There’s been much ink spilled lately about the latest work from the authors of Freakonomics. I should say before getting into this that I haven’t read their last book, and don’t plan to read the sequel. I also haven’t read any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, for largely the same reasons (note that the Freakonomists apparently acknowledge that they cut one section of their latest book because Gladwell scooped them). Basically, I see these sorts of books as attempts by minimally-informed dilettantes to insert themselves into complex topics by applying a canned methodology and pretending that the naive solutions resulting from this are somehow novel and important (I also don’t read Thomas Friedman any more for this reason).
In their latest book, Freakonomists Levitt and Dubner include a chapter on global warming in which they argue that carbon dioxide isn’t the real problem, rising temperatures are, so let’s ignore carbon emissions and monkey with the atmosphere to artificially cool it. Joe Romm has dissected the chapter’s many errors, and the negative reaction of the chapter’s scientific sources to it’s content, and RealClimate demolished the chapter as well. The response from economists has been equally negative.
I lost all possibility of respect for the Freakonomists when I heard an NPR interview where they prefaced a discussion of geoengineering (pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to artificially cool the planet) with a reading from the book’s “explanatory note”:
In truth, the book [Freakonomics] did have a unifying theme, even if it wasn’t obvious at the time, even to us. If pressed, you could boil it down to four words: People respond to incentives. If you wanted to get more expansive, you would say this: People respond to incentives, although not necessarily in ways that are predictable or manifest. Therefore, one of the most powerful laws in the universe is the law of unintended consequences. This applies to schoolteachers and Realtors and crack dealers as well as expectant mothers, sumo wrestlers, bagel salesmen, and the Ku Klux Klan.
Emphasis original, from p. xiv of the “Explanatory Note” to Superfreakonomics.
If you take the law of unintended consequences seriously, you do not endorse geoengineering. You just don’t. We have one planet, we’ve studied the upper atmosphere for a matter of decades, and we don’t fully understand how pumping tons of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere will change geochemistry, climate, and other important things. The potential downsides are enormous, the cost significant, the payoff obscure, and it fails to address the full range of problems attendant upon global climate change and massive carbon emissions. For instance, the upward trend in carbon dioxide concentrations will have unpredictable effects on plant growth and ecological communities, it will increase ocean acidity, and it will require that any responses to these phenomena accelerate as unchecked greenhouse gas emissions continue to exert their influence on the global climate and the biosphere.
Responding to the fear of ocean acidification as a result of rising carbon dioxide levels, Jonah Goldberg parrots the Freakonomists by suggesting “Give it some antacid,” as if we could tweak ocean chemistry so simply and with no unpredictable and catastrophic side effects. Kevin Drum ponders Goldberg and the Freakonomists, and suggests that Dubner and Levitt have failed their readers by giving a general impression that is 180 degrees from reality, then insulating themselves from criticism by inserting occasional unconvincing disclaimers (forcing the AP, for instance, to do an elaborate fact-check). He concludes with this thought:
As for Goldberg, he wonders somberly why public belief in global warming has declined lately and decides (natch) that it’s the Democrats’ fault for actually trying to do something about it. The fact that his side of the aisle has waged a blistering, no-holds-barred denialism war for the past few years apparently has nothing to do with it.
It should go without saying that I see parallels to creationism throughout this. The current creationist strategy is not to outright promote creationism (courts having been too cruel to such strategies), and instead advocating for the teaching evolution’s “weaknesses,” itself a strategy mapped out by creationists in the 1980s after losing their last case before the Supreme Court (“school boards and teachers should be strongly encouraged at least to stress the scientific evidences and arguments against evolution in their classes (not just arguments against some proposed evolutionary mechanism, but against evolution per se), even if they don’t wish to recognize these as evidences and arguments for creation (not necessarily as arguments for a particular date of creation, but for creation per se).”) Creationists hope that, even if such arguments do not overtly advocate creationism, students will draw the inference.
Similarly, I see something similar between the mendacious approach Goldberg takes to explaining public opinion about global warming and some criticisms of evolution’s defense by NCSE and others.
To choose an example of this at random, here’s Jerry Coyne criticizing NCSE, the AAAS, and NAS, for being too friendly to religious people:
In 25 years of effort, these organizations don’t seem to have had much effect on influencing public opinion about evolution. I think that this may mean that our nation will have to become a lot less religious before acceptance of evolution increases appreciably.
This sort of argument is quite common from Coyne, PZ, and a range of others in that camp (“New Atheists,” if you will). It argues that public opinion on evolution has been fairly constant for the last 30 years, therefore current approaches to evolution-defense/advocacy have failed, therefore we should do something different, therefore we should stop treating pro-evolution religious people and groups as allies.
While the last part of this argument doesn’t follow in any obvious way from the first parts, one can cobble something or other together. But Kevin Drum’s response to Goldberg points up the fallacy of the first logical leap.
If all else were equal, and if the goal of NCSE, AAAS, NAS, and other groups were primarily to conduct public education about evolution, then the measure of success would clearly be poll results on public acceptance of evolution. But both of these assumptions are false. For the last 50 years, creationists have undertaken a high-profile media campaign against evolution, building on the previous hundred years of anti-evolution agitation (of varying intensity).
By the lights of Coyne, et al., the creationists too have failed, as they aren’t moving the needle against evolution. Indeed, we appear to be in a public opinion stalemate. Static public opinion thus suggests that either creationists are totally ineffective and that pro-evolution forces have been as well, or that creationists are effective on some level and that pro-evolution groups have also been effective, but not much more effective than creationists. The first is wildly implausible, given the wide dispersal of creationist talking points in the general discourse, so we have to conclude that pro-evolution groups have been effective to at least some degree, and the premise of the New Atheist critique of such efforts is left on quicksand.
This isn’t to say that the critique can’t be saved, but it does suggest a naivete or disingenuity among people making such arguments. They either don’t realize the political context of the creation/evolution conflict, or are intentionally obscuring that context to make their point. Neither of those would be entirely satisfactory.
In the interests of moving past vituperation and toward a productive discourse about how to improve this situation, here are some observations about how I think we could be more effective at increasing public understanding of evolution in particular and science in general. First, note that where creationists have been explicitly targeting public opinion, science groups have been approaching the issue from a different angle. NCSE’s resources are largely aimed at activists and teachers, reflecting the fact that most of immediate conflicts over evolution have teachers in the crosshairs, and NCSE’s goal is to be a clearinghouse for information for activists and others on the front line, and the materials are more focused on dispelling creationist myths about evolution than on educating the general public about evolution. The fact that our Constitution offers a legal bulwark against creationism means that strategy is formulated with an eye toward an eventual legal conflict, and to maintaining evolution’s 45 year winning streak. (As always, this blog is not an NCSE project, and while I work at NCSE and have certain vested interests, I’m not saying anything that isn’t clear from NCSE’s website or other public sources, nor am I speaking for NCSE in any sense. I don’t think anything I’m saying now would differ from my opinion on the topic before I worked at NCSE, which may explain why I went to work there.)
NAS and AAAS are in a different situation, but they tend to preach to the choir. Their publications are generally quite technical and aimed at either scientists or at teachers. Even outlets like NOVA, Science News, Science Times, Scientific American, and Seed will tend to have audiences pre-disposed to favor evolution, and the content of such popular science outlets is still too technical for the general public. Audiences who don’t care about evolution or who are undecided about it are less likely to read such material. There has been little effort to break science advocacy out of such a channelized approach, and the suggestion of broader outreach is often met with rather vehement opposition (as evidenced by the reaction to Unscientific America, and the framing fight before that).
In that context, largely defensive in focus and narrowly aimed at a sympathetic audience, the stability of public opinion is hardly surprising. Any strategy focused on primary and secondary education would be hard-pressed to show significant improvements in public understanding, as the cycle of change there is incredibly slow. Today’s teachers may have last been in a year-long biology class in their own high school biology class 50 years ago, when evolution was much less central to the presentation of biology. The average teacher is 42, and may not have taken a biology class since she was 14. Changes we make to secondary education today will have a comparable 30 year lag before they trickle back into most science classes.
And change in science classes is blocked in part by the resistance of parents, who probably also haven’t had a biology class in 25-30 years (age of first pregnancy: 24; age of most ninth graders: 14; average age of ninth-grade parents: over 38). So most teachers didn’t learn biology with evolution at its core. Research shows that teachers who had a college class in evolution spend more time on it, and most spend less than 10 hours of class time on it, a laughably inadequate amount (a third spend less than a week on it, 62% spend 10 hours or less, roughly two weeks of instructional time). Teachers with a college evolution class spend 50% more time on evolution than those without, but how many pre-service programs for biology teachers require a course in evolution?
Part of the problem comes from parents, as well. An informal survey of science educators (mostly high school, but some from colleges and from middle or elementary schools) found that 31% of teachers get pressure (mostly from parents or students) to teach creationism of some form, while 30% report pressure (again, mostly from parents or students) not to teach evolution at all. The survey didn’t ask how many teachers report pressure to teach evolution or not to teach creationism, but my own informal surveys of teachers have turned up no such comparable pressure.
What we need, then, is a broader constituency for science, an effort to reach out to the general public and boost understanding of evolution (or failing that, at least toleration of having it taught to students). Making the schools safe for evolution is a critical first step, but it isn’t enough.
As I pointed out on my Science Denial panel this summer, congresscritters often have advisory panels of constituents on a range of topics. In discussing his own panels, Congressman Joe Sestak (running for one of Pennsylvania’s US Senate seats), listed a range of constituency groups, including military, veterans, manufacturing, unions, and even on dedicated to autism. No mention, though, of science more broadly, either in its narrow academic context nor in the context of the millions of people who read Science Times, Science News, Scientific American, science blogs broadly, or who cheer with House and his colleagues as they apply the scientific method to solving medical mysteries, or Gil Grissom and his successors as they use science to solve crimes.
In recent years, NCSE has been working towards being less reactive, hiring a staffer to reach out to faith communities and another to reach out prospectively to teachers. The first is necessary to counter creationists’ ability to sow doubts about evolution in churches, and to turn that around by encouraging pro-evolution clergy to express their views in pulpits and in public hearings, and to bring scientists in to advance that cause as well. The education project works to help teachers improve and increase their evolution coverage, a critical component of improving the situation. Both positions are less than 5 years old, making it too early to measure the effects of those two hard-working staffers on public opinion polls at large. But it’s a big job, and two people alone can’t do the job, and all of NCSE’s staff is often consumed with the challenge of blocking creationist advances. Naturally, there are lots of things NCSE could do if it had a ton more money and staff, and anyone interested in helping on that front knows what to do.
The question of how pro-evolution forces should proceed is an important and interesting one. Blog debate about it’s shape and content is a crucial part of its future, and I hope this post helps that discussion proceed. I also hope it moves us away from misleading or inaccurate framings of the question.