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Artist, Heather Oliver             

On Being Bitten to Death by Ducks

Working feverishly on the bench, I’ve had little time to closely track the ongoing spat between Dawkins and Nisbet.  Others have dissected this conflict and its ramifications in great detail.  What I want to discuss is whether scientists can or should represent their fields to non-scientists.

There is more than a dollop of truth in the Hollywood cliché of the tongue-tied scientist.  Nevertheless, scientists can explain at least their own domain of expertise just fine, even become major popular voices (Sagan, Hawking, Gould — and, yes,  Dawkins; all white Anglo men, granted, but at least it means they have fewer gatekeepers questioning their legitimacy).  Most scientists don’t speak up because they’re clocking infernally long hours doing first-hand science and/or training successors, rather than trying to become middle(wo)men for their disciplines.

prometheusExperimental biologists, in particular, are faced with unique challenges: not only are they hobbled by ever-decreasing funds for basic research while expected to still deliver like before.  They are also beset by anti-evolutionists, the last niche that science deniers can occupy without being classed with geocentrists, flat-earthers and exorcists.  Additionally, they are faced with the complexity (both intrinsic and social) of the phenomenon they’re trying to understand, whose subtleties preclude catchy soundbites and get-famous-quick schemes.

Last but not least, biologists have to contend with self-anointed experts, from physicists to science fiction writers to software engineers to MBAs, who believe they know more about the field than its practitioners.  As a result, they have largely left the public face of their science to others, in part because its benefits — the quadrupling of the human lifespan from antibiotics and vaccines, to give just one example — are so obvious as to make advertisement seem embarrassing overkill.

As a working biologist, who must constantly “prove” the value of my work to credentialed peers as well as laypeople in order to keep doing basic research on dementia, I’m sick of accommodationists and appeasers.  Gould, despite his erudition and eloquence, did a huge amount of damage when he proposed his non-overlapping magisteria.  I’m tired of self-anointed flatulists — pardon me, futurists — who waft forth on biological topics they know little about, claiming that smatterings gleaned largely from the Internet make them understand the big picture (much sexier than those plodding, narrow-minded, boring experts!).  I’m sick and tired of being told that I should leave the defense and promulgation of scientific values to “communications experts” who use the platform for their own aggrandizement.

Nor are non-scientists served well by condescending pseudo-interpretations that treat them like ignorant, stupid children.  People need to view the issues in all their complexity, because complex problems require nuanced solutions, long-term effort and incorporation of new knowlege. Considering that the outcomes of such discussions have concrete repercussions on the long-term viability prospects of our species and our planet, I staunchly believe that accommodationism and silence on the part of scientists is little short of immoral.

Unlike astronomy and physics, biology has been reluctant to present simplified versions of itself.  Although ours is a relatively young science whose predictions are less derived from general principles, our direct and indirect impact exceeds that of all others.  Therefore, we must have articulate spokespeople, rather than delegate discussion of our work to journalists or politicians, even if they’re well-intentioned and well-informed.

Image: Prometheus, black-figure Spartan vase ~500 BCE.

Note: An earlier but more detailed exploration of this issue appears in my award-winning essay The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction.

Update: As a prime example of the attitudes described in this article, view the speaker lineup of this year’s Singularity Summit.

14 Responses to “On Being Bitten to Death by Ducks”

  1. Caliban says:

    Another excellent essay. Two comments:

    First, climate change is another area where science deniers abound. We may think everyone is convinced, but in fact there is a nontrivial underground that insists that global climate change is a hoax and that climate science is completely driven by political beliefs. (This is an important difference from merely believing the science is wrong; they believe the science is wrong and that political factors will delay the normal self-correction in science.) If you don’t believe me, peruse the forums at Asimov’s and Analog. I have seen bits of this even among some scientists, although they subscribe less to conspiracy theories.

    As for the rest…well, I pretty much agree with it. Part of the problem is that there is no reward, and often substantial punishment, for public outreach, even if it is intelligent and non-condescending. NSF now officially requires there to be an “outreach” portion of each grant, but in practice if you try to go beyond “I will build the next generation of grad students” you get slapped by reviewers. I saw this in a recent proposal by a young colleague of mine, who had an innovative proposal to create short films illustrating principles of atomic physics, and involving members of our university’s drama and film departments. Great idea, especially as he had a drama background, but, as I predicted to him, the reviewers hated, hated, hated the idea, and all but accused him of not being really interested in science. I’ve seen this in hiring, too, where if someone mentions having anything more than a token outreach effort, then faculty get hung up on this issue and, again, suggest the candidate isn’t really interested in science.

    In short, I think the lack of effective communication by scientists is often the fault of the science community; the community demands a monk-like dedication beyond all reason. (When I moved from one mid-level university to another, lesser-ranked university, some colleagues said openly it showed I wasn’t interested in science, and in fact there was even some opposition to hiring me at the lesser university–despite having an excellent record in all aspects. The fact that I was moving to be near my wife was viewed as insufficient reason.) I often defend how science and the scientific community works, but in this regard we scientists are shooting ourselves in the foot. And in times when budgets are getting cut drastically, we will only see a hardening of the conservative view.

    Here’s my proposal: as part of the stimulus package, there should be $10M set aside for minigrants to support scientists to write movie and TV scripts. Say, $10K each, , that’s a thousand scripts. A committee of scientists will screen them for scientific reasonableness, and reduce it down to 100 scripts which would then get passed around to studios etc. 99% will be garbage, but if there are 10 terrific scripts at the end that Hollywood could work with…. think how we could change things. Imagine: “Your Inner Fish: the Sit-Com”…. or “My Father the Australopithecus…”

  2. Athena says:

    Calvin, you know how very much I agree with you, because you read my essay The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction. I think I’ll post excerpts from it as a companion piece to this entry. They are the two faces of a single coin.

    I love your proposal — more importantly, I think this is a moment when its chances are high. Let’s write it up and send it to the NSF, ASAP!

  3. Paul Gilster says:

    Athena, re your statement:

    I’m sick and tired of being told that I should leave the defense and promulgation of scientific values to “communications experts” who use the platform for their own aggrandizement.

    I’ve never fully understood what a ‘communications expert’ is supposed to be, although I suppose they’re teaching such things in journalism school these days. Good for you for sticking up for solid representation of science by scientists!

    Nor are non-scientists served well by condescending pseudo-interpretations that treat them like ignorant, stupid children. People need to view the issues in all their complexity, because complex problems require nuanced solutions, long-term effort and incorporation of new knowlege.

    A larger problem than just the representation of science, I’m afraid, because it touches anyone who tries to get complex ideas across in an era that favors the factoid and Twitter. I’m much in favor of keeping the bar high — write to an adult audience with expertise and you both educate and begin to enlarge that audience. Many publishers today disagree, I’m afraid.

  4. Athena says:

    Paul, you’re absolutely right about factoids and sound bites — and about publishers. Have I told you my New York Times story? I sent them a brief blurb once about the Drake equation. They rejected it as “too complex” for their readers (the NYT readers!). MS-NBC published it in a heartbeat, which tells you how hard to understand it was.

  5. Eloise says:

    I do not claim to be qualified in hard science domains, but I do think that you’e touched on a common thread in all scientific communities, and to an extent, in the humanities as well.

    In History and Literature, for example, it is also very hard to make a point and communicate new ideas. The moment you propose something a bit outlandish or risqué, the community becomes tongue-tied because it doesn’t want to be seen either as non-scientific (the key word being: demonstrate!) or as condoning any subversive notion, for both fields pertain to the diffusion of ideas and can therefore be used for political purposes.

    Just how long did the Arthurian Cycle prosper under its Christian incarnation? It is only recently that the world at large (and not only some loony scholar in the recesses of his study) got wind that it was indeed a re-interpreted Celtic myth. The same holds true of historical sites. In France, they keep saying that the Mont Saint Michel was built after a revelation of the Archangel, when in truth they transferred the name of Tombelaine (or Tum-Belen, from “dunum”, or “hill”, and Belenos, the Celtic Sun God) to a lesser, insignificant rock in the bay. Yet who will own up to the truth? No one, for the Archangel’s name means business. The funny thing being that popular etymology says that Tombelaine means “the tumb of Helaine, daughter of Hoel” (a real-life king). Unwittingly, we get back on our feet, for Helaine cannot be anything else than Little Hoel, names where we can find the lexical root “hel-“, which, or course, means “sun”. They try to explain it away, but the truth comes back to haunt them…

    When free speech meets power and the communication corporations, it is inevitable that there will be a clash. Unfortunately, too often do the factoids and sound bites win. Because if they admit that the Mont Saint Michel legend is a construction of dogma, then they are exposed and their foundations toppled. Which is something they most certainly cannot condone.

    Eloise :)

  6. Athena says:

    I couldn’t agree more with you, Eloise. Your example is very characteristic of the “don’t confuse me with facts” attitude. If you read my essay “The Double Helix” (in the stories section) you’ll find me expressing views identical to yours in terms of the intrinsic conservatism of the academic community. Of course, some of it comes from the legitimate wish to guard against charismatic charlatans. But some springs from less noble motives.

  7. Mike Treder says:

    “I staunchly believe that accommodationism and silence on the part of scientists is little short of immoral.”

    From your pen to the NSF’s ears!

  8. Athena says:

    NSF, NIH, DoE, NASA — they all bend to this kind of pressure, to the detriment not only of science, but also of their image as free-standing bastions of knowledge. If there is no separation of “church” and “state” in these institutions, where else can it be expected to exist and function?

  9. “Gould, despite his erudition and eloquence, did a huge amount of damage when he proposed his non-overlapping magisteria.”

    Didn’t he just. My opinion of him took such a dive when that book came out – and I got into such arguments about the book. His erudition and eloquence (and reputation) just made the damage that much worse, because more powerful.

  10. Athena says:

    Intelligent, learned people who have a measure of fame sometimes end up causing disproportionate harm. In Gould’s case, he was trying to reach a working compromise. So his motives were benign and he was also aware of the likely outcomes. In other cases (Crick, Pauling, Hoyle, Kurzweil, to name just a few), famous people adopt bizarre theories or causes way outside their domain of expertise — usually late in life when they’re looking around for something to amuse themselves with. Dandy for them, but their name lends cachet to ideas or movements that would otherwise have been laughed at outright.

  11. Heraclides says:

    Isn’t that a pigeon? :-)

    (Someone has to be a “lightweight” and poke a little fun… the world can’t be all serious…)

  12. Athena says:

    Well, let’s put it this way: the persistent cooing of people with the brainpower of pigeons can also drive you into a frenzy (or, more likely, a coma).

  13. Ric says:

    Eloise, you are both right and wrong. Helen is the name of a sun goddess right across Europe extending into Russia. The sun word is not ‘hel’ but ‘swel’ and the ‘s’ gets lost and replaced by ‘h’ after 1000’s of years, hence Latin ‘sol’ but Welsh ‘haul’. You may be very correct in the identity-switch from the larger to the smaller island however. There was also a cult shrine to the Virgin Mary on Tomberlaine. An important (Breton-Brythonic) pun here may be ‘tomb’+’elaine’, Elen being a Welsh form of Helen.

  14. Athena says:

    These cultural and linguistic overlays/palimpsests are endlessly fascinating and resonant!