Challenge, don’t worship, the chiefs and high priestesses of science
This is a piece from the Guardian published last week, and I was intrigued: I perk up a bit whenever I see a mention of high priests or priestesses, or any intimation of science as a religion. Such a straw man is often a beacon that crackpottery is nearby.
Science today, and the way we share it with the rest of the world, is based on layers upon layers of deference. We spend our lives crawling up to senior scientists, and those who pay them, sitting and waiting to be told what to think. We shouldn’t be so complacent.
I agree with the conclusion, though not for the same reason the author does. Yes, by all means do not be complacent when it comes to scientific result — go out and get some science education, if you don’t have it. Because that’s the only weapon you have against having to trust someone else to interpret some scientific finding. I would absolutely love it if people could think for themselves about this. The problem that we have today is that people don’t go down that path. They simply choose to trust someone else (often someone with a political agenda) to do the interpretation. Science is not challenged, and the problem of people not thinking for themselves hasn’t gone away.
The problem is that science literacy isn’t going to completely solve the issue. You aren’t going to become an expert on a subject. What literacy allows is a chance to filter the bogus claims and spot the con artists in the discussion. It will help you identify whom to trust.
The author then goes on to tie this in with the deficit model, and I think that’s a reach. The deficit model isn’t correct. It’s been found that in issues like climate change and evolution, the problem in convincing more people is not that the proper information isn’t being conveyed. But that’s only part of the audience — the ones who have already substituted some ideology that drives their acceptance of facts. The deficit model isn’t completely wrong, because if it was, nobody would ever learn anything. Schools would be useless, and we know they are not. People do learn science in schools. It’s just not in play once people have some kind of emotional attachment to an answer.
But deference is certainly not the issue for peopler who are claiming that global warming is a hoax or that evolution is obviously wrong. Some of the arguments put forth to buttress those claims boil down to a premise that scientists are idiots, which is pretty far from being deferential.
I also worry that the author is selling us short on having people “challenge” rather than “unquestionably listen”. I don’t think anyone is proposing the latter or denying the former. However, a challenge has to have some validity to it. It can’t simply be a roadblock from a crowd who, despite not knowing much about the science, somehow know that it’s wrong.
Then we get to this:
When I was looking into the Big Bang Fair last term, I learned that volunteers were briefed not to get pulled into debating “politics” of arms dealing or the fossil fuel industry, lest it distracted from the science. I’ve since heard similar briefings have been issued for science events running over the summer. It’s also a line I heard all too often when I worked at Imperial College.
It’s bullshit. Simple bullshit. Politics doesn’t distract from the science. An over-emphasis on decontextualised science is used to distract from the politics.
There’s some bullshit there, that’s for sure. Science has an impact on politics, to be sure, and science will always involve people, which has ramifications, but the way nature behaves — which is what science investigates — is not political. If it’s true, it’s going to be true whether you are a conservative or a liberal. There is no Republican version of the laws of thermodynamics*, or a variant of relativity that only works for Democrats.
One might question the naiveté of a statement such as that, when we’ve just heard from politicians in both the US and Canadian governments about how they want to interject themselves further into the process. That, on top of the usual background noise of politicians grousing about teaching evolution, or that global warming is a hoax, and threats and attacks on scientists doing that kind of research. Politics doesn’t distract from the science? Really?
* No legitimate version. I’m aware of Conservapedia.