By now we’re familiar with accommodationists attacking scientists as being largely responsible for not only the rejection of science by the faithful (because we’re so clueless about how to frame our work) but also for scientific illiteracy itself. A few days ago PeeZee posted about a misguided attack by Carlin Romano on Massimo Pigliucci’s new book on pseudoscientific garbage, Nonsense on Stilts. Romano objected to the certainty with which scientists dismiss pseudoscientific claims—a certainty that, he argues, translates into the public appearance of arrogance.
A new article on the accommodationist website BioLogos makes a similar point. In “The dangers of advocacy in science”, molecular biologist Steven Benner claims that one reason “why non-scientists often have a difficult time understanding what scientists do” is because when we appear in public to advocate causes, we fail to convey the uncertainty inherent in the scientific enterprise.
When scientists appear in the news, they are generally sought for their advice on a matter of public policy. They are asked for certainty, not to express the uncertainty that is at the core of science correctly done. . .
The temptation to participate in the public dialogue as an advocate is considerable. I myself have been interviewed by reporters who become impatient if I actually practice science before their eyes. It is generally simpler give an answer rather than to present the context, including all of its uncertainty.
For this reason, it is important, here and elsewhere, for scientists to emphasize that uncertainty is central to science, and advocacy is disruptive of it. When a scientist becomes an advocate, he loses for himself the power to use scientific discipline to discern reality.
Indeed! From now on whenever I defend evolutionary biology in public, I’ll make sure to emphasize that, after all, even though it’s been supported by 150 years of solid evidence and millions of facts, and there is not a single fact to suggest that the idea of evolution is wrong, some day we just might find a fossil rabbit in the Precambrian. Maybe that public professional of uncertainty will finally make people sit up and accept evolution.
Benner fails to appreciate two things. First of all, scientist-advocates wear two hats: when we’re advocating public policy or some other social change, we are not practicing science. We are acting as humans who have concerns and science-based arguments. Or are we not supposed to advocate anything because we’re scientists?
Of course we can be fallible (look at the scientists who deny that AIDS is caused by a virus), and we shouldn’t pretend certainty when it doesn’t exist, but do most scientists who go on radio and t.v. really pretend that they know more than they do? That’s not my impression, and it’s telling that Benner doesn’t give a single example of the failure of scientists to show proper deference to The Great Unknown. (He mentions doctors putting on white coats when appearing with Obama to endorse health care reform, but that’s hardly the same thing.) And when the news does show us looking dogmatic, more often than not it’s the fault of sound-bite loving journalists who edit out all the uncertainties. I’m quite familiar with that!
Second, some scientific advances, including the “theories” of evolution and virus causation of AIDS, are so well established that it’s simply moronic to pretend there are credible doubts about them. Usually—though not always—scientists advocate based on what they feel is reasonably well established knowledge in the field. Do we really want doctors advocating measures against AIDS to appear on t.v. saying, “Well, you know, there are a very, very few people with Ph.D.s who feel that AIDS is simply the result of a decadent lifestyle”? It’s no smarter to hedge well established science than to hedge any other well established fact used to support a cause.
But wait—there’s a bigger problem. What about all that advocacy based on religion? Can we expect BioLogos to also advise the faithful to stop advocating based on their religious views? Or at least to hedge their statements like this:
“We should prevent all abortions because even one-day-old embryos have souls. Oh, wait. . . I forgot to add that there’s not the slightest bit of evidence that humans do have a soul.”
“You shouldn’t use condoms to prevent AIDS because God says that birth control is wrong. Of course, we have absolutely no evidence for God’s existence.”
There’s a curious asymmetry in the views of accommodationists. They tell us that we’re supposed to be meek, humble, respectful, and always ready to emphasize our uncertainties. But who has more uncertainty or arrogance than the faithful, who take public stands on abortion, bioethics, conservation and the like based on beliefs for which there’s no evidence? As always, religion gets a pass in the marketplace of ideas.
Let’s rewrite that BioLogos statement so that it addresses the other side of the faith/science debate:
For this reason, it is important, here and elsewhere, for the faithful to emphasize that uncertainty is central to religion, and advocacy is disruptive of it. When a religious person becomes an advocate, he loses for himself the power to use faith to discern reality.
UPDATE: Benner has written two long responses to the critiques of his post that P.Z. and I have written, accusing us of not having read his essay and of ignoring his impressive credentials as a scientist. Rather than have a long back and forth in the comments section here, I refer you to his response at Pharyngula, which you can find here (comments 39 and 40).
My own response is this: I stand by what I wrote. I do apologize for my initial misspelling of Benner’s name (which I immediately corrected when one of the commenters pointed it out). Benner beefs that P.Z. and I did not read his entire multi-part essay. That’s right: I was not criticizing the whole thing, which I still have not read, but only his one final post on why scientists should not be advocates. It was a sloppy and misguided piece, and my comments on it stand. And Benner’s text, which is what I criticized, was at odds with what the accompanying cartoon showed.