May 17, 2013, by Warren Pearce
Debating empty chairs: creationism, climate and public engagement
This 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.
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.
Here in TN, they have taken steps though new legislation to allow creationism back into the classroom. This law turns the clock back nearly 100 years here in the seemingly unprogressive South and is simply embarrassing. There is no argument against the Theory of Evolution other than that of religious doctrine. The Monkey Law only opens the door for fanatic Christianity to creep its way back into our classrooms. You can see my visual response as a Tennessean to this absurd law on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/04/pulpit-in-classroom-biblical-agenda-in.html with some evolutionary art and a little bit of simple logic.
Thanks for your comment Brandt, was aware that there has been similar moves in other parts of the US, but good to read a bit more detail about TN on your blog. My argument (with hindsight) is that science has a very strong case with the theory of evolution, it’s a shame they chose not to make it at the Kansas hearings.
That concluding sentence lacks any support in the preceding text, Warren. How exactly did it detract from their standing? Is it just an opinion of yours with no empirical basis? As a social scientist you should know better than to make that sort of argument.
And “Encounters with the public sphere may also help engender the spirit of humility in scientists which lies at the heart of seeking new knowledge.” Say what? One might conclude that you’re just another STS guy with an axe to grind re the real (physical) scientists. I’ve seen that movie before.
Hi Steve, thanks for coming back to the blog to comment. Re your first point, you’re right of course that I didn’t arrive at my conclusion through any first-hand empirical analysis. I watched the documentary intently, which is just one particular interpretation of what happened. Having said that, I think the documentary is played pretty straight, and the director reported to the audience in the Q&A that all the participants felt their views had been represented accurately. By the end of the film, I was left wondering what Citizens For Science had achieved through organising the boycott. The alternative was hardly ideal, appearing in front of school board members who they felt had already made up their mind. However, issuing statements saying that ‘science has already answered these questions’ seemed counter-productive to me, and sent a signal that science wasn’t in service to the public.
This links to your second point. For all kinds of reasons – not least reliance on public funding – science should be seen as serving the public good. This does *not* imply some kind of relativist stance where scientific knowledge is treated in the same way as that of any given individual. However, to ensure that scientific knowledge is afforded its appropriate status, it needs to ‘prove its public worth’ for want of a better phrase. That is, it needs to be available to make the case that it has reached more robust conclusions about the world than anyone else. Science can’t take its elevated status for granted, and say “we’ve already answered those questions” in cases of public concern, no matter how frustrating and apparently basic some of those questions might be.
Were that approach being applied to a single event, it would be questionable, and while I haven’t seen the documentary to judge for myself it’s entirely plausible that it didn’t work out well (although, as you say, it’s impossible to know how the alternative would have done).
I think what we’re seeing, in a multitude of manifestations, is the scientific community deciding that the way to deal with the unpersuadable anti-scientific minority of society is to reduce their influence by isolating them rather than inviting them to an endless series of polite “post normal” discussions over tea. This approach requires occupying the public discussion space (for lack of a better phrase), which among other things means a whole lot more scientists moving into the public arena to educate the public while not engaging with denialists. It’s still early days in terms of gauging success, but from what I can see the chances seem good.
It’s interesting that many communications professionals/academics seem hostile to the new approach. Why is that, do you suppose?
BTW, see here starting at 18:59 for a pithy summation by leading physicist Ernie Moniz, the new U.S. Department of Energy Secretary.