Responsibility

On the subject of science and evolution, Matthew C. Nisbet and Chris Mooney write in the Washington Post:

>Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins’s arguments against religion. The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism. More than 80 percent of Americans believe in God, after all, and many fear that teaching evolution in our schools could undermine the belief system they consider the foundation of morality. Dawkins not only reinforces and validates such fears — baseless though they may be — but lends them an exclamation point.

For the record, Nisbet and Mooney do not disagree with evolution (and other matters of science fact), they’re simply arguing that scientists need to do a better job of convincing a skeptical public of the truth or the likely truth of their claims. It’s not a surprise that they need to, as even very well educated people hold all sorts of crazy views. Some deny the Holocaust, some insist on the presence of Martians in our governments, others insist that 9/11 was an inside job. The blame here does not lie with scientists. Scientists have their job to do collecting facts, making hypotheses and theories, curing disease and so forth. If the rest of us cannot interpret that, it’s our problem not theirs.

While the authors of the article correctly point out the woeful state of science education as a partial cause of this embarrassing phenomenon, we’d like to suggest that even the best educations and most well-educated people are not free from bone-headedness when it comes to facts. Someone has to be responsible.

But a brief tour of op-ed pages around the country will reveal an impoverished national discourse (just tour our archives). People who deny on no grounds or on superficially skeptical grounds the claims of well established science are given a national forum to disseminate their views. And journalists succumb to some crazy conception of balance when it comes to stories about charged topics such as evolution and global warming–airing both sides as if the truth were a matter of pure opinion. On the one side you have scientists with facts and arguments and tables and charts, on the other, a reverend with a biblical text. What is the public to think when the views of the unqualified global warming skeptic have the same forum as the consensus of qualified climatologists?

The best scientists can do is repeat their facts. They cannot explain their significance. Most of all, however, they cannot explain the significance of having evidence for your beliefs. That’s a job for philosophers.

3 thoughts on “Responsibility”

  1. jc, I assume you mean scientists not science?

    Why exactly is that the best they can do?

    This is a job for common sense, and we have no monopoly on this domain as philosophers. Scientists need never pander to ignorance while we interpret their findings, and by pander I mean ignore religious lunacy or stick to flow charts and flinging t-squares. I think we should welcome them with open arms as fellow rationalists wherever appropriate.

  2. When a scientist offers to explain the significance of having evidence rather than explain the significance of the evidence, then she is doing philosophy and not science. She is, of course, free to do this. One does not need to be a professional philosopher in order to do philosophy.

  3. Thanks Nevyn for the edit. You’re right that it’s a common sense question. But of course one need not be a philosopher to do this, as Matt correctly points out.

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