In which I (partially) agree with Paul Nelson

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It feels good to see the IDist crackpots beaten back a little bit in their bid to control the Kansas school board, and I think it is necessary to keep up the pressure and prevent them from getting a better grip on public school education. However, Paul Nelson actually has a point with his little parable. It's not the point he thinks he's making, but it's important to keep in mind anyway, and I'm going to dash some cold water on any sense of triumphalism on the pro-science side.

Continue reading "In which I (partially) agree with Paul Nelson" (on Pharyngula)

15 Comments

Shall I say it? There is too much elitism and concern about the people who “really matter” on our side, and not enough desire to enfranchise people with scientific knowledge and Sagan-esque pop science. And yes, PZ-esque attacks on religion rarely do anything but antagonize those who ought to be cajoled into a more scientific attitude (not that PZ is doing much except preaching to a clique anyhow, but let us hope that his tactics are not used more generally at any time).

That said, the 15-year old girl interested in science is browsing the web in order to learn it? Just shows how Nelson thinks about “science”. Put some ID blather out there, and hope to snooker the naive into believing that musings on supposed “design” are actual science. And of course there is plenty of good science on the web, but it becomes accessible primarily through instructions on science in the classroom. In other words, critical analysis is not just criticism of working science.

Despite my own criticisms, PZ does well to point to the need for a much broader attack upon pseudo-science than attempting to win through the courts. To some extent this is being done with blogs like this one, and more importantly, with books by big-name scientists in favor of actual science. Still, pro-evolutionary anti-ID television productions would do all the more good, and perhaps would be possible if the right people would push for them. Even sorts of “debates” could be useful as long as the rules are properly made and enforced. For instance, Dembski would be forced to provide scientifically-acceptable evidence when pressed for it (or he would be cut off and lose the debate), instead of the usual run-around that we get from him.

I doubt, however, that all is lost if the creationists win a single victory, as PZ suggests. Appeals and reversals remain possibilities, even if some judge wishes to go down in history as one of the most stupid members of the legal profession known, depending on the level at which stupidity is enshrined by a court.

Regardless of that, much remains to be done, since the real goal is a pro-science, reasonably educated populace, not a string of court victories. We could end up with a two-tiered population, mirroring the economic stratification that continues and increases today (are the two really separate?), with the “rabble” believing in pseudoscientific myths and remedies, and an educated populace generally looking down their noses at their superstitions. But that would be society’s and democracy’s loss, and probably science’s eventual demise as well.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

If we’re going to think along these lines I think the most important thing to do is concentrate on real improvements in quality science education. Parents should have the right to teach their children lies if they so desire. But we also need to make sure that when those children set foot inside a public school they are given access to the truth– and put in an environment where they’re likely to care what the truth is.

If we avoid the situation where children are not taught real science because a Creationist school board prevented it, but we just wind up instead in a situation where children are not taught real science because the school lacks sufficient funding, the curriculum is poorly managed and skimpy, and the teachers can’t penetrate the students’ attention span… well, that’s a win for the separation of church and state, but it isn’t really a win for science.

I’m not sure more Saganesque pop science is the solution (having a few more Bill Nyes out there would help, but I don’t think we need any more Dawkinses). My question is this: Is the root cause of poor popular science literacy that there isn’t pop science available? Or that there’s pop science available, but nobody cares?

I guess I think that, although pop science is quite available with not a lot of attention paid to it, something like an ID/evolution battle might capture people’s attention. Sagan managed to reveal the superiority of science to religion, at least for all tangible aims and goals, without directly attacking religion, which I suspect added to the popularity of his pop science ventures.

Mostly I was just throwing it out there, though. It’s one thing to point out that we have much to do, as PZ did, it’s another to come up with good ideas to combat the various forms of anti-science. PZ’s approach certainly has little to recommend it, outside of his little blogging niche.

I suppose one reason I threw it out there is that there really are few enough treatments of evolution that present evolution according to its converging lines of evidence, along with a good picture of how evolution makes biology comprehensive and connected. It’s not easy to do, but I think that it could be done for at least the brighter segments of the public. It really can be frustrating to find a comprehensive yet comprehensible treatment of evolution for the naive inquirers who are honestly seeking. I don’t know how much an attempt like the one I mentioned would really do, though.

I did want to add that Dawkins gets it, more than I’ve really seen from PZ. Here’s Nature’s paraphrase and quote of part of Dawkins’ response to Francis Collin’s book on faith and science:

Dawkins acknowledges that, particularly in the United States, there might be tactical reasons for trying to get on with religious people. “That is a perfectly reasonable political stance, but it has nothing to do with the truth.” “Genomics luminary weighs in on US faith debate.” Nature v. 422 p. 115 13 July 2006. This is for those who would pretend that Dawkins doesn’t understand the need for nuance in the political fight against ID. He doesn’t deny his atheism, but he has come to recognize that all-out attack is not the needed general response.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

Paul Nelson Wrote:

Once upon a time, there were a whole bunch of people who thought that what really mattered in thinking hard about design and evolution were state science standards. And school board elections.

Oh, and genuine, empirical scientific research. Some of that whole bunch of people thought that actual research mattered, too.

Guess which side of the debate THEY were on.

Exactly, Matt.

Hey Paul: If you’d write us some f*ckin research papers, we’d be happy to discuss them.

Glen, hold that thought. I’ll be interested in seeing how quickly your estimation of Dawkins drops when his new book, The God Delusion, comes out in the October.

You’re building a little, teetering tower of supposition on the basis of one sentence, you know, and I don’t think you’ve accurately encapsulated Dawkins’ views at all.

It just occurred to me: Paul’s “15 year old girl” is Salvador.

Yes, the public doesn’t care, but blaming them for that isn’t very effective. It’s up to us to make them care.

I hope nobody takes this the wrong way, but how did homosexuals do it? I mean, in 1960, homosexuality was a nearly horrific, disgusting concept, largely undiscussed, with no tollerance or acceptance at all. Here we are a mere forty years later and anyone displaying a 1960’s attitude towards homosexuality will be in social if not legal trouble.

How did the social change occur? Was it engineered or did social mores just change? Either way, can we make use of the same techniques?

Baring that kind of empty speculation, I’d suggest:

1. Get scientists into popular fiction. My childhood was filled with scientist heroes. Jonny Quest’s father, Ultraman’s Science Patrol, The Doctor. None of these figures was exactly an outstanding example of scientific accuracy, but they were scientists presented in a heroic light who at least acted like knowledge was something important.

2. Ditto the above with some active skeptics. Banacek, the Magician, Blacke’s Magic, and (perhaps surprisingly to some) Scooby Doo were all built explictly on the principle of doubting what you were presented with and rejecting supernatural explanations. Nothing remotely like them is currently on TV, but then, other than Scooby Doo, none of them have realy been successful, and even Scooby found long term success in trashing it’s initial setup. There is, however, nothing wrong with the central idea that couldn’t be jazzed up into something successful.

PZ Myers Wrote:

You’re building a little, teetering tower of supposition on the basis of one sentence, you know, and I don’t think you’ve accurately encapsulated Dawkins’ views at all.

Or yours.

Glen, hold that thought. I’ll be interested in seeing how quickly your estimation of Dawkins drops when his new book, The God Delusion, comes out in the October.

Gee, I wonder why, PZ. Do you somehow suppose that I care if he wants to rip into religion? Every time you respond to me regarding religion you manage to suggest that I’m supporting religion, without any justification whatsoever.

You’re building a little, teetering tower of supposition on the basis of one sentence, you know, and I don’t think you’ve accurately encapsulated Dawkins’ views at all.

I didn’t try to encapsulate his views. Why would you imply that I did try to? And more importantly, why don’t you deal with what he wrote in that sentence, instead of trying to shift the issue to your point of view? Dawkins recognizes in that sentence the need for more diplomacy than you have ever evinced or favored, so I can see why you’re trying to change the subject.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

Coin: I suspect the answer to your questions is that there is a feedback cycle. Moreover, popularizations are by their very nature simplifications. It would be nice if people in general could move then from there to understanding at least in outline the real stuff, but I despair about this ever happening. In part because in order to do it requires better science education and that in turn requires popular support, but that’s missing because people don’t understand science. And so around and around it goes. The only solution is to hopefully catch a few more people at each pass. Like many social problems it will take generations to work out and I also fear it will get lost in many other generational struggles, all of which are intertwined. (E.g. climate change, transition to steady-state economic policies, etc.)

Micheal Suttkus:

Banacek, the Magician, Blacke’s Magic, and (perhaps surprisingly to some) Scooby Doo were all built explictly on the principle of doubting what you were presented with and rejecting supernatural explanations.

… and now we have “Medium” and “Supernatural”. Programs for the hard-of-thinking. It’s like North American culture has had brain fatigue since the last Apollo mission, doesn’t want to work at the hard stuff anymore. I blame disco. And the Disco Institute.

And the Disco Institute.

But this Disco is still fighting on after many backlashes.

I’m scared.

I like Supernatural, actually. Fantasy, properly labelled as fantasy, I don’t have any problem with and frequently enjoy. It’s fantasy dressed up as “based on real events” that sets me gnashing my teeth and wondering if anyone has any brains left in the country.

I also strongly dislike it when non-fantasy programming introduces a “supernatural” element (for instance, Numbers recent episode where a psychic helps out) as that seems confusing the boundaries far too much. Shows grounded in reality shouldn’t be including nonsense as if it existed.

But there was no golden age of skeptical television. In fact, if such a thing can be said to exist, it exists now, with Mythbusters and Penn and Teller’s show about bovine coprolites before they’re fossilized. That’s two! At once! Stunning! Mythbusters even seems to be fairly popular. At least, they’re having a programming track at the sci-fi/fantasy convention I’m attending later this month, which surprised me entirely.

Of course, now we have a million and five channels, as opposed to three in the old days when the programs I mentioned aired. As such, percentage skepticism is down from when the Scooby Gang discovered the monster wasn’t real every week. (Just how dumb were these guys not to notice the obvious pattern? :-) Worse, both of the programs are real-world, documentary style programs (though Mythbusters has explosions!), guaranteeing that they won’t reach the people who really need to be reached. Mostly, all they’ll be doing is preaching to the choir.

Worse still is the promulgation of nonsense by channels that should be our natural allies in this. How much time does Discovery, TLC and Animal Planet devote to Bible code, animal psychics, UFOs and Bigfoot in any given week?

But this Disco is still fighting on after many backlashes.

Well heck, so is ICR.

But nobody pays any attention to THEM any more, either. (shrug)

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This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on August 2, 2006 4:13 PM.

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