In keeping with the ancient forms and traditions, today the world celebrates its yearly remembrance of Saint Valentine driving the snakes from Ireland by surrounding those we love with chocolate, shiny objects, and Hallmark cards (snakes hate those things). We spend countless ducats (OK, maybe they’re countable) reinforcing relationships that are already strong — in part because if we don’t, they’ll no longer be so strong. I think all of this outpouring is misdirected; we should gather together to save foundering relationships rather than pouring resources into those that can stand under their own power. In particular, one relationship needs our collective societal help: the ancient, ever-tumultuous relationship between science and the right-wing nutjob morons who deny her.
The chief problem here is a complete and total breakdown in communication between the two parties. On the one hand, you have the scientists and sane folk who present evidence and draw conclusions, and on the other hand you have stubborn fools backed into a corner against an overwhelming onslaught of evidence contradicting their, let’s face, not facts, but opinions and beliefs, and who lash out at that which they can’t possibly wrap their tiny minds around. If they would only listen instead of digging their heels in and dismissing their obvious superiors, imagine what a society we’d have!
OK, maybe that was overblown, and maybe the Science clan would never actually make those claims out loud, but writing from that camp, I can tell you that the frustrations with the stubbornness of the other side are real. But it should be obvious from reading that that we are doing the exact same thing — senselessly digging in our heels and refusing to budge. We’re not engaging in a dialogue, we’re engaging in a shouting match, and we’re making it worse. Here’s Bill Nye, arguably the single greatest science communicator to my generation, on Science Friday last month talking about his new book on the theory of evolution, Undeniable. You probably don’t even have to give that a listen to see what I’m about to say — the title of his book says it all. “Evolution is undeniable. Anyone who denies it is wrong.” However, if you do give it a listen, I’d point out around 3:10, where he actually says “Evolution is provable.”
The statement that any scientific theory is “proven” is directly contradictory to the way that science works. Quite simply, nothing can be proven except in pure mathematics. As an example, can you prove that a wall is solid? Take a running leap at it and see if you pass through. You don’t, so it’s super solid, right? The current model of the universe suggests it’s not — it’s just extremely likely to be solid. If you repeated the experiment about e^10^50 (that’s effectively 10^50th zeroes) times, one of those times you’d probably pass through the wall. The wall isn’t solid, it’s just that it’s likely to take more interactions than there have ever been or ever will be in the universe to find an interaction in which it is not solid. So we simplify — we claim the wall is solid, with a reasonable certainty that we’ll never see it behave any other way. A model that’s wrong only once in every (1 with a sexdecillion of zeroes after it) is a really really really really really really really strong model.
The same thing applies for evolution, albeit at a much, much less certain level. There’s a slew of evidence in favor of it — we’ve seen it in action at the microscopic level (many times to our dismay, with antibiotic resistant bacteria and mutating viruses), and the fossil record supports the theory that plants and animals change gradually over time. But just to pick apart a tiny piece of the overwhelming evidence in support, the fossil record relies on radiometric dating, which itself relies on the assumption that all radioactive substances decay in the same manner, and that they have done so identically for all time. We can verify that right here, right now, radioactive substances with half-lives up to a few centuries — or even millennia — all decay in the same way, and there’s no reason to think that there have been any changes in these fundamental behaviors. However, we’re talking about millions and billions of years; we’ve only been able to study radioactive decay for a hundred years. We are able to see just a tiny tiny tiny tiny tiny point on the curve of radiological history, and we’re applying what we see to that whole curve. It is possible — very, very unlikely, but possible — that there may be some change to this seemingly universal behavior that we can’t or don’t perceive.
But when we talk about evolution we don’t talk about it that way; we say “it’s proven,” and when people ask for that proof we give them evidence that certainly points to our conclusion, but is chock-full of assumptions, and when people point out our assumptions, we say they don’t understand, and they say we don’t understand, and we dig and dismiss them. Instead, we should encourage people to test these assumptions. There should be an army of scientists actively trying to prove that radiometric dating doesn’t work, formulating hypotheses of what kinds of physical evidence we would see if half-lives had been exponentially increasing since the formation of the world. Think about what an incredible boon for science it would be if we found out we were wrong about something so basic!
While we frequently overstate our case, I think we magnify the problem by frequently being wrong. Sometimes this arises from uncertainties due to the mind-bendingly complicated nature of the world; the Thalidomide tragedy, where a drug marketed to protect against morning sickness in pregnant women could cause severe, often fatal birth defects, was the result of one chiral enantiomer behaving differently than the other.
Sometimes, it’s worse, and science is being used to deliberately mislead. Think about those vintage tobacco ads suggesting that smoking was good for you (usually that it would help you stay thin and virile), where they mention the number of doctors or scientists who agree with some study, and then the tobacco company says something like “Proven to make you thinner and more virile!” Yes, all of those studies were hilariously paid for by the tobacco companies, and yes they picked and chose the results they wanted.* Still, it’s not hard to imagine where people might have gotten the idea that scientific studies may be influenced by partisan concerns. We’ve come a long way in promoting impartial research, but in (another) recent episode of Science Friday specifically about science communication, the overarching theme coming from science doubters is that they don’t believe in the neutrality of research — they all think someone is trying to promote some viewpoint or new product. No one bothers to go into details about what the research means or whether its impartial, they just dismiss the callers. You can imagine how frustrating that would be if you were on the other side of it. Now imagine you’re already skeptical of some precieved science lobby, and you hear Bill Nye talking about he’s going to indoctrinate your sons and daughters while you can’t do anything about it (5:40 from the Bill Nye episode):
The people that I’m concerned about are people in, let’s say, middle school. People who are open minded, or who still haven’t established themselves intellectually. By that I mean their reasoning is not fully developed, this way or that way.
I know where he’s going with that, but it’s terrifying if you think he’s specifically trying to indoctrinate your children because, to skew his words, they’re young and impressionable and they’ll believe any lies you tell them. I can imagine how that sort of language might back me further into a corner.
I don’t think that either side in this debate is doing particularly well of communicating, but I also disagree with what I perceive as a widely-held view that science and scientists are somehow holding the moral high ground. We need to be better at communicating everything, from our most basic theories and laws to the most recent studies and findings; in particular we need to be up front about our assumptions and the the uncertainties in our findings. The world is an absurdly complicated place, and it will never be possible to eliminate all doubts; instead, we should meet in the middle and be up front about those possibilities — and, critically, encourage their exploration. If we want to ultimately bridge the gap between the two camps, we need to do a better job of establishing communication across that great divide. Communication is key; after all, without establishing communication, could Saint Valentine have gained the dragon’s trust and lured it out if its lair to be slain?
* Note even in the linked ads that they say things like, “proven to be less irritating to the throat than other brands,” and then they repackage that as “protects the throat.” I love it.