9/23/2007

VOX DEI-BATE #14: COMMUNICATION GAP


In my previous post, I waxed at length about why I felt that Vox's impression of how the scientific community actually operates missed the boat. A lot of his sympathetic readership felt my post missed the boat, and felt it was largely bloviated excuse-making. To those folk, I would say this: if you think the distinctions I raised in that post are irrelevant, I invite you to explain why you feel that way here. Of, if you don't understand why scientists might feel those distinctions matter, then you need to try harder, frankly. I'm just saying.

Now, on to the exchange. I don't see any purpose in belaboring Vox's admission that he misread the Lejeune example that we've been discussing. It is a mark of his intellectual integrity that he would acknowledge his momentary misstep, and that he would take steps to get up to speed. Many of my critics referenced in the above paragraph could learn from his example.

I also want to say that Vox is one-hundred percent dead-on right when he notes: ".... that if scientists wish to be understood by anyone but other scientists, they have simply got to stop saying the equivalent of "I predicted the results would be A, the results were X, so therefore my prediction was correct", ESPECIALLY when trying to explain things to those who can't possibly be expected to know the jargon."

Well, right on. Science, and particularly biology, has become more complex by orders of magnitude since the genetic code was determined. The requisite level of technical expertise now needed to parse even general review articles in the literature is often beyond the ability of non-specialists to absorb without serious research. The truth is, scientists increasingly struggle to communicate with each other, much less the general public.

It might interest Vox and his readership to know that real scientists are aware of the problem. Scientists like Ken Miller, whose presentation on this topic featured heavily in a previous post, has gone on the record with this blunt assessment:

Speaking on what specifically the scientific community could do to fight this, Miller said it must change its attitude, particularly paying attention to public issues such as that in Cobb County and helping to educate the general public. "Frankly, we suck at popularizing science," he said.

That, in a nutshell, is why I think it is important for science educators to engage the public in non-traditional fora such as this. That is why people like me should seek out well-spoken folk outside of the scientific community, including (gasp!) those with religious convictions, and engage them on the science. I'm going to continue to do that, because I think for those of you who are on the fence, there is much to be gained by considering the views of others.

In my next post, I'll discuss the question Vox raises as to the number of genomic predictions and the nature of those predictions, which in the main are eliminative. The failure of scientists to communicate the fact that much of science is eliminative in character can be shown in that only a very small percentage of high school science students can evaluate a hypothesis, so we will discuss that, as well.

4 comments:

peak_bagger said...

Ditto on the notion that scientists need to effectively engage the public. Randy Olsen and his recent documentary Flock of Dodos makes that abundantly clear. Unfortunately, many religious folks care little for science. It has very little authority in their lives (except in technology and medicine). When I demonstrate support for evolution to some of my religious friends and family, they furrow their brow and look at me askance. Scientific evidence, no matter how well founded will not penetrate through the religious filter they’ve erected. If the science is dissonant with their existing belief structure, it just doesn’t process, no matter how well I explain the concept or how much evidence I provide.

For scientists, people’s reluctance to be open to evidence is difficult to fathom. But we forget that we have been immersed in the scientific enterprise long enough to value science as a valid way of knowing. Many do not have that same comfort level with science. And then we have the odds stacked against us. It’s must easier to grasp woman made from a rib that to appreciate the nuances of human evolution, or the extant universe that “poofs” into existence than the subtleties of the Big Bang.

So scientists at large need to become more effective communicators to layman. And religious scientists need to find better ways to serve as role models to religious people in embracing their faith without any revocation of science.

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

peak_bagger:

Well, I'm one of those 'religious scientists', I suppose. I hope that you approve of my attempts here to engage my brethren who (as you say) do not 'have the same comfort level with science.'

I am open to suggestions on how I can improve, and I want to say in advance that I am making an effort to not grant evolutionary skeptics a free pass on anything because of their beliefs, whether I share them or not.

Richard said...

Mr. Hatfield said:

...I am making an effort to not grant evolutionary skeptics...

Almost an oxymoron.

"Evolutionary skepticism". I am intrigued by how someone who accepts some pretty wild concepts on faith alone draws the line and suddenly becomes skeptical. In for a penny, in for a pound I would think. Probably the wrong word choice, maybe "evolutionary contrarians"? Made me laugh though -- I love how the English language can imply so much with so little.

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

I probably should have said 'evolution deniers', but this leads to the curious fact that many of them will claim they accept evolution---they just don't accept the scientific community's version of evolution as sufficient to account for all of life's diversity, much less it's origins. It would be easy to pooh-pooh if everyone who felt that way was conveniently a proponent of Biblical inerrancy with little or no scientific credentials. Since there are exceptions to both of those criteria (Michael Denton comes to mind) I was searching for a word that conveys a range of positions.