Huns, Visigoths, and the Citadel of Science

Mar 02 2008 Published by under Public Perception of Science

In a post over at the Nature Network, Henry Gee notes that over the last twenty years, he's seen "an increase in ... a siege mentality among scientists". He's probably right. When there's a horde of angry, armed people outside your walls, and they start settling in and making themselves at home, you might start to wonder if you're looking at a siege. When the catapults come out and rocks, stones, jars of burning oil, and diseased animal carcasses start flying over the walls, the folks inside often feel besieged. By the time the attackers disappear in the middle of the night, leaving behind only the remains of their camp, a long-term sanitation crisis, and a large wooden rabbit, the full-fledged siege mentality has usually set in.

The scientific community has fallen victim to a siege mentality in large part because the scientific community has faced near-constant attacks. We're facing the strong possibility that "social conservatives" (in other words, anti-evolution, anti-sex-education, anti-gay, pro-religion pinheads) are going to take control of the state-level school board in Texas, which is such a large market that it will effectively permit them to dictate textbook content for the rest of the country. An anti-evolution bill masquerading as an "academic freedom" act was introduced in the Florida legislature. The Bush administration tossed a scientist off an EPA panel for knowing something about the subject her panel was supposed to be examining, and the likely Republican nominee for President said that there's an actual scientific debate about whether vaccination causes autism. And that was all just last week in the United States. Why on earth would scientists feel besieged in this kind of environment?

The siege mentality in science is understandable, and it's difficult to avoid, but that doesn't mean it's good. It's not. Part of the siege mentality involves a stark "with us or against us" view of things. You - we - are inside the citadel. They - everyone else - are howling outside the gates. That's the world when you're under siege, and that's a problem.

It's a problem because there are a hell of a lot more people out there than the scientific society and it's enemies. There are also a lot of people out there who are ambivalent about the issues, or who simply don't understand them. There are lots of people out there who quite simply don't have the background to judge whether someone is a committed scientist or a committable lunatic (a distinction, let's face it, which isn't always simple at the best of times). That doesn't mean that they're stupid. It doesn't mean that they're ignorant. It doesn't even mean that they are ambivalent about the issues. It just means that they don't know enough about the issue to be able to easily judge for themselves what is (or isn't) the best scientific information available.

How we, as people who care passionately about science, choose to address this issue is going to be critical. We can hope that enough people will recognize that the Association For The Advancement Of The Recognition Of Really Important Scientists is more likely to be giving you the best available scientific information than The Dude that Joe's Uncle's Cousin's Wife Talked To At The Bar Last Thursday, but that's not always going to happen. There are lots of times when it hasn't.

The truth of the matter is that the scientific community doesn't have as much credibility with the public as it should. Some of the loss of credibility is the fault of scientists - the result of poor studies that received huge publicity before being retracted, or of outright fraud - but most of it isn't. It could be the product of the siege. It could be the result of religious zealots who will publicly put science on "trial" to serve their narrow sectarian interests. It could be the product of Senators who will hold hearings and press conferences to claim that scientists are perpetuating a vast "hoax" on the American public, because that kind of thing plays well with their energy company sponsors. It might be the inevitable consequence of a society where truth can be spun, messaged, folded, spindled, mutilated, and purchased by the highest bidder. It could be because of none of those things, some of them, or all of them. Ultimately, the cause of the loss of credibility matters much less than what can be done to get it back.

Complaining about the unfairness of it all is rarely a winning strategy. That's a lesson that most of us learn by the time we're three, even if we forget it before we're thirteen. Demanding that the public believe the "real" scientists isn't going to be a winner, either. That's something that's going to need to be earned. It's not likely to be something that's going to be spontaneously generated. It's something that is going to take hard work. And it can't be done from inside sealed walls.

Dr. Gee has that much right (even if I disagree with much of what he wrote in that essay). People will not respond well if we demand that they believe us. We don't necessarily do much better if we go out there and actively try to teach. The best solution is to create an environment where people can go and discover things for themselves:

Given that people really don't like being patronized, it is no wonder that the public, especially the young, is staying away from science in droves. If the self-selected scientists tell you that these are the facts that you should know, and never mind that you're too dim to understand them, it's no wonder that people desert science as being too inherently 'hard'. This is proven in the breach by the success of more participatory events, such as the Cambridge Science Festival (of which I've been honored to have been a patron) in which visitors are encouraged to make their own discoveries - and which are absolutely mobbed.

We need to spend a lot more time thinking about how to do that kind of thing - and more still actually doing it. If we don't go out there - if we remain walled up in our little fortresses - we'll become more and more isolated from everything. And everyone else will become more isolated from us.

12 responses so far

  • Henry Gee says:

    Hi Mike - very glad you were moved to respond to my post. Although you disagreed with some of my post, I agree with all of yours. I think you're right that we should be aware of adopting an us-and-them approach, as this will only alienate some of science's friends - those who are scientists but find the current trend towards militant atheism distasteful, even dangerous. I know at least three senior, respected and productive evolutionary biologists who are committed Christians, who daren't parade their beliefs in the lab for fear of ridicule, and at least one of whom has awful problems when seeking spiritual solace in their Church community. The current siege mentality, or just yelling at them that you think they are fools to have any kind of religion, is not something they find helpful.

  • Mike Dunford says:

    Thanks for commenting, Dr. Gee.
    It is absolutely important that there be religious tolerance within science. I couldn't agree with you more on that. I can completely understand how scientists can feel less than willing to discuss their own beliefs with other scientists, and I don't think that's all that healthy. My own personal views on religion are far from settled, and that's not always something that I've felt comfortable discussing with others.
    At the same time, I think it's important to keep in mind that part of the reluctance to raise issues like that can be unjustified. Several months ago, I found myself discussing my views on religion with PZ Myers over a couple of beers. When I mentioned my unwillingness to definitively state that there is no god, horns did not erupt from his head, his eyes did not send out violent blasts of flame, and his head entirely failed to explode. Our perceptions of how our colleagues might react to things are not always accurate.
    It's also important that we (as a community) ensure that tolerance of a range of views on religion includes all religious views and views about religion. If we try to emphasize the religious views of someone like Ken Miller, we need to do so without trying to hide, dismiss, or discourage the irreligious views of folks like Dawkins and Myers. Focusing on one set of beliefs at the expense of others is dangerous no matter which set of beliefs is favored.
    It's a tough needle to thread, but one way or another I think it has to happen.

  • Henry Gee says:

    Just to reassure you that PZ Myers is a friend of mine, and we had a very cordial discussion on all these issues at SciFoo last August, and horns and pointed tails were definitely not in evidence... 🙂

  • We lack the organization and PR machine that we need to combat these people. The best scientists seem to do is write blogs, but blogging is largely an irrelevance to the public debate over science. Meanwhile, the creationists in Texas have managed to put together a campaign machine greased with money. We talk a load of crap about public engagementm, "web 2.0" and "new media", while creationists are opening museums, launching new journals, and lobbying politicians.
    If we're going to make any progress in winning debates over things like MMR, evolution, quackery, and so on, then we absolutely have to start getting organized.

  • Opisthokont says:

    I too know someone in evolutionary biology who is devoutly religious. I am a committed atheist myself (I fall into the PZ Myers/Richard Dawkins camp, myself), but at the same time, I respect her as a person, and recognise that her religious beliefs are a part of that. It was because of this that I stood up for religious scientists at a conference where the one talk on Intelligent Design threatened to turn into a witch hunt against the religious. I am most assuredly not one of them, and I am honestly confused as to how to regard their beliefs, but I do not want to alienate them.
    I think that much of the issue driving the so-called New Atheists (I use the term only because it is convenient) is that atheists should not settle for being marginalised, ignored, or demonised. The conference that I mentioned is the only case I can think of where a non-religion-oriented assembly would be predominantly atheist; in any other venue, the atheists would probably be silent and massively outnumbered. I think it important that atheists stand up for their rights, and that the religious recognise that we are not the enemy that they imagine us to be. (We may still be enemies of religion, but few of us eat babies or routinely engage in sexual acts with farm animals -- probably fewer of us than of them!)
    Meanwhile, the Christian Right has fostered a persecution complex such that they have their own siege mentality. Dealing with that is a different problem entirely.

  • Martin says:

    Opist... Opishto... The last guy said: "I think that much of the issue driving the so-called New Atheists (I use the term only because it is convenient) is that atheists should not settle for being marginalised, ignored, or demonised."
    Personally I don't think it's that at all. I think the current conflict goes back to the "Science Wars" of the 90s, and has come about largely due to the rise of religious fundamentalism and general quackery (not just Christian) over the last 10 years or so.
    Today more than ever intelligent people are aware that a lot of what the media present as "fact" is wrong, a lot of opinions that people and politicians hold are based on flawed analyses and false evidence, and individuals and groups are gaining an online platform for attacking (directly as with creationists or indirectly as with quackery) science on several different fronts. Some of these groups are able to exert considerable political influence in the U.S. and some African nations.
    I think New Atheism is a direct response to this, and an attempt to try to regain the initiative. How well judged it is, time will tell.

  • Mike says:

    Science is attacked from the left by animal rights activists and from the right by social conservatives. However, the leftist attacks are more of the fringe that the attacks from the right.
    As a tenure track science professor, I think that the public has plenty of good reasons to be skeptical of science. The first is over the changing proclamations about nutrition. On lots of day to day dietary issues, scientific proclamations have been wrong. From eggs to dairy to fats to the 4 food groups, science has told people to do one thing and then after a while told them to do the opposite. People can only change their behaviors so many times based on the up to date scientific advice before they decide to stop bothering and start distrusting science in general.
    The second reason is the partisan nature of faculties at most universities. This adds another layer of distrust to many in the US. I know that going through grad school I was threatened with harm due to my conservative politics by a supervisor. In my new faculty position, I will do my best to never state my political leanings until I get tenure. There is a remarkable group think about politics at the universities I have attended or taught at.

  • Pierce R. Butler says:

    Atheists schmatheists. Much of the problem of public incredulity towards "science" is that the typical layperson encounters it only through television, where it's typically presented as:
    * a buzzword in a commercial for a product which typically fails to eliminate the problem for which it is sold;
    * as part of a breathless news story about a "breakthrough" or impending catastrophe concerning something which remains unchanged so far as the viewer can tell; or
    * a plot gimmick in some slam-bang story in which the chase scenes are the only memorable parts.
    If you want to blame the social crisis of scientific illiteracy on an "ism", it makes more sense to prefix it with "capital-" than "athe-". If you actually want to work towards a solution, finding some new Carl Sagans would really help, but the main course of action remains the same old boring, expensive, slow-motion drill: improve the schools.

  • Henry Gee says:

    This thread is turning, very slowly, from an argument about atheism to one about the presentation of science to the public. And here we have an elephant in the room, or, possibly, two. Science gets to the public through the media, and this is controlled by two gatekeepers: people who work in press offices (who distil the news and get it to news media); and news editors (who actually control what we see and hear). The problem, historically, is that PR people have too often been ditzy airheads whose sole knowledge of science comes from L'Oreal commercials; and news editors have come from an arts/humanities background. Things are changing, slowly, but science will get better airplay once more PR and news editor people are in polace who've had science training. Billy Gibbons of ZZTop once said that foreplay was better than airplay, and normally I'd agree, but not on this occasion.

  • Metro says:

    To some extent I see this as an extension of the "bread and circuses" problem of democracies. People will vote for someone who reflects their own prejudices and beliefs.
    Hence in Canada, alas, "Canada's New Government"(TM--not joking) has:
    Fired the head of our nuclear safety agency for doing her job and refusing to let the current Conservative party government blame the prior Liberal party government for an embarrasing situation. For a succinct asessment, visit this link and click number 12.
    Dismissed the government science advisor, appointed by the previous government, and created a board of cronies and corporate and party shills to pretend to fulfill the same requirement.
    Comitted to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, not to the Kyoto standard we signed up for as a nation, but to some percentage below 2006 levels ... by 2050.
    I swear, if he promised a tax cut we'd elect ���λing Hitler, and welcome his new scientific program: Improving the Human Race by Eugenic Natural Selection(TM) Methods.

  • When my kids were in school one of their 'Life Sciences' textbooks defined "extinction" as "When an animal is dead" - an exact quote. One of their teachers told them the Earth was cooler in winter because it is farther from the sun. Just yesterday I read an AP article which said that deep divers use a gas mix of oxygen and helium "because the nitrogen in regular air is too heavy at 600 feet and their lungs could not handle the pressure." This is sadly representative of most media handling of science that I have seen.
    That leaves scientists and science-aware citizens who are persons of letters; bloggers, letters to school boards and legislators, letters to editors of newspapers, and comment threads on newspaper articles online. Because the government seems to be trying to drown out traditional channels of science education.
    Is there anyone like Carl Sagan in the pipeline? Someone with lots of charisma whose focus is on popularizing science? Our family used to watch Cosmos, and that program was fantastic. Nova seems to have lost some of its edge. Discovery Channel has gotten pretty flaky.