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Science is interesting. If you don’t like it, it’s your problem not mine.

July 18, 2009
I’ll admit not everyone is interested in the world around them.

Here’s a site I like, The Hall of Ma’at. I don’t read it as much as I’d like because my reading tends to be RSS based. Still, it means that when I do remember to visit their forum there’s plenty of interesting stuff. I’ve just learned about The Chocolate Hills. As well as being fascinating geology, that thread also includes a bit of mockery. It’s an interesting place. They’ll have visitors who have found the exact aliens which built the pyramids every so often, and they’ll listen. On the other hand I don’t see them compromising on the need for evidence. If you’re wrong or making stuff up, you will know about it.

The founder, Kat Reese, is an interesting person. She contributed a chapter to the book Archaeological Fantasies. Not all of Memoirs of a True Believer is visible at Google Books, but certainly there’s enough. She puts herself under the microscope and tells of her movement from alternative historical beliefs to more mainstream archaeology. One of the key differences she sees between popular alternative archaeology authors and the academics is that the alternative authors see this as a political debate. It’s not about the science.

Claims about the past are about people, so they’re often political. However, so to are claims in other pseudosciences. You get pronouncements on health policy from the many and varied quacks shun evidence as a means for determining medical care. I’ve recently seen people complaining about the LCROSS impact on the Moon who care deeply and passionately, though not quite to the extent that they visited NASA’s site on the LCROSS to find out what the mission is about. NASA’s research on the effects of the LCROSS impact is a problem if you don’t know anything about lunar geology but you want to argue against them. You could learn, but that’s time consuming. It’s much easier to argue that NASA simply don’t know anything about the Moon. This is about standing up to authority which, along the way, means taking down Science.

Now, here’s the head-spinning bit.

When Deepak Chopra makes his appeals to send him more money he doesn’t do it because of mystic ookiness. He does it based on appeals to quantum physics. I’m using the word ‘based’ in a completely incorrect sense there. Chiropractors get stroppy about being next to other New Age practitioners. Homeopaths don’t refer to themselves as magicians. They give each other degrees and not just any degrees but BScs. Oh yes, the days when scientist could visit the lavatories in the Arts block and smugly write “Arts degrees, please take one,” next to the toilet paper dispenser are over. If there’s so much opposition to scientific reasoning, why do cranks make their claims in pseudo-scientific language?

Even Ken Ham, the man who pushes the line that the Bible is inerrant, promotes his science credentials on Answers in Genesis. He’s got a Bachelor’s degree from QIT. Why on earth would you need a science degree if you say the answers can all be found through Biblical study? The answer is important for science communication.

People love science.

It’s recognised as one of the best methods for learning about the world around you. A lot of people find the world around them quite interesting. Added to that is testing of ideas and ability to weed out bad ideas that makes science attractive. When nutritionists are pushing their pill supplements they’re not interested in ‘another way of knowing’. They’re eager to equate themselves with science because that makes their work fact. When people want to belittle evolution, they don’t refer to evolution’s science base. Instead evolution is a religion or a faith position. It suggests to me that political groups are aware gods cannot compete with science as explanations for a lot of the public. If faith was as important as it’s cracked up to be then calling evolution a religion wouldn’t be a put-down. Similarly global warming deniers don’t say that science cannot be used to examine climate change. Instead they say various arguments are aren’t scientific. Very few people dismiss an argument by calling it scientific because even, if you don’t like it, science has a reputation for working out what is true.

That’s why I think explicitly tagging politics onto science could detract in some way from the scientific message. In Kat Reese’s chapter she’s open that what worked for her was the emphasis on verifiable facts, and the difference in method between the scientific and the pseudo-scientific archaeologists. It’s a great selling point. If that’s the case peddling religion as contributing to or being a partner in scientific findings is not only dishonest, but also confusing the public about what science is. Religion can certainly be an inspiration, but so can the works of Shakespeare and no-one argues that Shakespeare is an essential partner in questions about the universe.

That doesn’t make advocacy wrong. Janet Stemwedel put it much better than me in saying scientists (and academics as a whole) are not all after the same thing.. That might include lobbying for a more ecologically responsible position or against religion infringing human rights. But these are political aims. Mooney and Kirshenbaum are appealing for people who have different political view to them to talk about something else. The fact they don’t see why this might be a problem shows a worrying lack of awareness of society. Personally I’m not interested in whether you believe in a god or not. I definitely don’t feel any responsibility to (de-?)convert people. I already have enough responsibilities. My interest starts when someone claims their beliefs limit what I can do without any justification other than a vague feeling. That is also politics rather than science.

So what can you do for science communication? I think It can be helped by people sharing tactics, but the requires accepting the diversity of scientists or public. It could be helpful to share what works and what doesn’t in different contexts. On the other hand if you insist your political beliefs are in fact a comment on science, you’ll end up with a self-destructive row which does no-one any good.

That’s my attempt to start moving to something positive. I don’t think someone’s a failure just because they don’t appeal to everyone. If the long tail means anything we should be sharing and celebrating all the small successes as well as the a-list. Except me, if I am a success, because whenever I get a traffic spike I always think, “Bloody hell, what have I gone and said now?”

  1. July 19, 2009 12:54 am

    Is this relevant to the “diversity of public” point?

    A very good post (yours).

    • July 19, 2009 10:25 am

      I think so. Your post shows that it’s easy to be unaware of the political undercurrents. If what we see as an Islamic fundamentalist revolution is flexible and its participants are re-shaping what it means, then changing your message to accommodate their current beliefs is also making a contribution to a political debate. Does that rule out accommodating religious beliefs simply a means of reaching out? Sometimes not, but other times you’d be participating in an internal debate and favouring one side instead of another without realising it.

      At the same time academics are entitled to political opinions like anyone else. So if Mooney and Kirshenbaum do favour a more conservative rather than liberal Catholicism, then their criticism of PZ Myers is understandable as a contribution to the conservative side of that argument.

  2. July 19, 2009 11:41 am

    I know what you mean about traffic spikes, there, but I decided a while ago that they were basically unrelated to anything I’d actually written and much more down to image searches or people after porn. You must have a more engaged readership than I do:-)

  3. July 26, 2009 7:15 am

    Yeah, everything will become interesting if we like them, Thanks a lot.


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