Monday, October 24, 2005

Talking down, or keeping things real?

At The Panda's Thumb, guest contributor Joe Meert has post about the Geological Society of America meeting and specifically, about what was said there about Intelligent Design.

I'm always happy to see what the scientists are talking about when they get together, and since I don't have much personal contact with geologists these days, it was useful to see what's on the geologists' minds. Given the importance of geology as a source of evidence for past biological goings on, they have, as you might imagine, rather strong reactions to efforts to impose ID in science classrooms.

But, there is a piece of the meeting (as reported by Meert) that has been gnawing at me a little. It's the strategy suggested by Don Wise. Of Wise's talk, Meert says:

He also noted that we should take our cues from politics. We live in an age of sound bites and using words like “incompetent design” can be more effective than trying to explain in scientific detail why it’s bad science. Wise encourages geologists to take lessons from politics; (1) don’t be defensive (2) keep your points simple and easy to remember (3) use humor to make your points (4) aim your points at the voters.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Now, I don't want to quibble with the claim that a more political strategy might be more effective than the standard scientific approach of looking at evidential support, testability, logical consistency and the like. Given the endumbening effects of years of TV and standardized tests, punchy catchphrases and slandarous mambos may be the most effective way to turn public opinion.

But ... part of what's groovy about science is that it isn't a popularity contest. It's about grabbing onto empirical data, building theories that hold up despite repeated attemt to knock them over, and coming up with an account of the world and its many phenomena that reflects something about how the world really is rather than just how we want it to be.

Now, you can participate in this kind of serious scientific debate and still have a sense of humor. (And if you can't, PZ and Orac can. So can most of the science teachers I've had since the tenth grade.) But my fear is not that bringing the funny will undercut the devastating logic of the scientific arguments. Rather, my fear is that bringing the funny may come to replace the devastating logic of the scientific arguments.

And that would be a problem.

The reason to talk to a scientist, rather than a witty political pundit, a funny pastor, or a stand-up comic, is to get the word on what we know from science and, more importantly, how we know it. Without the scientific explanations, all we have is a bunch of folks trying to win you over with their sparkling rhetoric. With the scientific explanations, there is something like a rational basis to believe the rhetoric or decide it's full of crap. I know it's terribly old fashioned, but I like to make up my mind about things based on reason rather than punchy delivery (or, for that matter, political power). Part of what wins people over to science is that power, while not entirely absent, is greatly modulated by the fact that every scientist in the community is supposed to be accountable to the same world, and to the community of other scientists trying to figure out that world. Losing that reality-based character of the scientific enterprise would be a big mistake. Indeed, leaving the reality-based character of the scientific enterprise (not just the claim to have the backing of reality, but the demonstration of how the story has to fit with reality in specific ways or be abandoned) out of interactions with lay people would be a mistake, too. Otherwise, it really does devolve into a "we say, they say."

(For the record, I think some of the strategies Don Wise outlines in the abstract of his talk really involve engaging in scientific arguments rather than eschewing them for surface flash. But I don't want political considerations in these frustrating times to end up sucking all the goodness out of scientific interactions with non-scientists. So let's be careful out there!)

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At 7:24 AM, Blogger seadragon said...

Hear, Hear.
For a while there it seemed like scientists did not want to get in the debate because they thought it beneath them, and now we're "sinking" to that level? Surely there must be some kind of middle ground here.

I've found the whole process of talking about what science is and how science knows what it knows is pretty darn effective in explaining the scientific point of view with respect to ID. Many of my students are quite religious and have very strong ideas about what should be, but they seem to understand my somewhat rational argument that I wouldn't bust into their religion class demanding empirical evidence, so they should not demand the equivalent of faith in a science class. There are different ways of knowing things, and science is one. I think you express this very well.


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