Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

More on the Democratization of Science

I should probably get organized and decide that this subject will be a regular Tuesday feature or something. Anyway, the Society for Science and the Public carries the banner, I don't know how effectively but anyway the link goes to their on-line magazine and you can just for yourself.

I have frequently emphasized that democratizing science does not just mean talking about scientific findings in broadly accessible language and leaving it out there where people can find it. When I talk about democratizing science I mean a basic change in the way the scientific enterprise is organized and how we go about our work. Nevertheless, how we talk about obviously matters and it's one of the keys to bringing people in to the re-imagined scientific endeavor of my imagination. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education has some suggestions, of which a highlight is:

An idea that I stole from [physicist] James Trefil visualizes the content of science as three concentric circles: the core ideas in the center, the frontier ideas in the next ring out and the fringe ideas in the outermost ring....

[We need to] help the public understand that the nature of scientific explanations is to change with new information or new theory — this is a strength of science — but that science is still reliable. And the core ideas of science do not change much, if at all.

I discussed a similar idea, in what I confess is a somewhat less accessible manner -- wow, I can't believe it was four years ago. Anyway, as I put it:

The terrain of science is not knowledge, but ignorance. Scientists spend little time with what they already know, except perhaps in the classroom. They are obsessed with what they don't know.

I may call the advancing edge of science -- in every direction -- the epistemological foam. Here is where scientists dredge through mountains of observations for sparks of concordance; where they conjecture, dispute, and squabble; build long and fragile chains of inference; criticize each other's equipment, methods, analysis, and conclusions; clobber each other with contradictory theories and apparently inconsistent observations. Here, instead of knowledge, is the foam of uncertainty, a whirling boil of beliefs that are constantly merging, dividing, dissolving, devouring one another.

Start to move back from the edge, and the foam becomes less active. The bubbles of belief grow fewer, larger, more stable. At last they dissolve into a single fluid, at first turbulent, then rippled, then placid. Here is the Lagoon of Knowledge, whose warm and perfumed waters make us feel languorous and happy. (Some of us anyway. There are those afraid to swim who huddle on the icebergs of faith. Sorry, my metaphors are getting out of hand.)

Swim back out into the foam, and the skin begins to tingle. It's exhilarating, energizing, but also uncomfortable, stinging us with doubt, dissatisfaction, confusion.

The point is the same: Denialists seize upon the continual controversies and reversals in scientific findings to question the validity of the entire edifice. Because evolutionary biologists and climate scientists are constantly arguing with each other and changing their minds about things, evolution and anthropogenic global warming are obviously just "theories" and the scientists don't know what they are talking about.

It's impossible to have a discussion with such a fundamental misconception sitting there between the parties. Scientists don't spend time talking about what they already agree on and feel fairly secure that they know, unless they teach undergraduates. And even there, they don't ask students just to believe them -- they send them into the lab to discover it for themselves. In that respect they are the opposite of preachers. What interests scientists is doubt and ignorance. The way to write a funding proposal is to demonstrate that we don't know something and that you have a good plan for finding it out. What we already know is not going to earn you a paycheck. But before the general public can get interested in our areas of ignorance and excited about joining the adventure, they need to understand how and why we come to the conclusions we do hold. And that's where Scott is coming from.

So how do we do that? I'm afraid that if you read the comments on Scott's essay you may be discouraged. Oh well, la lucha continua.


C. Corax said...

Now here's a coincidence: A battle is currently raging about AGW on a listserv I'm on. A small group of us have been dissecting the rhetorical techniques of the denialists. Yesterday, I quoted a paper by Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee in The European Journal of Public Health (2009 19(1):2-4; doi:10.1093/eurpub/ckn139), entitled Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?. They discuss five techniques employed by denialists to try to discredit scientists and scientific method, and conclude with this observation: ...(I)t is important to recognize denialism when confronted with it. The normal academic response to an opposing argument is to engage with it, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the differing views, in the expectations that the truth will emerge through a process of debate. However, this requires that both parties obey certain ground rules, such as a willingness to look at the evidence as a whole, to reject deliberate distortions and to accept principles of logic. A meaningful discourse is impossible when one party rejects these rules.

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