Thursday, February 6, 2014

Ham-on-Nye: What we have here is not, at least not entirely, a failure to communicate

I really don't have anything to add to the "who won and who lost" discussion about this week's Ham-on-Nye debate. So here's an analysis, not of the debate itself, but of some of the analysis of the debate, much of which has been laying the blame for the significant public rejection of the theory of evolution here on poor science communication. "Bad Astronomer," Phil Plait's opinion piece on the Slate website is a good example of this kind of criticism.

I would be one of the last people to claim that science communication does not need improvement. Improving science communication is important to me and to the organization I run, the Atlanta Science Tavern. But there's a lot more at issue here than whether the way we go about communicating the science evolution has been good or bad.

From what I've read, public science communication in the U.S. is not all that different from informal science education in much of Europe where evolution is widely accepted. The reality of anthropogenic climate change isn't such a hard-sell in Europe, either. But, interestingly enough, rejection of vaccination as a safe and effective public health measure is commonplace both here and abroad. Vaccination, in particular childhood vaccination, is considered by a large fraction of both populations to be dangerous, in spite of concerted efforts to educate the public to the contrary. The reason this is happening is because the question of vaccination safety and effectiveness has ceased to be a scientific issue in the last dozen years or so and instead has become a political one. This is an important distinction.

Revival meeting during the Second Great Awakening
So we need to appreciate the political dimension of our "evolution problem" in order to address it properly. Rejection of evolution here, much like the denial of climate change, is rooted in our political and cultural history, a history marked by "Great Awakenings" of religious fervor and a stubborn insistence that America is in some respects exceptional and that the rules that apply elsewhere in the world, however rational, do not necessarily apply here.

The implication is that the kind of difficulty that we experience in trying to maintain the integrity of the science curriculum in public schools, has a lot in common with the challenges we face in enacting rational gun control laws or sensible policies that ensure access to necessary health care for all our citizens. Of course, better communication, whether on the theory of evolution or the costs of gun-related crimes and accidents or the benefits of a healthy populace, is an important part of solving these problems. But it is not the entire solution, maybe not even most of it.

So, by all means, let's redouble our efforts to improve science communications. But it is important to keep in mind that the struggle here is primarily political and that it has more to do with values beliefs and less to do with knowledge and understanding.