WWCDD

by
A Venerable Orang-outang, a caricature of Charles Darwin as an ape published in The Hornet, a satirical magazine

"A Venerable Orang-outang", a caricature of Charles Darwin published in The Hornet, 1871

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, co-authors of “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future,” wrote an op-ed piece for the Guardian yesterday rehashing their views on the tumultuous relationship between science and religion. Their points have all been made before… and have all been criticized before, e.g. But in this piece, they wrapped up their discussion of how the rift between science and religion might be assessed and resolved by asking the question: What would Charles Darwin do (WWCDD)?

Despite the resultant bitterness, however, there is at least one figure both sides respect – the man who started it all: Charles Darwin. What would he have done in this situation?

It turns out that late in life, when an atheist author asked permission to dedicate a book to Darwin, the great scientist wrote back his apologies and declined. For as Darwin put it: “Though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follows from the advance of science.”

So Mooney and Kirshenbaum sum up their argument with a statement made by a man speaking about the public that lived almost a century and a half ago. Do they really believe that our society, with respect to both science and religion, has changed so little in all that time? I don’t really think that was their intent; during the 1800’s public education was still an experiment in most countries, and Darwin’s critics were other educated men, be they scientists or theologians, not the voting public, as is the case today. Both religious society, a-religious society, and the demography of the educated public have all changed dramatically over the years. And therefore the nature of the rift between those who are science educated, and those who are not, is also considerably changed.

I’ll not insult the intelligence of Mooney and Kirshenbaum by implying that they suggested we treat our modern society as if it has not changed a whit since Darwin’s time. However, one of the main points of the author’s thesis, and the one for which they have received considerable criticism, is that they place much of the blame for America’s scientific illiteracy on the shoulders of American scientists. Sheril Kirshenbaum recently spoke at length on this issue on NPR’s Science Friday. Specifically, Mooney and Kirshenbaum argue that scientists do not know how to talk to non-scientists, and that this failure of communication is at the root of America’s lack of interest and understanding about science. I have been masticating on this idea for many weeks now and have come to some sort of personal conclusion.

Perhaps the best point of the WWCDD quote is that the rift that currently exists between academic science and the public was not created in modern times, since it was very present in Darwin’s time. However, I do not feel that scientists should be vilified for not having figured out how to mend this rift, which is still gaping 150 years later. On the other hand, I agree that scientists are not the best at communicating with the public about the leading edge of scientific research… but why should they be? Public outreach is really not in the job description for academic scientists. Teaching, yes! Publishing, absolutely! Obtaining grants, without a doubt! But translating your research to a wider audience… not so much. Look at it this way, like scientists, lawyers go through a heroic amount of schooling to emerge in a competitive field in which they have to carve out their careers. They are undoubtedly experts in understanding American law, and lawyers usually specialize in and have a deeper understanding of a particular legal field, like criminal law, or tax law. Well, the public has a hard time understanding the intricacies of our judicial system, such as a general understanding of the legal system or how the Supreme Court operates. Most of what I know about the judicial system I learned from School House Rock! But we do not seem to expect that it is the job of lawyers to educate the public. I am sure that Mooney and Kirshenbaum would agree that understanding our judicial system, like understanding science, is critical for building a citizenry that is able to make informed decisions in the voting booth.

So, I disagree that scientists are at fault for the present state of scientific illiteracy in our nation. However, I agree that they are the best people to solve these issues.  I think public outreach SHOULD be part of an academic’s job description, and subsequently they should be provided with more opportunities to communicate and some compensation for their efforts. And without a doubt, there needs to be formal training available to scientists who want to communicate with the media or with the public. Often a lack of social skills is touted as justification for scientists’ reluctance to speak in non-professional settings, but that is bunk. Academics communicate with students, both majors and non-majors, administration, and colleagues, all on different levels of topic specificity because they are trained to do so. Don’t underestimate an academic’s ability to learn, even if they are lacking in some social skills.

So WWCDD?

I think he would continue to strive to make himself a better scientist, to increase his understanding of the natural world, and to keep the lines of communication open to all who want to engage on topics of his expertise. It is a good gig if you can get it.

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One Response to “WWCDD”

  1. Page Says:

    Here is a great analysis of “Unscientific America” that posted today, and an alternative suggestion for what has perpetuated the rift: http://scienceblogs.com/primatediaries/2009/08/rebranding_science.php

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