Spraying Habits of Pop Science

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 — 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 — “This book discusses evolution, a controversial theory proposed by some scientists” — 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.

8 thoughts on “Spraying Habits of Pop Science”

  1. I’m a little unclear as to your larger point in the rant (but, then again, it’s late), but I can understand criticizing a one-dimensional strategy such as the “argument from economics.”

    Beyond the problem you’ve mentioned above, another trap of such arguments (“we need evolution to help the economy”) is that laypeople start to apply those arguments to all branches and fields of study, even though lots of really good, important science isn’t about putting a dollar in people’s pockets. When I tell people what I do, often the first question asked is, “What’s it good for?”

    I think the SSC fell victim to this, to some extent. I was a ‘fly on the wall’ at a meeting about saving the SSC before its demise, and remember the gloom in the room. It was very difficult to take the ‘high road’ and say that the SSC is simply good science, because the politicians had been preconditioned to ask, “What’s it gonna do for me?”

  2. I apologize for any lack of clarity; it was pretty late when I wrote this, too, and I was trying to refer to arguments which had transpired earlier without “naming names,” which in retrospect may have been a foolish thing to attempt.

    It’s late again, now, so this would probably be a bad time to try clarifying myself. Suffice to say I think you make a good point.

  3. Blake: You don’t have to apologize if you’re not speaking to someone who has never made a statement which wasn’t clear, which in my case isn’t the case.

    For proof of this, read the previous sentence… :P

  4. Hrm. Good post, and as an enthusiastic pacifist on topics like this all I can add is that it really is tactics: in some situations you want to talk about the benefits of science or say “this is the scientific consensus, so teach it in science class and spend the sticker money on pom-poms” without bringing up the merits; other times you need a full-on point-by-point argument bringing in the relevant evidence (think Dover).

    If the theme of the post were “politics: you’re doing it wrong” (and it ain’t) I wouldn’t be sympathetic: poll-tested, inoffensive soundbites don’t excite me either, but some folks, including your typical House candidate, can’t get away with spraying urine.

    That said, even those people who do have to avoid offending anybody can sometimes work in the deeper principles while doing so; believers in free-market economics have been particularly good at it, and it probably advanced their cause.

    In terms of constructive political strategy, two things strike me as kind of key to the dearth of actual facts in politics.

    One, this country has no civil service tradition as compared to, say, Britain: the only ways unbiased expert information pokes its head into the legislative process are through the GAO and CBO, and when experts are invited in, it’s some kind of sporting event; each side assembles a team, and it barely matters which side represents the expert consensus as long as it was a good show. White House rewriting its own scientists’ reports and all that.

    Fighting for the independence of science, as it were, is one worthy and long-term cause.

    Two, the media doesn’t seem to accept that controversial facts are still facts; they’re too reticent to call someone out as dead wrong. The effect, or maybe a cause, is that coverage focuses on who’s up or down in the race or what the parties’ last press release said instead of issues, and it’s much easier for candidates to lie, mislead, or just be wrong without any consequences.

    In other words, the media isn’t contributing to getting policy right, and that’s another thing to be fixed.

    I’m not really arguing with your post and there’s not one point this was all supposed to lead up to. I guess it comes down to (1) I agree we need a variety of tactics, and I’d note that that also means that some folks will be stuck being non-firebrands, (2) even the non-firebrands could try to talk about a principle bigger than the one battle they’re fighting, (3) two long-term political goals could be giving the technocracy their due role and independence, and getting the media to do its job.

    This ends this late-night ramble.

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