Saturday, May 15, 2010

Why it's Hard to Debate the Scientifically Illiterate

I’ve been wanting to write this entry for a while, since it’s a growing area of concern for me, I am of course talking of the decline of Scientific Literacy in America, and specifically the Midwest, since that’s where I’m from. I feel that we as a country are racing towards a dark age of our own, where ignorance is seen as a virtue, and education is look down upon. I see this in the rejection of “Elites” and “Scientists” and the constant attacks on legitimate scientists by people who barely understand the concepts being discussed. I see feelings and beliefs trumping facts and evidence, and I see misunderstandings of facts and evidence being used as attacks against scientific fields.

This is a hard article to write because of the people I know who will read this and feel that I am speaking directly to them…which I am…but what I have to say isn’t really friendly.

It is difficult to have discussions about scientific fields with people who are not educated. The reason is because those who are not scientifically literate can’t understand the basic concepts of science. This becomes very aggravating when these same people insist that Scientists and science are wrong.

The knee jerk reaction is to be unpleasant to these people, and as rewarding as this may seem, it’s not the best reaction. So what is the alternative? How do you discuss things with those who can’t understand? How you debate the merits of a theory, when the other party doesn't understand what a theory is? This is the dilemma.

We could spend time educating our opponents. We could lay information at their feet, send them videos, talks, books, papers, but it won’t matter if they can’t understand what is being said. We could attempt to go back to the basics with them, but personal experience has shown that this usually upsets people because they view this as talking down to them. It seems like a huge waste of time, but something must be done, so what?

A few sites on the web have attempted to address this problem. Some are aimed at making science accessible to the general public, some are more like support groups. Richard Dawkins and the Amazing James Randi both started educational foundations, Dr. Jeff Goldstein created a blog to be used by teachers to help with student education on the Universe, Hank Campbell, has created a site to promote what he calls Science 2.0, and there are several forums like the League of Reason and Science Blogs that give individuals a space to create a scientific dialogue. Whatever the reason for going to the sites, I think anyone can start to delve into the world of science and self educate. I am a big supporter of self-education, not only does it show that a persona has recognized a weakness, but they’ve taken action to fix it.

Still, many will not go to these sites for one reason or another, but still feel they have a right to be part of the dialogue. What then? How do you debate with the ignorant? I offer Dawkins’ Solution, He simply doesn't.

Cold? Yes. Necessary? Yes.

I wouldn’t go to my mechanic and argue with him on the ways to repair my car. I wouldn't go to a construction site and tell them how their building is wrong. So why should I tolerate someone coming to me to tell me my field is wrong?

So why do people think that by simply reading a half-assed synopsis of an elaborate scientific paper, that they know have all the knowledge they require to challenge career scientists? Just because we live in the Information Age, doesn’t mean you now know everything. Some things require focus and education. Things like advice concepts, require study before they are understood completely. Sometimes, things will never be entirely clear, and often the ability to distinguish those from things that are clear needs to be learned as well. Some theories are not up for debate, and some are. Unless you understand how theories are made and tested, you can’t distinguish between the two.

The point here is not to tell those who don’t know not to talk about science. The point here is that you should take the time to become educated in the topics you wish to discuss. Some will be easier to learn than others, the Scientific Method is a pretty simple concept, as is the formation and testing of a theory. Some will take years, and hours and hours of study. You may need to read books, watch videos, talk to experts in the field. This is the process of education, and education always leads to better understanding.


  1. Great blog post! I would also add that not only is self-education important, it is important to study the viewpoints you oppose in detail. It is difficult to reason with someone who thinks they are educated even though their self-education consists mainly of things like combing through the Institute for Creation Research's website, visiting the Creation museum, read Forbidden Archaeology, etc.

  2. Good point, it's a weakness in my argument. I would hope however that in a debate against such an individual it would become apparent that they don't know what they think they know...sadly I don't really think that will happen.

  3. liked it, but a little constructive criticism and then feel free to delete this post.
    1) "and education is look down upon" change to "looked"
    2) I see this in the rejection of “Elites” and “Scientists” - get rid of quotations and capitals.
    3) I see feelings and beliefs trumping facts and evidence, and I see misunderstandings of facts and evidence being used as attacks against scientific fields. - Make into two sentences. (this one's pretty subjective)