A Skeptic’s View
There are a number of points on which I agree with Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. Many of them are even included in Unscientific America. I agree that the general media’s relationship to science has nothing to do with promoting science and, therefore, media doesn’t promote science effectively. I agree that the scientific community misses opportunities for outreach to the general public. I agree that we can’t assume that scientists will communicate effectively without training. I agree that academic tenure and promotion committees discount outreach and teaching all too often (although they’re much less likely to do so when a communicator reaches the status of someone like Sagan, whose fame would be a draw for students and donations).
However, I haven’t been inclined to take the book terribly seriously. I’ve mocked Sheril and Chris for applying certain double standards to their communications and those of scientists and atheists. I’ve pulled together some prior objections to their message that the book doesn’t address and new objections to some of the points in the book. But I haven’t spoken to the book directly myself, and not because I don’t appreciate Chris and Sheril’s prior work or think they shouldn’t be taken seriously themselves.
The reason I haven’t addressed the book is because there’s been something nagging at me about it that I haven’t been able to put my finger on. There was a connection I wasn’t making. Then, while planning for a project meant to promote general skepticism, I finally got it. It shouldn’t have taken me that long.
The scope of Unscientific America is too narrow. There are problems in our collective understanding and acceptance of science, yes. However, these are the same problems we experience in many parts of our public life. Politicians have the same difficulties in engaging the public in their work as scientists. History experiences the same denialism and conspiracy-theory mongering that’s found in debates that should be purely scientific (and long settled). Media coverage of crime is as badly slanted toward the sensational, or more, as any scientific reporting. Our poor understanding of advertising claims is hardly limited to the pseudoscience of “natural” remedies.
No, the problem is much wider than that described in Sheril and Chris’s book. These are problems stemming from a general lack of the fundamentals of skepticism: curiosity and critical thinking. Unfortunately, that means the solutions they propose aren’t likely to help as much as one might hope.
Scientists can talk forever. They can do it eloquently. They can express their passion and the wonder they find in discovery. They can be funny and clever and humble. But a listener who isn’t prepared to engage with the material will, at best, walk away with a slightly better view of scientists and about two and a half facts with which they can impress those of their friends who are impressed by that sort of thing.
This won’t prepare them to deal with the next scientist they come across, who might be a chemist working in an oil refinery who doesn’t “believe in” anthropogenic global warming, or maybe an astronomer entranced by the majesty of “the heavens” who tells them that evolution can’t result in new species. It won’t give them the tools to determine whether that scientist is someone to be trusted on that subject. It will just make them feel better about taking someone else’s word for things that make their life more comfortable. That doesn’t help us. It doesn’t help them.
So what can we do? Ah, that is the question, isn’t it?
The answers to this won’t be easy. Skepticism isn’t easy. It requires concentrated effort in a society designed around distractions. It requires time and effort that anyone living at a subsistence level doesn’t have to spare. It requires habits of thought that have negative social consequences. The person who upsets the standard order is generally not popular.
However, the situation is far from hopeless. One of the better ongoing conversations at SkepchickCon this year was about how we lead people to skepticism. Masala Skeptic had some great suggestions about being a safe (non-mocking) place to bring questions that need a skeptical viewing, not having all the answers (being willing to say, “I don’t know either. Let’s find out.”) and not pushing too hard for agreement. Others threw around ideas about keeping schools from suppressing the innate curiosity of children. We talked about the need to reclaim the word “skeptic” from the denialists.
All of us came away from the convention invigorated by the reception we received and determined to do more to promote skepticism generally. None of us, however, think that the strategies and tactics for this will fit within a slim book. This will take broad and diverse effective behavior.
So while we’re all out here following our chosen paths, what else do you think people can do to promote skeptical thinking? And maybe more importantly, what are you doing?
This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 29th, 2009 at 8:52 am and is filed under Science, Stephanie Zvan. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.