02 October 2011

A weekend

1) PBS is running yet another Ken Burns documentary. It appears to be largely similar to Okrent's book (Okrent appears himself, so that's one obvious hint). It's amusing. As I recalled from my reading and previous encounters with Prohibitionist history: a) Ohio sucks and b) Wayne Wheeler should really have a rather large section dedicated to him in most any history textbook. Maybe a couple other names could be involved, but he has to be covered. Period. Most people don't even know who he is and he's essentially the man responsible for getting the 18th Amendment across the finish line. (Or maybe people responsible for getting the 21st across would be useful too, but it's difficult to see a lot of enthusiasm for studying, say, the DuPont family).

Among the things that sticks out the most from studying Prohibition is the WCTU's largely successful attempt to popularize educational textbooks that deliberately supplied misinformation relating to alcohol and alcohol consumption. It reminds a lot. A lot. A LOT, of the evolution "debates" today, where misinformation is attempted to be fed (and in the case of private evangelical schools and their texts, or of many home schooled children, successfully so). Or even more so of abstinence only education which follows exactly the same model of attempting to scare children away from something. Only to run into reality when, most, teens actually have sex, don't die immediately from some horrible disease and then, only somewhat inaccurately, conclude that adults must be full of shit.

2) Speaking of science education.



This has a set of fascinating discussions. First off, part of the problem with science today is that it appears so divorced from the common person's experience. People do not see, or rather they take for granted, the many, many, ways that scientific discoveries and inventions have improved, enriched, or otherwise amused their lives. The creative endeavors made possible by modern genetics are among the most likely to be noticed in the near future. So talking about things like the evolution of modern cellular biology and its continuing applications (such as the adaptation made by sea slugs becoming photosynthetic), and its possible technological applications moving forward is a huge blessing. Something like the neutrino speed measured at some billionths of seconds faster than expected is unlikely to really be noted in any way by the common man, even though if confirmed it might kick over a mild revolution in quantum and particle physics. Science, for all its wonderful benefits at offering better good explanations for the world around us, also has the burden of offering ways to deal with that world around us in a practical way from time to time in order for most people to notice and appreciate it (temporarily) and then allow it to fade back into the background.

Secondly, the debate at the end about educating the people generally concerning science is enlightening. Explaining scientific principles goes beyond bright colors and playful displays and exhibits designed to appeal to 5 to 10 year old children and is a worthy cause for scientists to ask themselves how they could improve their PR situation, manner, and messaging. There are plenty enough of biologists who take the position of "those people are idiots" and don't bother either listening to them (a sensible enough response), addressing and explaining their concerns away, or in any other meaningful way engaging with, their public opposition in such debates. While I don't think the specific strategy devised is necessarily always useful, I do think that hammering people with information in response to their vigorous denials and objections can have its uses. It has problems, owing to basic human psychology, of course. And that didn't sound like it was addressed in full (the problem of confirmation biases and of people rejecting sources of information and any associated evidence that don't conform to their pre-conceived notions). Some level of engagement between the players involved would perhaps help there, I'm just not sure that the methods described will necessarily work (from my own experiences having talked with creationists on this issue).

I do feel it's a modest blight upon our scientific credibility as a nation-state that we have a margin of people much higher than some place like Kuwait who actively and vigorously doubt even the most basic scientific conclusions. But one way to look at it is that we also have the luxury of a nation-state that affords people the luxury of time to expend and waste on this issue in the first place. It's a first-world problem that a place like Kuwait wouldn't have. Of course, it's a first world problem that is largely limited to Americans. Which is kind of the point of the problem.

Having said all that, however, I disagree with the importance that such a dearth of information actually plays. As disconcerting as debates over geological time scales (or even the existence thereof) can be and their relation to the wider evolution "debate", I don't really think such things actually effect most people's lives. People who aren't actually studying evolutionary biology or psychology, or other academic subjects like quantum physics or developmental economics, may be misinformed or uninformed dolts on those issues, but they may have other pursuits in life which are perfectly valid ways to spend their time educating and enriching themselves (and some pursuits which are less so, Dancing with the Stars for instance). More to the point, this collective lack of knowledge has little impact on public policy. In what way does it actually impact the rest of us? Sure there's the matter of the local school boards and a few textbook publishers, and that's annoying and slightly terrifying. But it's slightly terrifying to someone like me largely because WE (all of us, religious and irreligious alike) made it a matter of public policy in the first place by appointing local school boards to advise on curriculum and then made such positions electable and accountable to the public. To my mind, any issue where we've injected public policy where there ought not to be any governing interest by the state is disconcerting, and there are all manner of sensible philosophical and economic reasons why this is. The general public's misinformation, disinformation, or uninformed sensibilities on virtually all matters of public policy is a serious problem. The general public's lack of scientific knowledge is merely an annoyance by comparison, and much more easily allayed and fixed.

The only issue at present where scientific ignorance appears to present a meaningful obstacle is climate change. And here I think the most salient objections are not "it's not happening!", but rather are things like "China and India don't care and we can't yet make them" or other related geopolitical problems. There are problems in public debates concerning a lack of understanding of scientific inquiries and methods of asking better questions. Something they don't quite cover in their debate is the idea that while science doesn't answer certain questions very well (what do ugly people look like?, seriously?), there are plenty of questions that are answerable in some empirical way that could inform those questions or could be asked instead. The public, the media, or the even the scientists themselves, "asking the wrong questions" to me is a much more serious problem than the public's lack of interest in cellular biology or some other reasonably obscure concern that they sensibly ignore in favor of daily and lifetime considerations where their time is better applied. But getting people to occasionally ask for some qualifications, some evidentiary support, and seeking out these things themselves, if available, when they aren't provided would be a better use of their time.
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