Bring Out Your Bigfoot: How 'Science' is Failing at Educating the Public

Harry

Science needs to get over itself. And by 'science', I mean those people who see science as some all-powerful entity containing all the answers; those self-proclaimed members of the 'reality-based community' keen to expurgate the threatening breeze of woo-woo bearing down upon the candle of rationality.

Because science itself is just a method, not a position...right?

This post has been brewing some time, but I finally decided to get some thoughts out of my head and on to your screen after seeing this tweet yesterday by the most excellent science journalist Alok Jha, regarding the 'Yeti DNA study' that's been making news this week:

It's not much, I know. But it continues a series of remarks I've seen in recent times where any stories with the sulphurous smell of the paranormal, or at the very least the strange scent emitted by the fringes of science, are seen as taking up important column space that could be devoted to more serious science. And even worse, perhaps spreading dangerous ideas.

Another example: Back in April, we posted a story about anomalous 'lights' on Mars. NBC science journalist Alan Boyle - whom we have known and loved here at TDG for many years for his fun coverage of science, both serious and strange - covered the story as well, in a blog post titled "Bright Blips on Mars Pictures Spark a Buzz Among UFO Fans". The response from some was not so enthusiastic:

My intention here is not to demonise Emily Lakdawalla or Alok Jha - I'm a big fan of their work, and others who are working in science and/or science journalism. What I am trying to point out is an increasing trend with otherwise intelligent and eloquent science lovers to decry or demean anything that even seems remotely associated with the fringes of science, such as ufology, parapsychology or cryptozoology. Not only is it supercilious, but in some cases it may not serve science so well either - for instance with the 'Mars light' story, myself and a few others pointed out there were in fact two images with anomalous lights, but we were shouted down quickly by those who cleave to Occam; the 'light' was just a cosmic ray artefact on the camera, and the two lights were just 'a coincidence that was going to happen sometime'. A day later though, and many of those same people began excitedly back-tracking, wondering whether the 'light' was actually a reflected flash from a shiny rock. In this case, by rushing to remove any hint of an anomaly, those that love science could well have ended up failing science.

But in many ways too, such a response is understandable. There is no shortage of truly crazy theories about Mars, and anything like the 'Mars light' would no doubt bring some flaky individuals out of the woodwork, claiming it as proof of an intelligent alien civilisation on the Red Planet. Even milder responses, such as suggestions that the Curiosity rover should immediately take a detour and drive over to find out what the 'light' actually was, could be rather annoying - every movement of the rover is planned carefully and must take into consideration both dangers to the vehicle, and the science it is tasked to carry out - and some of the replies to those suggestions were indeed short and sharp.

But here's the thing: responding with annoyance, anger and resentment to these stories was a major fail.

Science educators, who are you trying to reach? Scientists, who is funding your work? If the answer to either question is the general public, then the simple fact is that the weird and the strange are your friends, not your enemies.

Alan Boyle knows that. His story about the Mars 'light' was perfect. It began by pointing out an anomaly, a curiosity, something that any normal reader would respond to with "whoah, a strange light on Mars...what the hell is that?" He then guided the reader into the science of Mars research by pointing out the likely rational explanation. Instant win for science-lovers: educating people as well as bringing focus to what is an amazing scientific endeavour, the robotic exploration of another planet.

Rather than quickly trotting out the first rational 'explain-away' they could come up with, both NASA and others could have used this story as a springboard for so much more. Thousands, maybe millions of people's eyeballs are upon you, do you know how much some people pay for that? "We think the light might just be a camera artifact, but we sure are open to other ideas! It's difficult for us drive the rover in that direction on short notice, but if we get the chance you can be sure we'll be checking out this folks. Keep a close eye on the next round of images we'll be releasing on our website and let us know if you see anything else". There, it's not that hard is it?

Another example: I have always wondered about what damage SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) did to their cause by strongly aligning themselves with the pseudo-skeptical group CSICOP around a decade ago. Two of the organisation's most public faces openly derided the UFO phenomenon, and those interested in it, in blog postings and interview appearances. This seems insane to me...there is vast interest in the general public on this topic, a perfect 'way in' for SETI to use to attract interest in their projects and/or raise funding, and instead they took a dump on their own dinner plate. Most of those truly interested in the UFO topic ended up seeing SETI as the opposition. Fail.

Another factor contributing to the issue is that for those intimately involved in science, the minutiae are important. Those things that might seem boring to others are important. But, members of the reality-based community, here's the reality of the situation: Joe Public out there is coming home from a long day of (often mindless) work, looking for a combination of entertainment and education in the one or two hours they might have to spare before going to bed and then wading through the same shit all over again. Would you like to listen to a bricklayer bemoaning the lack of understanding in the general public about the finer points of a good mortar? That's what you sound like folks. People's time is valuable, and they don't want to spend it hearing you whining about how everyone else doesn't invest enough time in what you find valuable.

So get out of your echo chamber, stop being so stodgy and pretentious about what you do, and entertain the punters while you educate them! Bring out your Bigfoot, kick-start your UFO, do what you need to get the story across and have some goddamn fun while you do it! And you know what, in the process, you might even find that some of those weird anomalies you're using to educate people have some interesting science to them as well and could be worth a closer look...

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jupiter.enteract's picture
Member since:
21 January 2005
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3 weeks 18 hours

...well said.

I've often wondered whether that sort of knee-jerk debunkery is motivated by A) a genuine conviction that these subjects are "crazy" and need to be discouraged (as Bill Hicks would say, "Think of the children!!"), or B) by a striving for superiority that shoots down alternative ideas as a way to show dominance and appear smarter-than-thou. (There's a third possibility, I suppose—it's part of an organized disinformation campaign working to discourage investigation into these subjects. While that may be true in some cases—most likely where CSICOP- and/or former military-types are involved, e.g., Joe Nickell--I can't really see that applying to less rabid critics like those mentioned here.)

emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
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15 hours 52 min

To me the most striking thing about knee jerkery in the sciences is that it always appears so "childish." The reactions are often whining, employ emotionally hurtful sarcasm, and exhibit the childish ego. I am not exempt from these behaviors myself sometimes, but they are sort of a "residue" from the child years that some of us did not entirely overcome or as they say "process." It doesn't help either that a lot of debunkery fundies are a bit aspergerish, socially retarded, and unempathic. There - now I am the pot calling the kettle black.

Greg's picture
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30 April 2004
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22 hours 34 min
jupiter.enteract wrote:

...well said.

I've often wondered whether that sort of knee-jerk debunkery is motivated by A) a genuine conviction that these subjects are "crazy" and need to be discouraged (as Bill Hicks would say, "Think of the children!!"), or B) by a striving for superiority that shoots down alternative ideas as a way to show dominance and appear smarter-than-thou.

Hi Ray,

From my experience, (b) is the predominant answer...most people with this attitude seem to wrap themselves in the cloak of science as a means of demonstrating an intellectual superiority.

Kind regards,
Greg
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You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

red pill junkie's picture
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12 April 2007
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As you probably know, I'm a huge fan of Daniele Bollelli, his compadre Rich Evers & their podcast The Drunken Taoist. Their latest episode showed an interview they had with Cara Santa Maria, a science communicator who has her own podcast Talk Nerdy, but that --as many nerds nowadays-- shows some level of contempt for 'woo stuff.'

As if being enamored with Science automatically turns you into an enemy of Woo --"you shall pick a side, dammit!"

Anyway, during the interview Daniele relates a very interesting story involving his father, who found himself one night standing next to a lamp post waiting for the bus, and all of a sudden heard a voice inside his head telling him to "move the f#$k out right now!" He did just that & the next thing you know the lamp post crashed right over the very same place he'd been standing at just a moment ago.

Grailers will undoubtedly recognize this incident as another example of 'the 3rd Man Factor', and yet Cara tried to offer a 'rational' explanation for the phenomenon --"maaaybe somebody saw the post was falling from the 10th floor & said 'you should probably move'."

Srsly?

Cara also said scientific revolutions are *very* rare & infrequent; yet one wonders if the rarity has less to do with the nature of scientific research per se, or the stubbornness of academics who just don't have time or interest in looking at those pesky anomalies we 'civilians' find ourselves so interested in ;)

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie
_______________
@red_pill_junkie

emlong's picture
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18 September 2007
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And so many scientists now are in thrall to either an academic institution or a funding entity that is usually quite conservative and terrified of "losing face." Living in a college town I know the scene in general - the most terrifying prospect for an academic is to lose tenure track, and that can be upset by a single infraction that even faintly smells of the outre'.

red pill junkie's picture
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12 April 2007
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Listening to Aaron Gulyas on Radio Misterioso --highly recommended BTW--shows just what a slippery edge Forteana can be for an academic. I don't know if Aaron has tenure, but he seems to be overtly preoccupied with how his interest in UFOs might ruin his career.

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie
_______________
@red_pill_junkie

Rudyi Lis's picture
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27 September 2011
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1 year 3 weeks

People seem to have a need to explain events within their accepted models (even when the rational explanation is purely speculation with no evidence to back it up, like the person on the 10th floor example) rather than simply admitting, "Yeah, that's a weird story." As if the latter means accepting the opposing point of view.

I've felt the same way myself while debating a Catholic apologist. He was pointing to Virgin Mary sightings as evidence and I felt a strong emotional need to debunk them and find any kind of alternative explanation rather than simply acknowledging, "That's a strange story, but I still don't think it's enough to establish Christianity as the one true religion."

I think it's important to step outside of debates and view them as competing narratives rather than letting our own emotions and biases overwhelm us into wanting to "win."

I had an English class where we had to debate whether or not Simon from Lord of the Flies was a Christ figure. The class was split into sides based on drawing lots from a hat. I was convinced Simon was a Christ figure, that the other side was wrong, and that I had evidence to back up my team's argument. I realized afterwards that I would have felt the same strong belief if I had randomly selected the opposing side instead.

Of course, most people don't realize how ingrained in reality tunnels they are.

Anthony McCarthy's picture
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20 March 2013
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The CSICOP-James Randi "Educational" Foundation, neo-atheism in general, is popular with a large number of people who are entirely scientifically incompetent, taking from it permission to pretend they are sciency. Some of whom probably couldn't solve a simple equation of one variable and who believe that spouting words and phrases like "fallacy" and, heavens help us, "Poe's Law" or that all purpose excuse for their spouting ignorantly "The Courtier's Reply" is all they need to do to be logic ninjas while being quite innocent of logic.

I always remember how in sTARBABY the Grand Wizard of CSICOP, Paul Kurtz proved he was entirely incompetent in statistics, rendering him unable to evaluate controlled psi research or much of any scientific research AND HOW EVEN THE "FELLOWS" AND "COUNCILORS" WITNESSED HIS INCOMPETENCE DIDN'T BREAK WITH HIM. Even as most of them were professional scientists. But, then, they also eagerly associated with James Randi (also demonstrably incompetent in the same way) and Phillip Klass, who added sleazy meanness to incompetence and dabbling in pseudo-science, himself.

The whole thing is a fraudulent cult and real scientists are immune to the allure of artificial, imitation competence. Look at how they love to repeat phony historical "facts," something that Carl Sagan's student and successor as "The Greatest Genius In The World" Neil DeGrasse Tyson seems to be repeating. And, speaking of Sagan, there is his brilliant contribution "The Amniotic Universe", something so bad that even the psychologist whose bogus work he cited said he had distorted it.

RealityTest's picture
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16 August 2006
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A truly thorough and effective critique of contemporary science would both examine its flaws -- foundational assumptions, both formal and hidden (the latter rarely examined) -- and explain how so very many practical applications work, even with these flaws.

Even if some extremely gifted person -- preferably a practitioner of science, but someone also versed in the history and philosophy of science -- were to publish such a critique tomorrow, few adherents of Scientism would bother to read it, while smears would very likely be issued by those who did no more than briefly skim small sections, if they bothered to read even those.

The situation is somewhat akin to the emergence of science in the first place, when those holding "orthodox" or "mainstream" beliefs ridiculed (or worse) some of the pioneers.

Note that the Royal Society, which added great impetus to the early development of science, was founded almost exclusively by Freemasons and Rosicrucians. Newton's later pursuit of alchemy is very well known, but alchemy today is understood quite differently than it was by its practitioners. If it's mentioned at all in general science courses it's as a warped and misguided predecessor of chemistry, not as a "practice" for inner development accompanied by symbolic external activities.

Of course there can be no point to "inner development" according to the foundational assumptions of contemporary science, in a kind of closed loop situation. These assumptions, too, very often become strongly held personal beliefs. What is a human being? (Is it an entirely physical or material organism?) What is human perception? (Is it limited to the usual five -- sometimes six -- senses?) What is "objective observation?" (Is it even possible?) What is the true relationship between the scientific observer and what she or he is observing? Is cause and effect closely linked to a particular experience of linear time, associated with a certain widespread "narrowed" individual consciousness? Etc., etc.

Even within science we have the situation Kuhn and others explored long ago, before Kuhn's use of "paradigm" became over-popularized and used in very different non-academic situations.

If you were alive in a time and place where Aristotle and the Catholic Church held sway, you might have believed ardently in the reigning official mass beliefs and shouted down anyone who imagined any other possibilities; you might also have kept your mouth shut -- or else -- or belonged to some secret society.

In that respect, things are better today -- much better.

Some might believe that contemporary science and what Huxley called "the perennial wisdom" will never merge, resulting in a very changed science.

I believe this will happen in the next 60-200 years, along present probable paths. Breakthroughs have been happening for years but have so far been unable to penetrate what amounts to a powerful, egoic "belief barrier."

Everything changes, of course; what is "mainstream" today will be yesterday's ridiculous dogma in some tomorrow.

This doesn't prevent anyone who's interested in "unorthodox" ways of understanding from pursuing such interests, now -- there's no reason to wait 60-200 years (plus we'll all be dead by then, anyway), but whether they should open their mouths or not is a good question. They're aren't likely to be thrown into a dungeon for doing so, but would all the trouble that would likely ensue be worth it? They would also likely suffer from a lack of resources, for obvious reasons.

There might be various ways to accelerate these changes in belief, understanding, and consciousness, with the Internet playing a role. These could, potentially, drastically shorten my estimate.

Bill I.

emlong's picture
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18 September 2007
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I am immersed in the making of, selling of, and enjoying of... orgonite which sometimes gets hammered by the professional debunkers. What I and my many satisfied customers keep telling them is that it is not an intellectual experience or a "theory" - it is an experience. It has a wonderful "feel' to it. One does not need to agree with the theory of orgonite to be a believer. I have converted hundreds of people to orgonite by dint of the physical and mental reactions they had to it once they got some into their physical possession.It is the feeling mode that is going to persuade people of the interestingness of new things, newly discovered things. Of course, not all new science can be apprehended by feeling, but some of it will, and those are the things that most excite me. Some of the new science will be an experience - not just an idea. There will be felt physical effects about which no one can argue in a purely intellectual manner.