Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it

Skeptical Heresies #7

April 18th, 2011 Posted in Creationism, Education, General Science, Psychology

7. Skeptics are seen as boring and/or angry

I remember listening, a few years ago, to a senior British politician complaining about how it was shocking that (then Conservative Leader) Ian Duncan-Smith was voted out despite the fact that he was such an incredibly talented politician. What struck me at the time was that the interviewee had completely missed the point. Part of the job of a good politician is getting people to support them. And a good chunk of that is being liked, being personable and being popular with the public.

I often think the same thing when watching notable scientists and sceptics debate all manner of pseudoscientists and crazies. Creationists are amongst the best at this – they present an amazingly entertaining talk (often merely frustrating if you actually know why they’re wrong, but most people in the audience don’t) And the bottom line is that the audiences lap it up. And ultimately, as nobody has the time to investigate all subjects to the depth required to make a thoroughly rigorous analysis of the arguments in each direction, they are forced to go for the side they trust, or the side that they wish to be associated with. Or, frankly, with the side that gives the most emotionally attractive argument – even if that means lying. And the lies and distortions obviously anger the scientists – which makes them frustrated and annoyed, and that makes them even less appealing. After all, “Being a scientist/atheist/skeptic just seems to make people upset and angry. Why would I want to do that?”

The field of psychology called “Argumentation Theory” deals with the way human beings base their decisions, and how they assess the evidence for and against a particular theory, based both on the logic of the arguments made, and the emotional and psychological aspects. For example, factors that are often found in highly persuasive propaganda such as simplification, using biased subsets of the evidence, repetition, appeal to intuition, straw-man arguments. Creationists use all of these, of course, and many more. Scientists don’t. Admittedly, scientists are at a huge advantage from day one because they feel like they can’t “lower themselves” to use trickery in debates. And I quite agree – which is why I think public debates are a terrible idea.

However, scientists are at another huge disadvantage because it often takes 5 seconds to come up with a supposed objection to a scientific theory, and may take minutes, hours or even months to get someone up to the level of knowledge that they might require to understand why the argument is wrong. For example: consider the argument “And scientists say that you can’t just add speeds together. Like when you’re on a train going at a very high speed, and you throw something forwards, it doesn’t actually go any faster than you are. Who do they think they are kidding?” Now work out how long it would take to get a layperson up-to-speed on special relativity…

So creationists (and others like them) have a huge advantage there, but they also have a huge advantage because they are appealing to people who find their viewpoint much more attractive and interesting, and that the scientific viewpoint is cold and boring. The field of “Social Psychology” covers this aspect of argumentation – that people tend to agree with those people whom they actually like. Often scientists are seen rather like trainspotters – fascinated by the minutiae of certain aspects of knowledge that most people cannot imagine finding interesting. Darwin, for example, spent a large fraction of his young life studying snails. I think that’s fundamentally part of being a scientist – again, are we at a huge disadvantage from square one?

Are we wasting our time attempting to appeal to the public? Much as people like Marcus du Sautoy would like to think otherwise, the majority of the public finds most of science and mathematics uninteresting and uninspiring. It’s not that they had a bad teacher, or they never learned the interesting bits – I just fundamentally don’t think they’re interested – in the same way that I can’t imagine anything anyone could say that would get me interested in train spotting.

It’s a hugely difficult problem, because ultimately it is the public who decide how much money gets allotted to scientific research. How much is it our duty to popularise our subject – and, by so doing, perhaps to cheapen it and to simplify or over-dramatise it to the point where we’re actually being misleading? Do the ends justify the means?

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