Thanks to Mike McRae (@tribalscientist on Twitter) for this timely essay!
A butterfly flapping its wings might cause a typhoon in China, but if it suggests showing its cleavage, just what can we expect? Going on the recent Boobquake event, natural disasters are the least of our concerns; of bigger concern is the controversy on how skeptics should approach public engagement.
Going on the aggressive responses from a number of skeptics, it’s hard to see how a rather flippant, cheeky protest against the ignorant remarks of a Muslim cleric could be seen as anything more than a bit of fun. If you oppose it, you must be a little uptight, or repressed, or a prude, right?
There is another side to this that needs considering, one that has less to do with Boobquake – The Cheeky Protest, and more to do with Boobquake – Engaging the Public in Science.
The difference between the two is subtle. So subtle, in fact, few people seemed to recognise the shift at all, and in defence state in the same breath that the event was just showing how silly the imam’s claim is and it got people interested in science. There is a key difference between these statements that reflects a serious problem in how skeptics engage with the public, however. To understand it, we need to go back a couple of decades to several studies performed in the US and the UK.
To summarise the results of these investigations into public attitudes on science – which appear to have remained relatively consistent over the years – people rather like science. Compared with how people describe their interest in fields such as sporting news, contemporary politics and new films, scientific discoveries in medicine and technology blow the rest out of the water. The problem, therefore, isn’t in how to get the public’s attention in regards to things that have a ‘sciencey’ look-and-feel about them. It’s that most people confess they just don’t get how science works.
While people claim to like science, few have a memory for fundamental scientific facts. The oft-cited results of one such study highlight how few Americans and Brits know the Earth has one complete orbit around the Sun each year (25% and 28% respectively in 1988). About a third of Brits knew that electrons were smaller than atoms, while about 37% of Americans knew that humans didn’t coexist with dinosaurs.
Times change, however – the study also reported that only 23% of the British public knew of a claimed link between fossil fuel burning and potential global warming, a figure that has since tripled thanks to varied media focus and educational programs. This is not the same as saying the same percentage of people agrees with the claim, mind you – knowing the claim exists is not the same as embracing it personally. However it does show that the fundamental facts depend on what the public find to be relevant to their everyday lives and aren’t necessarily beyond learning them.
In addition, public confidence in their understanding of science is low. While an individual prefer to read news reports about the latest innovations in science, they also claim to not be very well informed about it. This comes across as something of a paradox. How can you read a lot about something and still not feel as if you’ve got a good grasp of it, yet still continue to like it?
By and large, science communicators – a term that covers those who contextualise the results of science for diverse members of the larger community, such as science journalists, marketers, outreach officers and educators – have come to accept that there is a great difference between science as a product and science as a process.
The former is relatively easy to sell. It’s also incredibly easy to spin, hyperbolise and manipulate. Presented with a barrage of seemingly conflicting information, people sense this and so take their daily dose of science with a grain of salt, expecting that today’s cause of cancer will ironically be tomorrow’s cure and today’s global warming will be tomorrow’s global cooling. They’ll happily come to the table and gobble it up if the price is right, telling you how much they like it, but don’t expect them to ask who cooked it.
For skeptics, this should be a perfect niche. Skepticism is primarily concerned with the values and thinking that go into the scientific methodology. But it’s science communication’s hard problem.
Unfortunately, skeptics are quick to return to the mistakes made by communicators and educators. In the past, it’s been believed that people believe the wrong thing because they simply don’t know any better. Hence, if you ‘fill the deficit’, there’s a good chance they’ll come around. The deficit model of education continues to be a robust myth employed desperately by people hoping to get people to abandon their naïve and ignorant ways, and yet continues to fail. Delivered to the choir, it has the appearance of success by putting words to what they already suspected, without truly creating a new way of thinking.
Even worse are the outreach efforts that have no real prior goal other than a vague sense of improvement in the public’s awareness of how silly something sounds and how sensible science must be. In February 2010, protests were held in various cities around the world against the sale of homeopathic treatments in general pharmacies, nominally in the British owned ‘Boots’ chain. The so-called ’10:23’ suicide staged the swallowing of a quantity of homeopathic pills to show the passing public how ineffective they were.
It’s difficult to know precisely what the goal was. Was it just a protest? Was it to convince the public that homeopathic tablets didn’t work? To embarrass the pharmacies to stop selling them? A hopeful mix of results? This depends on who you ask, ultimately.
Like Boobquake, expressing concerns about the impact of such outreach efforts is more often than not rewarded with defensive cries of ‘it’s just a bit of fun showing how silly it is’ or ‘get a sense of humour’. And if they were just intended as a show-piece tantrum drawing attention to how a group of individuals feel about something, then that would be fine. Protests in the name of feminism or against ideas perceived as oppressive, dangerous or just plain silly have a rather self-evident, simple goal – to advertise to the world that a group of people don’t agree with it.
However, for skeptics who actually desire a public change in attitude and have hope that the next generation will have a better grasp of critical thinking, protests and stunts shouldn’t be considered as part of the solution. What’s more, they should be considered as potentially counterproductive, sacrificing the very things that make science so useful for a grab for headlines and nodding heads. In the very least, they should be treated as if they will actually produce some form of results.
Dismissing criticism of such events is no different than those who defend religion, alternative medicine or a belief in fairies as in the least harmless and at the most productive thanks to the mere possibility of their illusionary benefits. Placebo protests are fundamentally little different to placebo medicines, and demand the very same critical evaluation for evidence.
There will be more Boobquakes, homeopathic suicides and similar skeptic protests in the future. They’re simple and get a response that satisfies our confirmation-biased brains. Such events aren’t intrinsically good or bad. But to claim they’re useful for engaging the public in science, promoting skepticism or encouraging more people to think critically simply isn’t supported by the evidence.
 Durant, J.R., Evans, G.A., Thomas, G.P., (1989), The public understand of science, Nature 340: 13 – 14