15
Aug
09

Science and Society, Round 1

With all this carrion of various books by various people laying about telling scientists how to engage in public discourse and keep the attention of the uninformed, I’d like to address a major issue I have noticed.

We, as scientifically educated individuals, do frequently engage in discussions with the public, even if we do not realize it. I can recall instances of sitting at coffee shops and casually entering conversations about evolutionary biology, chemistry, genetics, and many other topics with various people. This is where woo frequently has a leg up on science. The pushers of woo do “grass roots” and “word-of-mouth” spreading of their ideas while science is something many people are genuinely interested in talking about science. The actual scientific discoveries are, I find, quite exciting, but the research itself is something very few individuals can effectively sift through; looking at the methods, analysis, and conclusions, then upon critical examination, conclude if the study does demonstrate what is stated. I don’t think there is anything inherently “wrong” with any method of spreading this information. Different methods will work for different individuals. Target audiences for most science (those without any dogmatically held beliefs on the subject) vary with the type of research as well. The obnoxious creationist loudmouth that thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old and fossils were put there by a supernatural entity to tempt us from Jeebus are not, in fact, the target audience of any discussion. It is, instead, the individual that is convinced by the arguments that cdesign proponentists have any scientific standing.

This is partially what I find so disturbing with many individuals saying “we need to reach the creationists.” No, we do not, you cannot argue with someone who thinks belief in something proves it exists. It is a waste of time to think you can convince them. What, instead, we must target our arguments towards are the individuals listening, the ones the creationists are going after, and reach them first and arm them with the information to refute exactly what the creationists are saying. Responding to every criticism of evolution or geology or genetics rather than putting THEM on the defensive. We must get the cdesign proponentists to state their claims and dismantle them publicly. While they are not the most scientifically adept individuals, they are very, very good at advertising. This is where scientific discourse often fails; we like to let the evidence speak for itself, and while it is always good in a court of law to have all the evidence favoring your position, public opinion is where political policy is formed. This, unfortunately, does not always fall on the side of evidence.

Public scientists (Eugenie Scott and Neil deGrasse Tyson come to mind) are great, but we need to engage in these discussions on a personal level. How easy is it to convince an anti-vaxer the chemical in vaccines they fear isn’t in there anymore (with the exception of trace quantities  in DTaP by one manufacturer and most influenza vaccines except Fluzone) and to get the damn vaccine so we don’t see another Measles outbreak. I promise, there’s no thimerosal in the MMR vaccines. Even IF there was a statistically significant risk from thimerosal, (there isn’t) it doesn’t matter! These are the issues we must explain to the uneducated out there because there are some who will gladly tell lies for profit.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it:

Primary objective=engage in at least one discussion per week about the scientific topic you feel most comfortable with

Secondary objective=question THEIR ideas without presenting your own and only present your ideas when asked.

This is how good science spreads, if you question someone enough, they will eventually find the evidence (or lack of it) for their ideas.

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