Science Needs Good PR

My recent post on Project Steve brought several comments arguing that it’s pointless to take a survey of scientists, like this one from Freidenker:

Frankly, I have no idea whatsoever how many scientists accept or reject evolution, and furthermore – it doesn’t matter: even if all scientists all over the world rejected evolution, the evidence for evolution is still there.

…to really survey the scientific community for evolution support is truly a stupid thing to do: popularity has no bearing on scientific validity.

Reasonable as this sounds, I believe it’s misguided, and in this post I’ll try to explain why.

If we were waging a debate in the peer-reviewed literature, trying to convince other scientists to accept evolution, then citing the evidence would be the thing to do. But this isn’t a scientific debate; as we should all well know, creationists are not scientists, and have no interest in evidence. They’re advancing a religious belief which they hold regardless of what the facts say. Moreover, their objective is not to freely convince scientists, but to bypass the process of peer review altogether, and to directly force their beliefs to be taught in schools by lobbying school boards and legislatures.

In short, creationism is not a scientific movement, but a public-relations movement. Their goal is not to change scientists’ minds – for how could they possibly convince the experts? – but to influence the public’s perception. And to be victorious, we have to fight them on the same ground.

If we try to make the case for evolution solely by citing the evidence, we’re playing into the creationists’ hands. They can easily respond by saying, “That’s very interesting, but we have lots of evidence of our own. The [cell/bacterial flagella/bombardier beetle/blood clotting cascade/take your pick] is so complex it couldn’t possibly have evolved on its own! There must have been a Designer. Teach the controversy!”

Against laypeople and the uninformed – and, unfortunately, school boards and legislatures include generous quantities of each – this is an effective line of attack. A person who lacks the expertise to evaluate the scientific evidence, and to see that the creationist case is hogwash, will come away with nothing but the impression that both sides have good evidence of their own, so why not be fair and teach them both? It’s this superficial sense of fairness that the creationists count on.

To defeat this tactic, it’s not enough to cite evidence that the creationists can counter with “evidence” of their own. What we need is to go further and show that there is no genuine controversy, that real, practicing scientists are all but unanimous in their support of evolution, and more, that creationists have avoided laying their case before the people best qualified to evaluate it.

That’s why efforts like Project Steve, lighthearted as they are, make an important point. Ordinary people may not know much about the scientific method, but they respect the authority of scientists. Laypeople may be ill-prepared to decide the merits of dueling arguments, but when they see that all the scientists line up on one side, that is something they can understand. This is why creationists fight so hard to give the impression that plenty of real scientists support creationism – and we must not concede that point to them! It’s vital to show that their list of “scientists who doubt Darwinism” is, in reality, just a minuscule and carefully cultivated minority of dissenters, one that’s swamped by the overwhelming tide of working scientists who not only accept evolution but rely on it in their work every day.

Yes, we should present the evidence for evolution – strongly and comprehensively. We should always be ready to show the public the many wonderful transitional fossils we’ve found. We should always be ready with evidence of new mutations that increase genetic information, new and incipient species in the process of formation, and maps of gene trees that illustrate the nested hierarchy of descent. But to supplement all this evidence, we must also be prepared to prove that these arguments actually have convinced scientists, and that the creationists’ arguments have not. Only this two-pronged strategy can effectively undermine the creationist case and win acceptance of evolution in the eyes of the public.

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