May 17, 2013, by Warren Pearce

Debating empty chairs: creationism, climate and public engagement

chair by Stefan BucherThis week, Making Science Public has been very proud to welcome US film director Jeff Tamblyn during his UK visit. On Wednesday we screened his amazing film, Kansas vs Darwin, a documentary charting the attempts by members of the Kansas School Board to introduce creationism and intelligent design into high school science teaching. The film focuses on three days of hearings held by the Board, in which they intended to hear evidence from both sides of the argument. However, the hearings were boycotted by pro-evolution scientists following a campaign by local pressure group Kansas Citizens for Science, who felt that participation would only have lent credibility to the creationist case. Although the pro-evolution case was represented by a lawyer, one was left to question the impact of those scientists choosing not to attend in person.

Empty chairs

The case put me in mind of a recent climate science segment on Fox News, a conservative-leaning US cable channel with a reputation for climate scepticism. Fox wanted a debate between prominent climate scientist Gavin Schmidt (NASA) and Roy Spencer (University of Alabama), author of “The Great Global Warming Blunder”. Schmidt agreed to discuss climate science but not debate directly with Spencer, which led to each interviews with each man sat next to an empty chair. Schmidt said he was happy to appear and talk about science, but not take part in debate for the sake of ‘good television’:

In both cases, scientists faced situations they might have characterised as hostile, and unreceptive to their arguments. In Kansas, there was a decision not to take part at all (although scientists did give regular press conferences). On Fox News, Schmidt was more pro-active, successfully changing the rules of engagement, although the rather stagey ‘one in, one out’ manoeuvring threatened to overshadow the substance of what was discussed.

Filling the chair?

Where and when should scientists engage with the public? Resources – principally, time – are limited, so this is a critical question. However, it seems  to me from both cases is that scientific arguments must be represented effectively in the public sphere. Misrepresentation and miscommunication are a fact of life. This may be reduced by public engagement or, more likely, will carry on regardless. However, it is the *acts* of engagement, appearance and debate which are important. Such appearances will always be more effective at fostering public trust in science than staying locked in the lab. Encounters with the public sphere may also help engender the spirit of humility in scientists which lies at the heart of seeking new knowledge.

Kansas Citizens for Science were concerned that appearing at the hearings would lend credibility to the opposition. In hindsight, all the ’empty chair’ did was detract from their own standing.

Kansas vs Darwin is being shown TODAY at 1.30pm at University of Nottingham, and next Wednesday at Warwick University, with both events followed by Q&A with director, Jeff Tamblyn. Or stream the film or buy the DVD from the film website.

Posted in Climate ChangeCreationismPublic educationReligionScience CommunicationtransparencyTrust