OK, my fellow specimens, it’s time for a rant. This subject came up at lunch today, and I noticed it again at Terra Sigillata; the second occurrence managed to ruin the good mood I’d achieved by reading Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish (2008), which is a great book that everybody should buy.
The subject of this rant is the role economics plays in debates on science education, and more broadly, on a meta-level of rantery, the way people are deciding the roles which different tactics should have in science education. To illustrate the problem, let’s have a story. You’re a scientist, I’m a concerned parent, and we’re at a PTA meeting. You say, “We have to teach evolution in our schools, because evolution is the central concept in biology, and the biotech sector is a big part of our economy.” You’ve got my attention â€” that’s step zero! Job well done. Isn’t the appeal to the pocketbook — and the “think of the children” ploy — an effective tactic?
But then I say, in all innocence, “There’s a big controversy among scientists about how well-established this ‘theory’ of evolution is. Shouldn’t we teach all the evidence and present all the points of view? I mean, our children won’t be prepared for the biotech industry if they don’t really understand the science!”
Mumbles and mutters are exchanged among the audience members, who unfortunately do not have access to the TalkOrigins Index to Creationist Claims.
Presto, the school board votes to slap stickers in all the biology books â€” “This book discusses evolution, a controversial theory proposed by some scientists” â€” and the money which could have gone to buy new books gets earmarked instead for the Cheerleader Uniforms account. Hey, at least our daughters will look good when they’re strutting their stuff at the Friday pep rally. . . .
This is what you get when, like an unimaginative general, you plan for the previous war.
Should we then abandon the whole “biotech ploy” and open every PTA meeting with talk of homologous structures and endogenous retroviruses? No, of course not — but we have to remember to keep all our arrows in our quiver. Emotions are only the prelude to understanding, and emotions will sway when understanding would be firm.
The meta-problem which is getting under my skin is how the discussion about these tactical issues is unfolding. You just know somebody is going to paint me as a dour, dry-as-dust science boffin with no feel for the American pulse because I voice the opinion that the “biotech ploy” has at best limited effectiveness. Likewise, I get the vibe that somebody is going to brand Neil Shubin as an “enemy of the cause” for describing, on p. 32 of Your Inner Fish, how features of Nature which Richard Owen saw as “the plan of the Creator” were shortly thereafter explained in materialistic terms. Ghasp! The attack hasn’t come yet, to my knowledge, but my Spider Jerusalem senses are tingling. Look out America, it’s Darwin’s Chihuahua and his terrible New Skeptic Noise Machine! Oh, please, won’t someone think of the swing voters?
By definition, if you make science a part of the “national conversation,” you’re going to find people talking about science. This means they’ll be making decisions and arriving at conclusions, not all of which will be the conclusions endorsed by the people who tried to kick-start the conversation. We’re trying to sell the importance of science education, but a science education is worth naught if it imparts only facts and no methods, and what sort of tiger will we have by the tail when people actually learn? As Uncle Carl once wrote, in The Demon-Haunted World (1996),
The business of skepticism is to be dangerous. Skepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of skeptical thought, they will probably not restrict their skepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 35,000-year-old channelees. Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Perhaps they’ll challenge the opinions of those in power. Then where would we be?
This is not the time for building a new in-group mentality. We need to co-opt the Enlightenment principles of democracy and build institutions which can handle debate among people who are not all ideological clones, but instead, we’re spraying a line of urine across the Network. You are In, because you’re willing to endorse these techniques while not upsetting that part of the status quo; they are Out, because they speak their mind and make people uncomfortable.
If you’re trying very hard to “herd cats,” you might not stop to think that the herd may not be the best model of organization. Even those poor folks who are, in Abel Pharmboy’s words, “resigned to the fact that nothing can be done to elevate public understanding of science” can serve a purpose, if you build your community right. A biologist who despairs of getting the rabble to appreciate biology can still follow the literature and interpret the controversies of the day for other scientists and communicators, people who might not have given up on the proletariat just yet. We have to recognize this, because we have to be building that community — because we’re in this for the long haul.
When Neil Shubin appeared on The Colbert Report, Colbert steered the interview in a direction not covered by Shubin’s book.
COLBERT: If I used to be a fish, and then I was a monkey, and now I’m a man, then what’ll be next?
SHUBIN: That’s a good question, ’cause we humans are actually now controlling our own evolution. So, if you’re worried about steroids in baseball now, come back in twenty-five years, because our technologies are fundamentally going to change our bodies. It’s gonna change how we work; medications are going to change how our bodies actually function and so forth. So really I think if you come back, we’re going to be sort of a product of technology and biology.
COLBERT: So you’re saying we’re wresting the steering wheel away from Darwin?
SHUBIN: I’m afraid with our ability to generate new technologies, essentially we are.
COLBERT: Can we turn ourselves back into fish? ‘Cause I’d love to be a shark.
What a world we live in, when the prototype for our posthuman future is bubbling in a test tube, and millions of people still proclaim the literal truth of Genesis. To navigate the policy nightmares of tomorrow, we will need the understanding of science, not a tepid approval of its buzzwords. However the conversation begins, that understanding, that grasp of method as well as fact must be its goal. Children who entered kindergarten this fall will be voting in 2020; what foresight do we have of the world they will be facing?
UPDATE (1 April): The old link to the Colbert/Shubin video seems broken. Here’s a new one.