words, go gung ho for the answer you want. Which in a lot of ways is undesirable, actually.
The results shed a new but disturbing light on Designing adequate strategies to eventually win public debates. To produce inflexibles in one’s own side is thus critical to win a public argument whatever the rigor cost and the associated epistemological paradoxes. At odds, to focus on convincing open-minded agents is useless. In summary, when the scientific evidence is not as strong as claimed, the inflexibles rather than the data are found to drive the collective opinion of the population. Consequences on Designing adequate strategies to win a public debate are discussed.
OK. We need more positive inflexibles. Got it. (Oh, and by the way, the paper has an annoying trait of capitalizing “Design” wherever it occurs. Don’t know why, it may just be grep run amuck.)
However, I have another reservation. What’s this “when the scientific evidence is not as strong as claimed” business? The author has his own peculiar blindspot, where he thinks biologists have been overstating the evidence for evolution. That isn’t true at all.
However the major outcome of our modeling is to confirm the rightness in overstating the validity of Darwin theory to oppose Intelligent Design in terms of success in the public debate. Afterwards our results suggest that in case opponents to Intelligent Design had been more circumspect about the “status” of Darwin theory, they would have lost the public debate. It is a somehow disturbing hypothesis with an embarrassing result for an honest scientist.
Except, no, we have not been insufficienctly circumspect at all. The evidence for evolution really is overwhelmingly in its favor. It isn’t proven in a mathematical sense, there is no illusion that we have accounted for every single possible mechanism, and there is still active exploration of all the details, but there is no doubt anywhere sensible that evolution, that populations change over time driven by natural processes, and that all life on earth shares a common ancestry, is a fact, amply confirmed and tested.
There’s nothing to be embarrassed about open advocacy of a well-demonstrated scientific position at all, and no one is hiding the interesting controversies within the boundaries of that truth. What this really is about is good debating strategies. You do not open a discussion by saying, “Well, we aren’t certain about the relative contributions of chance and selection, and maybe chemical properties dictate some of the outcomes of biological processes, but we’re pretty certain evolution happens.” That puts all the emphasis on doubt. No, you start by saying positively that “Evolution happens, period.” Then you can discuss, if necessary, the ragged edges of the science. The important point, though, is the reality of that core idea, and you have to realize that in many arguments with creationists, it’s not the ragged edges they’re talking about — it’s precisely that scientifically indisputable central fact.
No compromise of the science is required, only a recognition of the actual point being discussed. Where scientists are often handicapped is that they don’t recognized the depth of the denial on the other side, and that their opponents really are happily butting their heads against the rock hard foundation of the science. We tend to assume the creationists can’t really be that stupid, and figure they must have some legitimate complaint about some aspect of evolution with which we can sympathize. They don’t. They really are that nuts.
(via Ben Goldacre)