Evolution and Society

Posted By on October 7, 2009

“Alan Leshner Talks Sense, Mostly”

.: I alerted PZ to an unfortunate dilemma I was facing today: I could drive 15 miles to Princeton and see Sean B. Carroll talk about evolution at 8:00 PM, or I could walk across campus and see Alan Leshner talk about evolution, also at 8:00 PM. In the end a coin flip decided for Leshner, and I do not regret having sought counsel from my fair currency friend. Leshner’s a natural presenter, and his talk was informative, funny, and just wrong enough to warrant a blog post.

.: The title of the lecture, “Evolution’s Impact on Science and Society”, was as enticing as it was vague. Would he talk about evolution’s role in uniting biology, geology, paleontology, and a whole swath of other disciplines around a common principle? Or its role in shaping several legal precedents in the US with regard to religion and the role of government? With a title like that, he really could have gone anywhere.

.: Both questions were briefly addressed in the opening slides, but they served only to introduce us to the real topic at hand: how we can get the rest of society to like and — and! — understand science. Evolution served only as a reference point to this particular issue. (Previous versions of the same presentation included material on climate change; however, since this is The Year Of Darwin, nobody gives a hoot about those uppity meteorologists.)

.: But why we want the public to understand science is equally important as how we can get the public to understand science. Leshner offered Rwanda as an example of an impoverished country with no natural resources which has nevertheless begun a slow, difficult climb out of its hole by capitalizing on its human resources — by investing in science and education. Having a populace that understands science is essential for addressing problems of the modern world. Sensible stuff.

.: Leshner covered some familiar talking points: science is a means for deriving natural explanations for questions of natural phenomena, whether we like the answers or not; science can say nothing about the supernatural; and — summarizing both views — science is limited to examining the natural world. He made careful mention to emphasize the emboldened text, as every good scientist should. Unfortunately, the general public seems to operate under a different procedure: if I do not like the answer, then that is not the answer. In theology and other fields of make-stuff-uppery, this attitude might be expedient, but in matters of the observable world, careless disregard for what is so is happily — and frequently –checked by the indifferent forces of nature. That’s not a point Leshner made, however. His approach was a little different, and while largely correct on most issues, I still think he made a few blunders and missed a few opportunities. Since disagreement is more interesting than consensus, I’ll focus more on the former.

.: The trouble we face, Leshner argued, is not a problem of facts; it’s a problem of values. So far so good. When science encroaches on morality and the study of human behavior, people get uncomfortable. He mentioned NIH’s budget being defunded by congress because some of its research involved sexual behaviors (never mind that the studies were about HIV transmissions, congress clearly thinks sex is an improper subject for science to study and also icky). Nobody, he claimed, disputes the promise of embryonic stem cell research; people like cures for Alzheimer’s and cancer, but they become uneasy when science starts dictating what marks the beginning of life, especially when it’s contrary to their own beliefs. The beginning of life, asserted Leshner, is not a question for science to answer — one of those limits of science, see? Another area of growing unease involves Leshner’s own expertise: psychology, neuroscience, and everything science has to say on the relationship of the body to the mind. Forget evolution for a second, dualism is alive and well in the mind of the public. (Leshner aside: “I’m one of three people in the world who understands and ascribes to the materialistic explanation of mind and free will.”)

.: Leshner had earlier quoted Lincoln’s delightful dictum, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” It’s all well and good to have the facts on your side, but if the public doesn’t accept them, fat lot of good they’ll do you. Again, so far he’s talking sense (and you really should’ve been there to hear it; the man’s got a knack for public speaking). We can’t just lecture the public while they’re in school and simply expect them to live the rest of their lives thinking like scientists. We’ve been doing that for years, and it quite clearly hasn’t worked.

.: So what can we do about it? A few bullet points were tossed out.

  • We shouldn’t be aiming for a public understanding of science, we should be aiming for a public engagement with science. Talk of fellowships and workshops that encourage scientists to become actively involved in their communities.
  • Don’t communicate to the public; communicate with the public. As scientists, we already have our reasons for doing science: it’s interesting, we’re good at it, glory awaits those who solve mysteries, etc. But for the public, it’s not enough to simply teach what science has uncovered; we must make the process and products of science relevant to the public’s day-to-day lives.
  • Never debate an ideologue. They can say whatever they want while we are limited in the number of times we can say, “No, that’s just not true.” Say that enough times and we come off looking mean. I couldn’t have said it better.
  • Don’t say you “believe” evolution, say you “accept” evolution. Personally, I prefer “use” evolution. Biologists use evolution just like physicists use gravity. Evolution is a guiding principle, more fundamental than a theory, and it has uncovered numerous useful and beautiful facts about the way the world operates.
  • Never go outside your area of expertise. Stick to the facts, and stick to the facts you’re familiar with. As an extension of this advice…
  • …never bring your personal values into the discussion. This is easier said than done, because it’s quite frankly impossible to do so while maintaining the listener’s interest. Look at any science blog on the internet: the most popular ones (and, I’d bet, the ones with the highest proportion of non-scientist readers) mix the hell out of their science and their values. And why shouldn’t they? As I wrote about earlier, until recently scientists haven’t really had individual voices:

    If we’re operating under the assumption that scientists are people who are trained to reason about and evaluate claims with regard to the available evidence, then those are precisely the people who need to be talking – about whatever: science, politics, laws, religion, values.

.: I promise the quibbles I’ve raised so far all concern minor elements to an otherwise great talk. Leshner’s scorn for agents of ignorance was deliciously delivered and palpable throughout. Less minor were his dismissals of “evangelical atheists” and “militant agnostics” in the same breath as “evangelical fundamentalists” as well as his concluding plea for us to “not pit science against religion”.

.: What hogwash.

.: First, what relevance has atheism and agnosticism (militant or otherwise) to the public’s understanding and appreciation of science? People have rejected evolution and large portions of science long before it was acceptable to be publicly non-religious.

.: Second, religious people aren’t stupid. They can spot a contradiction without scientists pointing it out for them. Leshner even alluded to this when he mentioned the growing problem facing neuroscience: people already believe in souls, and modern science is leaving them with very little reason to do so.

.: Sure, you could comfort them with treacly pablum like, “Questions of the soul belong to a domain that’s separate from science.” But when you go right around and say, “The domain of science is concerned only with everything you can see, touch, smell, feel, hear, or otherwise perceive and measure in a manner that allows one to meaningfully discuss its existence,” you can’t be surprised when the religious demur. As one questioner in the Q & A pointedly stated, “I’ve never met a religious person who said it wasn’t observable.”

.: People like science; survey after survey shows this, and Leshner quotes them. He also rightly points out that, although they may say they like science, they don’t know what science is. I remember talking to an otherwise reasonable religious woman who enthusiastically endorsed both Christianity and evolution. When I prodded her knowledge of the latter, it became quite evident that what she considered evolution was nothing of the sort. I corrected her, or at least I corrected her understanding of what evolution actually entails. Would it surprise you to know she no longer enthusiastically endorses evolution?

.: A professor of a seminar on evolution remarked in the Q & A that 70% of his students believed in ghosts. Can science say anything about ghosts? Leshner didn’t spend much time on his response to the professor’s statement, except to make a weak case that ghosts might not belong to the same realm of the supernatural as gods and souls (note: he probably doesn’t believe this, at least judging by the drop of volume in his voice and the brevity of the response). Even leaving aside the question of whether ghosts and religion belong to the same domain of inquiry, how many religious people make the distinction between the domain of science and the domain of religion? How many religious people know they’re not supposed to rely on evidence gleaned from worldly observations to formulate their views on God and the afterlife?

.: It all comes back to a point Leshner made at the very beginning of the talk: science gives us all kinds of answers to questions of nature, whether we like them or not. The last part is crucial. We’re trained, as scientists, to embrace the facts we like as well as the facts we don’t like. It’s how we advance as scientists. If we ignore the facts we don’t like, we run the risk of some other scientist publishing a more complete theory than our own. We get called out when we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the world for no good reason. Religious people don’t have this luxury (and, despite its mean appearance, it is a luxury) because nobody calls them out when they spout nonsense that contradicts the world around us. At least, that’s what Alan Leshner pleaded for us not to do.

.: The strength of science — the reason for its success — is its reliance on scrutable method and its accessibility to everyone willing to learn. Convincing people that it’s okay to be wrong sometimes (or even most of the time) so long as we acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them is the challenge we face when we talk of increasing the public’s understanding of the science. And who among us likes to be wrong most of the time?

†But life clearly began 3.5 billio– oh, never mind that. He surely meant the beginning of individual identities . . . but what happens when science provides us with answer to that question, and it’s a sloppy one with no easy– gah, this is for another post.

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One Response to “Evolution and Society”

  1. RBH says:

    Just so you know, I read and appreciated this post. Do you know if video of Leshner’s talk is (or will be) available?

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