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On issues like global warming and evolution, scientists need to speak up
With the media distracted by the food fight, scientists weren't leading the public discussion, and other important findings that ought to have received attention in Katrina's wake -- for instance, that we had better tend to our overdeveloped coastlines, which are dangerously exposed to future storms -- were drowned out.
If the global-warming battle has any rival in its intensity, its nastiness and its risk to scientists if they do not talk to the public, it is the long-standing conflict over the teaching of evolution. Science's opponents in this fight are highly organized, and they constantly nitpick evolutionary science to cast the field into disrepute.
The scientific response to creationists has long been to cite the extensive evidence for evolution. In book after book, scientists have explained how DNA, fossil, anatomical and other evidence indisputably shows the interrelatedness of all species. Further, they have refuted creationist claims that evolution cannot explain the complexity of the eye or the intricacy of the bacterial flagellum. Yet such down-in-the-weeds messages probably miss most of the public -- polls repeatedly show that a large portion of Americans have doubts about evolution.
For all these efforts, why haven't scientists made any inroads? It's because at its core, the objection to evolution isn't about science at all, but about perceived threats to faith and moral values. The only way to defuse the conflict is to assuage these fundamental fears. Yet this drags many scientists out of their comfort zone: They're not priests or theologians and don't know how to sound like them. Many refuse to try; others go to the opposite extreme of advocating vociferous and confrontational atheism.
Ironically, to increase support for the teaching of evolution, scientists must join forces with -- and show more understanding of -- religion. Scientists who are believers also need to be more vocal about how they reconcile science and faith.
"Many Christians, including fundamentalists, can accept evolution as long as it is not attached to the view that life has no purpose," Karl Giberson, a Christian physicist and the author of "Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution," told me recently. "Human life has value, and any scientific theory that even appears to deny this central religious affirmation will alienate people of faith and create opportunity for those who would rally believers against evolution."
In other words, what's needed is less "pure science" on its own -- although of course scientists must continue to speak in scientifically accurate terms -- and more engagement with the concerns of nonscientific audiences. In response to that argument, many researchers will say: "Why target us? We're the good guys. And if we become more media savvy, we'll risk our credibility."
There is only one answer to this objection: "Look all around you -- at Climategate, at the unending evolution wars -- and ask, are your efforts working?" The answer, surely, is no.
The precise ways in which scientists should change their communication strategies vary from issue to issue, but there are some common themes. Reticence is never a good thing, especially on a politically fraught topic such as global warming -- it just cedes the debate to the other side. "If we come out of this with a more organized way of dealing with these attacks in the future, then it will have done some good," Mann said of Climategate.
On other topics, including evolution, scientists must recognize that more than scientific matters are at stake, and either address the moral and ethical issues themselves, or pair with those who can (in the case of evolution, religious leaders and scientists such as Giberson and National Institutes of Health chief Francis Collins, who in 2006 wrote a book called "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief").
All this will require universities to do a better job of training young scientists in media and communication. The good news is that this is beginning to happen: At the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego, for instance, marine biologist Jeremy Jackson's "Marine Biodiversity and Conservation" summer course introduces young scientists to the media, blogging and even filmmaking.
"Traditionally, scientists have been loathe to interact with the media," Jackson said in a recent interview. But in his class, "the students understand that good science is only the beginning to solving environmental problems, and that nothing will be accomplished without more effective communication to the general public." Scientists need not wait for former vice presidents to make hit movies to teach the public about their fields -- they must act themselves.
And in another sign that the times may be changing, a syllabus for such classes is already here. A spate of recent books, from Randy Olson's "Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style" to Cornelia Dean's "Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public," seem like perfect assigned reading.
Chris Mooney is a Knight fellow in science journalism at MIT and the co-author with Sheril Kirshenbaum of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future."