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

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?”


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

4 Responses

  1. 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 :-)

  2. Alun says:

    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.

  1. August 2, 2009

    […] money out there for sci­ence than there is for other types of research, but another reason is that people love sci­ence.  Science offers the pro­spect of clear and decis­ive answers to com­plex, wor­ry­ing problems.  […]