To teach science, scientist should mimic the way children learn the best. And they should avoid precisely what they have been doing, pontificating as if they were superior beings belonging to a superior tribe. I have pounded this message in the past, and I was happily surprised that it is found in “Why scientists are losing the fight to communicate science to the public.” By Richard P Grant.
The argument is that “scientists and science communicators are engaged in a constant battle with ignorance. But that’s an approach doomed to failure”.
Making science attractive by despising the plebs is doomed to failure, because it turns knowledge, the highest calling, into a “us” versus “them” struggle. And that, in turn, and indeed, comes from the fact that many who work in science are driven more by self-glory, tribalism, hence intellectual fascism, guys all looking together in the same direction, than they care to admit.
A video did the rounds a couple of years ago, of some self-styled “skeptic” disagreeing – robustly, shall we say – with an anti-vaxxer. The speaker was roundly cheered by everyone sharing the video – he sure put that idiot in their place!
Scientists love to argue. Cutting through bullshit and getting to the truth of the matter is pretty much the job description. So it’s not really surprising scientists and science supporters frequently take on those who dabble in homeopathy, or deny anthropogenic climate change, or who oppose vaccinations or genetically modified food.
It makes sense. You’ve got a population that is – on the whole – not scientifically literate, and you want to persuade them that they should be doing a and b (but not c) so that they/you/their children can have a better life.
[British Celebrity physicist] Brian Cox was at it last week, performing a “smackdown” on a climate change denier…He brought graphs! Knockout blow. And yet … it leaves me cold. Is this really what science communication is about? Is this informing, changing minds, winning people over to a better, brighter future? I doubt it somehow… And I don’t think it’s as simple as people rejecting science.
What people increasingly dislike, nowadays, and rightly so, is members of the establishment, pontificating. And the so-called “scientific community” is fully part of it. … As Grant puts it: “Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever? We are exclusive, we are a gang, we are family.
That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.
I have used nearly the same discourse many times in the past. Indeed, the scientists, and mathematicians clamor, all too much: We are a gang, we are family, you are not; you are outsiders, inferior types, you are (chuckle) ignorant buffoons whose ignorance amuse us.
This is wrong in two completely different dimensions: it does not persuade, quite the opposite, because it uses the Authority Principle, instead of the Scientific Principle.
Tribalism is fundamentally opposed to science:
Science is, and develops, knowledge. Science requires an open mind. That means a mind ready to change. Science, honestly pursued, requires to be skeptical about what one knows. Science is about going beyond. Beyond one’s own mind, away from common thought… Exactly not like meerkats looking all in the same direction.
Instead, tribalism is not questioning where we come from. Just the opposite; the tribe is god. Tribalism is about war, exclusion, xenophobia, intellectual fascism. And tribalism is not about the truth: tribalism is about one’s country, right or wrong, being always right.
Thus a brain in a scientific mood is fundamentally transverse to a brain in a tribal mood.
Tribalism has slowed science immensely. For example, the tribal Roman Catholic church tried to kill scientific inquiry at every chance it got. Why? Because a superstition in place, like Catholicism, claims to have the one and only truth, it’s not about ever better truths..
Yet, all too many scientists are about tribalism, indeed. Why? Because tribalism augments one’s power. Richard Feynman resigned from the US Academy of Science, after he discovered that most of the activity there was struggling for the fittest tribal promotion, to enhance the power of the group one belonged to.
Scientists love to evoke their appurtenance to the “scientific community”. In truth, that’s offensive; we, humans, are all scientists. We, indeed, all belong to THE scientific species.
Yet, as their usage of the expression “scientific community” demonstrates, many scientists flaunt their tribalism, and the power they have of excluding “non-scientists”.
Whereas, if really keen to advance science, they should exhibit humility, and understanding, not just for what they learned by rote, but humility and understanding when interacting with others, and of skepticism itself. Debates about GMOs or new insecticides such as neonicotinoids exemplify this: many scientists are pontificating, in spite of shaky evidence for their positions. So doing, they endanger science itself.
Verily, today’s scientists know all too little. In all too many ways. Arguably, The scientists’ own global ignorance about all too many things, is what science, and science communication, paradoxically suffers from the most.