Sunday, July 23, 2006

Scientific Complexity and Public Debate

I believe I've mentioned how I've been listening to the Scientific American podcast recently, and I'm really enjoying it. The host, Steve Mirsky, has a fine sense of humor, which comes to light particularly in the "Totally Bogus" section of the podcast, where he challenges you to identify one of four science news stories as "totally bogus." He also seems to have a knack for finding interesting, likable, and even inspiring scientists to interview on the show. 

Mirsky's humor is at its most scathing when directed against proponents of Intelligent Design and other opponents of the scientific theory of evolution. This week's totally bogus news story, for example, was that the Dinosaur Adventure Land theme park ("Where dinosaurs and the Bible meet!") closed because of overwhelming scientific evidence that humans and dinosaurs never coexisted on Earth. That's bogus, because the actual reason it closed had to do with the fact that the church that ran it never filed building permits for the place. (They claim that applying for building permits, and paying the associated fees, would amount to paying a tax, which would deny Christ's lordship over the church. That's how I read this page—click the red banner on top—on a quick scan, anyway.) I'm filing them as yet another entry in the list of people who give religion a bad name.

Speaking of giving religion a bad name: I passed on a brief joke about the publication of Ann Coulter's book, Godless, on 6/6/06, but, to be honest, I knew very little about Coulter. (I live a very sheltered life, what with not watching television.) So yesterday I read an article discussing that book's two-chapter "refutation" of the theory of evolution. It's a long article, but a worthwhile read, if you can make it through the science. Back to that in a sec. But I was frankly appalled more at her fundamental meanness—the way she hurls random insults around at people whose politics she disagrees with—than at her scientific ignorance. Somehow, I find that diminishes the strength of an argument about how liberals are supposed to be godless. 

So there's something really important lurking in the background of all this discussion, and it has to do with the complexity of the issues our society is debating, and the fact that debate and complexity are really difficult to reconcile. Ann Coulter says this about the people who coaches her through the principles of Intelligent Design:

I couldn't have written about evolution without the generous tutoring of Michael Behe, David Berlinski, and William Dembski, all of whom are fabulous at translating complex ideas, unlike liberal arts types, who constantly force me to the dictionary to relearn the meaning of quotidian.

(Is that supposed to be a joke? That she had to make quotidian trips to the dictionary to look up quotidian? I think I'm missing something here.)

Anyway, the Media Matters article is thorough and convincing, to me . . . but it's hard reading. There are a lot of complex ideas in there. And in the modern political atmosphere, complexity is an excuse for your opponent to point at holes and gaps in your knowledge and claim they undermine your entire argument. When scientists say that, for example, its more rare for soft-bodied creatures to fossilize than for hard structures like bones and shells, it's easy to oversimplify that qualification, as Coulter does, and claim that it's false because we have some fossils of soft-bodied creatures. Scientists say, "No, wait, we didn't say it never happens, just that it's even more rare," and they look weak and waffling. 

For another clear example of this sort of thing, check this entry on the SciAm weblog. It discusses, basically, the paradox that scientists find themselves in when trying to explain global warming. If they responsibly report the open questions and the variety of possibilities, they convince no one. If they simplify (or maybe oversimplify), they're accused of resorting to scare tactics by highlighting only the most extreme possibilities. 

That's what scares me. We live in a country where we place so little value on scientific education that religion can get taught as science, politicians can manipulate science to serve their own interests (and seriously, what do you think Senator Inhofe has to gain from attacking the science behind global warming? What else but generous contributions from the oil industry?), and important research can get killed because of partisan agendas. I don't know what the answer is. Scientific knowledge has become so intricate and specialized that it's impossible to expect even policymakers, let alone voters, to be well-informed about issues that will have significant impact on our educational system, our consumer habits, our medical treatments, and our world. How do we ensure that decisions are made based on informed consideration rather than political lobbying and misguided theology?

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