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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • prase

    Well said. As long as scientists have certain amout of respect and prestige, they have to use it.

  • gistgrant

    Off topic. Congrats on making it to the last 7 on 3QD!

  • http://liberalchemistry.blogspot.com/ Liberal Arts Chemist

    You do realize that it is much worse than what you have described? When a questioning worldview contacts a non-questioning worldview the questioning worldview will always lose initially. This was dramatically shown in Friends when Ross tries to convince Phoebe of the validity of evolution. She sends him packing by exploiting not his evidence but by reminding him that a) “truth” in Science is local and temporal and b) that the “truths” revealed by Science have had negative impacts.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pr4UkL-TcHk

    Unfortunately this is exactly where the debate is happening. The same crowd that gets its news from The Daily Show will see this as Pheobe “winning”. All you can do is keep the candles lit and assume that, just like Copernicus and Galileo, history will prove you right or wrong. Your problem is that you demand for this to happen in less than 400 years.

    “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.” Bertrand Russell

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Nicely written. The argument from authority is only fallacious when the persons cited are not truly experts (e.g. an actor promoting a medical product) or when there is no genuine expertise to be had (e.g. astrology or theology).

  • gistgrant

    Off topic. Congrats on making it to the final 7 at 3QD!

  • Entomologista

    I would argue that ordinary people don’t respect scientists. Biologists get it from both sides. The conservatives think biologists sit around all day making up lies to publish in our journals for lying liars. The other side of this is liberals who are so open-minded all their brains fell out, and they can’t tell the difference between a doctor and a homeopath and think “chemical” is a four-letter word.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I would argue that ordinary people don’t respect scientists.

    Debatable. Most people recognize at least the fruits of science, e.g. the technology which has greatly improved our lifespan. And if Creationists didn’t respect science, why would they pretend that their fairy tales were actual science?

  • AC

    PZ Myers makes a similar point about what he refers to as intellectual capital here (and in video).

    Ebonmuse is correct here – The more organised creationists aim at bypassing science entirely and taking their nonsense into the classroom (or society at large).

    @#4 & #5 – I’m sure I’ve come across surveys that would provide some small measure of evidence here. Unfortunately I can’t find any (I don’t think I’m using the right search terms). If I remember correctly, they suggested that most people trusted scientists, but that trust was in a slight decline.

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    How about this for a billboard?

    “8,234,004 (for example) scientists accept evolution.

    154 (for example) do not.

    There is no controversy.”

  • Sarah

    I’m always amazed by the myopia of the religious right. They never seem to realize the consequences of weakening the wall of separation between church and state. And, in particular, the existential threat their own actions pose to themselves. Ok, fine. If a public school teacher is forced to present intelligent design as an alternative theory of the development of life, then this same school teacher will have to present unintelligent design as an equally viable theory, for which, in my humble opinion, there is far more evidence (99% of species on this planet are now extinct, all of our vestigial bits and pieces and biological shortcomings, etc., etc.). I proffer an unintelligent design theory of life in which we were created by an extremely mean spirited and capricious and selfish and less than omniscient god. Or, we could get the Muslims to insist upon the whole clot of blood origin theory. Absolutely inane. Sometimes this seems the only way to get through to them — to show them where this path will lead.

  • Tom

    I wonder if there isn’t a specific set of circumstances under which argument from authority would, while still not entirely logically sound, would be statistically reliable enough to serve as a substitute for rigorous scientific investigation.

    The trouble with the scientific method is that it’s slow, and labour intensive, probably moreso than any other truth-determining mechanism yet invented (especially more than fundamentalist religion, whose chief attraction for a great many people seems to be its ability to generate simple, all-encompassing answers from minimal to non-existent mental or physical exertion, that can be comprehended, usually, with a similar lack of any effort) – and the amount of scientific knowledge generated by humanity has long since exceeded the point where one person could fully satisfy himself, by rigorously scientific means, i.e. taking absolutely nothing on authority and performing repeatable tests on all of it. And, sadly, for all we may loudly declare “of course it’s valid, it works!”, we’ve not actually performed the necessary repeatable tests to prove that it works (and neither will our audience have the time, resources or often even the inclination to do so), we’ve simply been informed that it works by various other media, which is, strictly speaking, mere argument from authority. The reason, I think, that this doesn’t put those of us who have faith in the scientific method at the same level as the religious fundamentalists is what I think is classed as a proof by induction: we can, in short, apply the scientific method to itself. The scientific method can be repeatably demonstrated to work (ironically, the constant generation of new scientific data that makes total individual verification and proof impossible is, at the same time, a continuous supply of experimental data supporting the validity of the scientific method itself); even factoring in those times it apparently fails due to human error or whatever, statistically it still overwhelmingly does come up with useful, right answers, under the right experimental conditions (proper scientific training of sufficient of its practitioners, intellectual honesty of peer reviewers, etc), which can in turn be scientifically tested and shown to exist in the population of scientists, thus providing the necessary conditions for science to work properly and be relied upon.

    The religious method of answering the world’s questions can also be applied to itself, of course, and very frequently is (“The bible is true and god, its author, exists because he says so in it,” etc) – while one could make the case that both this and the scientific method are circular logic when applied to themselves in this manner, the difference, it seems to me, is that the religious method of bald assertions of truth leaves some or all stages of the circle of support entirely disconnected from observable reality (and thus free to drift away from it), whereas recursively using the scientific method to support itself keeps you tethered at every stage to the reference frame of the observable universe by the repeatable observations the method needs in order to work.

  • bbk

    “The same crowd that gets its news from The Daily Show will see this as Pheobe “winning”.”

    As opposed to what other crowd? Bill O’Reilly’s? Does the Daily Show crowd even watch Friends? I watch the Daily Show and I’ve never seen an episode of Friends in its entirety. I liked Seinfeld better. Isn’t John Stewart an atheist? Doesn’t he defend evolution? Sorry, I just don’t understand this undercurrent of attacking people who watch TDS.

    The Friends clip does show how these arguments usually play out. Pheobe claims that she is open minded but that Ross is an arrogant and pushy closed minded scientist. Then she slams Ross for being open minded when he admits that science can change over time. Pheobe’s approach doesn’t even touch on the scientific evidence in the briefcase, it’s just Pheobe making contradictory personal accusations against Ross and otherwise being impossible for Ross to talk to. Pheobe is the arrogant, closed minded fool while Ross is the well intentioned man who wants to share knowledge with her to the extent of bringing 200 million year old fossils for her to personally examine. Which she refuses to do so. She won, alright, the same way that blowhards like Bill O’Reilly “win” and most theists “win” in arguments. They get the other side to get fed up with them.

    Good clip, I liked it.

  • http://www.brucealderman.info/blog/ BruceA

    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

    Indeed. It might even be helpful to point out that leading ID proponents accept evolution up to a point, even acknowledging that speciation occurs (see here, for example). Their dispute, if taken at face value, is merely that natural selection can’t explain everything. So their real argument is not whether evolution occurs; it’s to what extent.

    I have used this same tactic in a different discipline to convince a climate change denier that anthropogenic global warming is real. Among climatologists, even the skeptics acknowledge that the earth is getting warmer and that humans are contributing to it.

    It might be beneficial to cull quotes from the Discovery Institute and friends to show to what extent they don’t even dispute evolution anymore.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    It might even be helpful to point out that leading ID proponents accept evolution up to a point, even acknowledging that speciation occurs (see here, for example)… It might be beneficial to cull quotes from the Discovery Institute and friends to show to what extent they don’t even dispute evolution anymore.

    Your mileage will vary. One interesting property of Intelligent Design is that it is a “big tent.” They don’t even like to talk about such things as the age of the earth. This is more evidence that ID is a political posture to circumvent existing court precedents on the teaching of Creationism, and not a true scientific position. A few of the ID leaders (Behe, Minnich) will acknowledge that evolution happened, but God steps in from time to time to poof some magic like a flagellum or an immune system. Others (Paul Nelson, Dean Kenyon, William Dembski) are good old-fashioned Creationists who deny common descent, particularly between humans and other apes.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    One interesting property of Intelligent Design is that it is a “big tent.” They don’t even like to talk about such things as the age of the earth.

    I like PZ’s take:

    During the course of the hearings, the lawyer on the side of science, Pedro Irigonegaray, asked several of the witnesses for Intelligent Design creationism what they thought the age of the earth was…. The Intelligent Design creationists found it difficult. Some answers were ludicrous, such as Daniel Ely’s and John Sanford’s assertion that the earth was between 10 and 100 thousand years old. Others were evasive: Stephen Meyer and Angus Menuge refused to answer. Some of these “qualified witnesses” were embarrassingly ignorant: William Harris could only say, “I don’t know. I think it’s probably really old.”. All of this is in line with the intellectually flaccid position of the godfather of the Intelligent Design movement, Phillip Johnson, who has bravely announced that “I have consistently said that I take no position on the age of the earth”.

    Reginald has a very good point: the IDers’ fumbling refusal to take a stance on the age of the earth is a strong sign that their movement is political and not scientific in nature. It makes perfect sense for a political movement trying not to lose the support of creationists of all varieties – but what genuinely scientific movement flat-out refuses to confront such an obvious and important question?

  • Andrew

    Isn’t John Stewart an atheist?

    Hes Jewish. They make a lot of jokes about that on the Daily Show.

    Doesn’t he defend evolution?

    You know I dont remember him ever defending OR attacking evolution.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Jon Stewart is ethnically Jewish. I don’t know if he’s an atheist or not, although I’ve heard/seen rumors that he is.

  • Andrew

    My impression from watching the Daily Show is that he at least observes major Jewish Holidays. I honestly dont know for sure though.

  • AnonaMiss

    He’s Jewish culturally, but he’s referred to himself as secular before, and IIRC as a secular Jew before. So whether he’s just very very Reform or only culturally Jewish, who knows.

    That said, The Daily Show is probably the best skeptical TV news there is right now. It thrives on pointing out inconsistencies and logical fallacies in what public figures say and do, and (metaphorical) heaven help the fool who tries to retort with ad hominem, as they always do. When Stewart criticized CNBC for its poor economic coverage and they (especially Jim Kramer) tried to fight back, Jon reduced the man to tears – by contradicting his claims and backing it up with archived footage. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we need more of in the news.

  • Leum

    It gets extra tricky with Stewart because on the Reform-Reconstructivist end of the spectrum they don’t care too much about actual belief in God (this is arguably true even in more conservative strains. The relevant line from Jeremiah is something like, “Had they remembered the laws I would have spared the city (Jerusalem), even if they had forgotten Me.”).


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