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Tuesday
Mar312015

Science of Science Communication 2.0, Session 10.1: Teaching science in a polluted science communication environment, part I -- Evolution

It's that time again!  "Science of Science Communication 2.0" session 10. Reading list here, & study/discussion questions below.  

Well?

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Reader Comments (10)

1) I'm guessing there is a negative correlation between belief/disbelief in evolution and understanding it. Someone who understands it is more likely to understand what science does and does not do, in particular, it that it does not offer a belief system. Maybe this is wishful thinking in light of the fact that those with more knowledge are more likely to use that knowledge to support the beliefs of their group.

2,3) I think psychologically, people who rely more heavily on belief tend to value the sense of security and purpose and community that a belief system provides, while those who strive for understanding - not so much. Those who rely on belief are better able to create that sense of security, purpose, and community, and with it a certain strength. That's what they are better able to "do" than those who do not rely on belief.

I think its entirely possible to understand evolution without believing in it. Asking me "do you believe in evolution?" is, in my mind, like asking me "do you believe in your hammer?" or "do you believe in your computer?". The answer is no, they are just tools. If they work, I keep them, if they do not, I try to fix them, if they are unfixable, I throw them out. The theory of evolution is just a tool, it should not be deified or demonized or "believed in" or not. Part of understanding evolution is understanding its domain of usefulness. I don't use my computer to hammer nails, and I don't ask my hammer for my email. That doesn't mean they are broke, it means that my tools have limited domains of usefulness. Using the theory of evolution to establish or deny the existence of God, or to determine who is "smarter" is so absurdly far from its domain of usefulness that it would be laughable if it were not so sad, because that's the approach that the partisans take. In other words, the answer to 3) is "both".

4,5) I recently read an article about optical illusions with an explanation of their origin in terms of evolution. Our optical system is not "designed" by evolution to deliver the "truth" to our brains, but rather to quickly deliver possibly imperfectly processed information which will best increase our chances of survival, and if accuracy must be sacrificed to speed in order to accomplish this, so be it. Hence what we look at is not always what we see.

In this light, I'm not sure that attainment of knowledge should be the normative goal. If it is, then students should be taught to reject those beliefs which limit their ability to use the tools available to them. Good luck with that, the partisans won't have it. And those beliefs can serve a good purpose. What do you replace them with? Have you created a better society?

I think if we want to teach evolution, we have to try to eliminate the idea that evolution denies God, gleefully embraced by the atheists, strenuously rejected by the religious, but accepted as a valid idea by both. This isn't science, but maybe it would make for a better society. A teacher should show willingness to pitch the theory of evolution in the trash can, without apology, if it ever fails unfixably and refuse to do so if it doesn't. A teacher should admit, without apology, that the theory is not cut and dried, it's not complete, but it has practical, demonstrable, predictive and explanatory value.

April 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

FrankL -

==> "...we have to try to eliminate the idea that evolution denies God, "

How could that happen for a person who thinks that the Bible is the word of God, and should be interpreted literally?

Certainly, evolution does not necessarily have to be seen as denying God. But if you believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, then your religious belief denies evolution.

Isn't that where the whole question of "belief in evolution" comes from? People, for the most part, don't talk of "believing" in other questions of science - unless those other questions of science become associated with people's sense of identity, such as their religious identity.

April 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua - you are right - Anyone who insists that their interpretation of the Bible, or the interpretation that their parents or religious leaders have handed them is infallible, will not be moved. But the Bible must be interpreted by someone, some human. The Bible talks of a circular barrel, I think, that is one somethingorother in diameter with a circumference of three. How does a person who believes in the infallibility of the Bible deal with that? If they start hand waving, then the precedent is established: The Bible is open to interpretation. If not, then they must insist against their own senses that pi=3. The theory of evolution does not deny that God created the earth and all living things, it just gives a rather detailed hypothesis to the question of how. The concept of randomness and probability has to be properly dealt with, its a sticking point in the theory of evolution. Randomness is not a denial of God, it is an admission of our own lack of knowledge. Probability theory does not deny God, it is a tool for dealing with our incomplete knowledge. Both sides refuse to see this. A poem by Vonnegut sticks in my mind:

“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder 'why, why, why?'
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”

Well, no, he don't, not if he's a scientist, but some people, including some teachers, think they have to have an answer for everything and choke on the words "I don't know". On hearing that, the blind creationists will laugh and clap their hands, let them. Its a fools move to respond with atheism and be sucked into their game.

April 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

Qs 3, 4, and 5 are fun. I'm unlikely to be teaching an evolution class (though I did TA one in grad school), but the rub is generalizable. I think you have to argue that your goal is knowledge rather than belief, but it's hard not to worry that any knowledge gained by a student will be kicked to the curb without "belief"...

So I think this is my answer: I want students to gain knowledge/understanding, but I *also* want (as in ideally) to help students knock down barriers between knowledge and belief. That is, to encourage careful, reflective thought about the topic, and to help normalize that knowledge as something that doesn't need to threaten other beliefs. There's only so much you can do there, but I think it's worth doing.

It's *certainly* worth not doing the opposite— antagonizing cultural barriers by assaulting disbelief.

April 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterScott Johnson

1. Overall there's no correlation because the vast majority of people on both sides don't understand it. People on both sides hold their positions as a result of authority and faith arguments.

Whether those with a deep knowledge come down more on one side or the other I don't know.

2. This is cheating! You've packed lots of questions onto one!

2a. For most people, there's no connection between understanding and believing because they don't understand. Those who do understand are aware of the things the theory does and does not cover, and their views on the things it does not cover determine their belief. (It's usually not a binary thing either; peoplebelieve in some bits of the theory and not others.)

2b. Yes. Although it does require a rather contrived worldview to explain observations.

2c. Yes, in the same way that a physicist does not "believe" in classical Newtonian mechanics while still using it to design aircraft and guide space rockets.

2d. Yes to both. The most critical task in science is to challenge hypotheses, to identify the flaws in them, and eliminate error. What survives is better. You need people to make *both* sides of an argument strongly if science is to progress, and believers argue for a position best.

2e. Yes. See Newtonian physics example.

2f. Belief is complicated, and so is the answer to this question. I don't have time to give a full answer, but consider how mental frames represent different 'belief systems' or 'paradigms' that a person can flip between. Consider the phenomenon of 'suspension of disbelief' when reading a book or watching a movie. Consider fiction.

2g. It's probably not that simple, and it depends who you're talking about. If you are watching a movie and forget you're sitting in a chair watching it - suspending disbelief - is that the same as sitting in a church pew listening to the sermon and temporarily suspending disbelief?

3. To teach knowledge, and the will to challenge dogmas of either side.

4. Beliefs are an opportunity, and a resource. Since science depends on challenge, and scientific confidence is built up by surviving challenge, challengers should be cherished as a source of ideas for testing the current theories.

5. Debate is good.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@NiV - yes

The part about suspension of disbelief is applicable to the Pakistani Dr. post too, I think.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

NiV -

==> "1. Overall there's no correlation because the vast majority of people on both sides don't understand it. People on both sides hold their positions as a result of authority and faith arguments."


It's interesting that when Dan says something similar about climate change he gets so much flak, isn't it?

April 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"It's interesting that when Dan says something similar about climate change he gets so much flak, isn't it?"

"Similar" isn't the same, and it depends on precisely what statement you're talking about. The climate and evolution debates are parallel in this regard when it comes to public opinions on the truth of the theory (what we were talking about above), but they're not parallel when it comes to opinions on the quality of the science, since there's a large body of evidence on that in the climate debate that does not (to my knowledge) exist for the evolution debate.

Most people don't understand the details of atmospheric physics or principal components analysis, and so take many statements about "back-radiation" and "hockeysticks" on trust. Is it going to warm catastrophically? - We don't know - there's no solid evidence that it is, but there's none that it isn't, either. People take their opinion on that on trust. But many people do understand statements like: "If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone." and "Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest." and "What the hell is supposed to happen here? Oh yeah - there is no 'supposed', I can make it up. So I have" and "As far as I can see, this renders the station counts totally meaningless." Not understanding the physics doesn't mean you can't have a logically valid, evidence-based, politically unmotivated opinion on climate science and climate scientists. Dan's climate science literacy questionnaire doesn't test the public awareness of such evidence, though.

The flak mainly comes from people who see some one-sided article talking about "climate sceptics" citing Dan's work, which is interpreted as a statement about all sceptics, including those with a deep knowledge of climate science, and referring to all aspects of "climate change" including the political movement of that name. It's when Dan's work is used to back up a "We're right and you're wrong" statement that people object to it, and rightly so, since such a statement isn't justified by the argument/evidence. They sometimes misunderstand just what he is saying, but that's nothing unusual when explaining science to the public.

If you're careful to be precise about what is and is not being claimed, I think it would be fairly easy to avoid the communication-environment-polluting traps and persuade both believers and sceptics of this particular statement. Nobody ever is, though.

April 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

==> "... but they're not parallel when it comes to opinions on the quality of the science, since there's a large body of evidence on that in the climate debate that does not (to my knowledge) exist for the evolution debate."

First, even if that were true, the state of the science is irrelevant to how most people determine their perspective on climate change - just as with evolution - because they are not actually familiar with the science at anything more than a superficial level. Second, people assess the quality of the science through their ideological filters. You may well feel that there is not a quality of science to support non-belief in evolution that is similar in quality to the science that supports non-belief that ACO2 poses a risk of dangerous climate change, but many people who don't "believe" in evolution feel their viewpoint is absolutely supported by "quality" science.

==> "The flak mainly comes from people who see some one-sided article talking about "climate sceptics" citing Dan's work,"

There you go again. Assertion of fact with no evidence, that is actually in obvious contrast to the evidence that is available. Generalization from your opinion about some unquantified subset of the larger dynamic in play. How do you determine who the flak "mainly" comes from? Most of the flak I've seen comes from people who read this blog or who read other one-sided portrayals of his work at "skeptical" blogs. But what we know for sure is that the non-engaged public is basically unfamiliar with his work. So the opposition to his work does not "mainly" come from some truth-seeking public that happens to see some article. The opposition to his work "mainly" comes from people (on both sides) who are heavily invested in an identification in the constellation of views on climate change the predispose them to reject his work as part of an identity-protective mechanism

==> "It's when Dan's work is used to back up a "We're right and you're wrong" statement that people object to it, and rightly so, "

That's funny, 'cause I see a lot of opposition to his work (on both sides) from people who haven't actually bothered to get familiar with his work, and who instead reason selectively about his work, as influenced by their own motivated reasoning/cultural cognition. Of course, when argument by assertion as you've just done is acceptable, then you're free to determine where the flak "mainly" comes from, or what it is that "people" object to, in whichever way that you want to do so.

Once again, NiV, I really fail to understand why you bother to write these rose-colored glasses descriptions of "skeptics" that eliminate them from the influence of cultural cognition/motivated reasoning? Maybe you're writing it for other readers? But I can tell you now as I always have, I am neither unfamiliar with your one-sided view of "skeptics," nor convinced by its repetition.

==> "If you're careful to be precise about what is and is not being claimed, I think it would be fairly easy to avoid the communication-environment-polluting traps and persuade both believers and sceptics of this particular statement. Nobody ever is, though."

Which, of course, completely ignores the universality of the tendency towards cultural cognition/motivated reasoning. Not to say that better crafted communication would be a bad thing. But there's a whole bag o' carefully crafted communication that people on both sides filter through their own ideological biases - for example as we see in these here threads so often, despite Dan's careful explication of his work, arguments that Dan's work amounts to "We're right and you're wrong" because "skeptics" are reverse engineering from their assumptions about Dan's politics.

April 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"First, even if that were true, the state of the science is irrelevant to how most people determine their perspective on climate change - just as with evolution - because they are not actually familiar with the science at anything more than a superficial level."

My point was that in the climate debate they don't need to be. The evidence regarding the quality of the science can be processed at a superficial level. The evidence regarding the truth of its conclusion cannot.

"Second, people assess the quality of the science through their ideological filters."

Agreed. There are some people who can read a scientist asking a question like "Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?" and see nothing wrong with that, and other people who can.

But the fact that there are ideological filters does not mean that every conclusion anyone draws on a politically contested subject is solely the result of their political bias! There is such a thing as logically valid reasoning, and even heuristics are genuinely useful.

"You may well feel that there is not a quality of science to support non-belief in evolution that is similar in quality to the science that supports non-belief that ACO2 poses a risk of dangerous climate change ..."

You've got it exactly backwards, and about the wrong question!

I'm not talking about "belief in evolution" or "belief in climate change". I'm talking about whether the evidence supporting that belief is trustworthy. And I'm not talking about quality science supporting non-belief, because there isn't any. I'm talking about evidence of a lack of quality in the science supporting belief.

If you can find me evidence of a leading evolutionist who wrote back to an evidence-seeking creationist with a reply of: "Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?" then I'll admit my error. But until then...

"... that is actually in obvious contrast to the evidence that is available"

Cool! Show me!

"The opposition to his work "mainly" comes from people (on both sides) who are heavily invested in an identification in the constellation of views on climate change the predispose them to reject his work as part of an identity-protective mechanism"

Excellent! Show me the evidence that it's an identity-protective mechanism, rather than some other mechanism causing a correlation with politics. Because so far as I know that's only a speculative hypothesis on Dan's part. He's not actually proved it.

"That's funny, 'cause I see a lot of opposition to his work (on both sides) from people who haven't actually bothered to get familiar with his work, and who instead reason selectively about his work, as influenced by their own motivated reasoning/cultural cognition."

How do you know it's "motivated reasoning/cultural cognition"? Are you at all familiar with Dan's work?
:-)

"Once again, NiV, I really fail to understand why you bother to write these rose-colored glasses descriptions of "skeptics" that eliminate them from the influence of cultural cognition/motivated reasoning?"

I offer it as a counterpoint to your motivated reasoning-coloured glasses that see motivated reasoning in everything sceptics do, whether it's there or not! :-)

I haven't eliminated them from the effects of motivated reasoning. I've said explicitly that when it comes to the question of whether the theory is true or false, the majority of sceptics rely on authority and faith arguments, the same as everyone else. What I'm disputing is whether the evidence shows this applies to all politically contested questions within the climate debate. I'm suggesting that there are some questions where non-scientists can understand and judge the evidence directly for themselves.

You appear to be interpreting any statement I make that's not condemnatory of climate sceptics (and in particular, any suggestion that anything they do might not be motivated solely by motivated reasoning) as "rose tinted glasses". There are some criticisms I accept, and some I don't, and it's true that I talk primarily about the ones I don't. But that doesn't mean I'm not paying attention to the others. As you know, I often argue with climate sceptics too. While I don't claim to be perfect at it, I do at least attempt to acknowledge both sides of the debate.

But even if my comments are rose-tinted - that's the point of us debating! We each have our own biases and blindspots - it's the combination of views that sees most clearly. If I was to omit my rose-tinted perspective, we'd be missing part of the picture.

"But I can tell you now as I always have, I am neither unfamiliar with your one-sided view of "skeptics," nor convinced by its repetition."

Likewise.

You complained earlier when I pointed out to you (again) that your one-sided presentation of the debate led many people to dismiss your arguments as a dishonestly partisan tactic. You complained that you'd been told many times, and was insulted that I'd think you didn't know. And now you're doing the same thing you just complained about to me?!

You know that I know what you think. So why tell me?

I'm not complaining, mind. I'm just pointing it out, for your attention.

"Which, of course, completely ignores the universality of the tendency towards cultural cognition/motivated reasoning."

This is the same point I've been making - human cognition consists of more than one, single, lonely mechanism! Not every psychological effect is due to motivated reasoning. You seem to have an obsession about it!

It affects all people, some of the time. There's nobody it affects all of the time. And there are other mechanisms, and other explanations, that can explain politically-correlated differences in belief.

"...because "skeptics" are reverse engineering from their assumptions about Dan's politics."

I think sceptics are reverse-engineering Dan's politics from the uses to which his arguments are put. If Dan's arguments are always used to bash sceptics over the head with, sceptics sort of assume that was the intention. To be fair to Dan, he does - later - attempt to set the record straight. I've always found it impressive how well Dan keeps his politics out of his work. But I can understand why sceptics misunderstand.

April 7, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

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