How to protect science from the ignorant

I guess I should have said something a few days ago when Mr. Bush made his “alternatives to evolution” pronouncement but a good reply didn’t come to me until today.

I have a theory, and perhaps you’ll disagree with it as being too overconfident, that religious extremists and luddites know, even if they only know it subconsciously, they can’t win the hearts and minds of the general public. If most of us agreed that evolution was false, there’d be no argument; it wouldn’t be taught in science classes at all. If most of us thought that astrology was true, there’d be no controversy; policy decisions in the District of Columbia would be based on star charts. If we all really believed the precepts of Deep Ecology; we’d bury our cars, shut down the airports and walk away from the cities, casting our clothes to the ground.

This isn’t happening.

Most people, in educated, post-industrial countries, even people who’d never read science fiction, or even people who’d never read at all, know what it means to dismiss something as “science fiction.” This suggests to me that something powerful and subtle has slipped into the collective consciousness of the public. Science surrounds us. Technology surrounds us. It makes the miraculous boring and commonplace. That’s a very profound thing.

Some constantly bemoan the sad state of education in the world. And they have good reasons to do so but, I think they fail to notice just how successful mass education really has been.

We live in a world where it’s considered nothing to put writing on a chewing gum wrapper. Think about that for a minute. Around six thousand years ago, almost no one was literate. Now, it’s no big deal to put writing on EVERYTHING in the human environment. People dislike doing math, they hate doing taxes but they can do them. Most folks can add up a bill at a restaurant. Most folks can spot when they’ve been shortchanged. It’s still possible to lie with statistics or to fool people into taking a chance on public lotteries but in small, specific examples numbers aren’t that scary.

It’s true that most people don’t have the a good understanding of sciences like archeology, anthropology, physics, mathematics, paleontology but they are surrounded by and are drowning in the engineering successes of those sciences. Medicine continues to advance. People demand that medicine continue to advance, even if they don’t understand it, sometimes disagree with it or complain that it’s too expensive. Airplanes and ships keep moving. People use mobile phones. They may not realize it but they’ve bought into a system they seem generally happy with and seem unwilling to leave.

I think the extremists know this. They know they can’t convince the public of post-industrial countries give all these things up. Extremists in developing countries seem to know they really can’t stop the world from changing them. They seem to know they can’t stop the world from shrinking. They can blow up as many buildings as they want. They can turn their countries into police states. They can drag their heels and kick and scream but they will lose. In the end, just like Gandhi said, they will lose.

This is why they elect to be clever instead. This is why they try to get tricky. This why they try to change things when they think we’re not watching. They know that it’s quality not quantity in politics. They know that science has got quantity in staggeringly overwhelming numbers. If it was just about quantity, science wins.

So the opponents of science pick their battles, the battles where they know they can win something. They pick the right lobbyists. They pick the right politicians and functionaries. They sway the right elections. This makes them seem more powerful than they really are.

And it’s true, they don’t have to be powerful. They only have to be powerful where it counts. The Nazis, the Soviets, the Fascists, the Khmer Rouge, the Taliban, General Pinochet, the KKK and so on and so on–they didn’t represent the majority in their countries, they didn’t have to. All they had to do was stage the right events, win the right battles, fake the right news stories, shoot the right opponents, fan the right flames, incite the right mobs and suddenly they were in power (Even being voted into power!) and decades of suffering followed.

It’s quality that counts.

So what do we do to avoid the setbacks of the Twentieth Century? How do we prevent people who advocate creationism from being taken seriously? How do we prevent extremists from terrorizing us with abortion clinic fires* or attacks on animal research labs*? How do we prevent astrology from being taken seriously? How do we remain vigilant?

By exposing them at every chance we get.

It’s isn’t about swaying or even educating the public. It’s about raising a stink and dragging it out loudly into the open every time these fools try to pull a fast one. Sure, it may give them press, but in the long run benefits the forces of science far more than it benefits the opponents of science. The more people argue about it, the better off science is. Politics is an ugly, exhausting process but turning away won’t help. We must be there to loudly proclaim that some notion is balderdash whenever necessary. When this is done, the education of the public is almost a given.

Perhaps perversely we should be thanking those who advocate silly notions and pseudoscience for the opportunity to use them as an opportunity to educate the public.

But remember that educating the public really isn’t the goal here. That will take care of itself in due time. The goal is to contain the ignorant to prevent them from dragging us back into the dark ages.

Just yesterday I learned that one of the related organizations of CSICOP has been given NGO status by the UN. Progress is being made comrades!

* Please note that when I mention abortion and animal research lab attacks, I don’t deny that alternatives to animal research ought to be found (Some animal research, if conducted humanely, is unavoidably necessary.) or that abortion isn’t controversial, I’m just saying that violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.

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