Creation vs Evolution: Why science communication is doomed

Last Tuesday night, Bill Nye the Science Guy had a debate with Ken Ham over creationism vs evolution. I watched part of the debate, and have conflicted feelings on it. I’m going to start by saying I think it was a brilliant marketing move. For one, it suddenly brought the Creation Museum into the forefront of society for next to nothing. While before only a handful had heard of it, now it has risen to national prominence, and I’m sure the number of visits they have will reflect that in the near future.

As for the substance itself, I don’t think this is a very good topic for a debate. Any time you bring religion into a discussion, it turns into an “us vs them” argument where neither party is willing to change their view. Even the advertising and marketing billed it as a debate of “creationism vs evolution” – effectively presupposing the view that one can believe in both (which I’ll come back to). At best, it’s snarky and offhanded, and at worst, antagonistic and ad hominem. I should point out though that this is on both sides – neither side is willing to reconcile.

And why should they? Both view their side as being right, and weigh the information they have differently. So all that this accomplishes is that both sides become further polarized and further entrenched, and any chance of meaningful dialogue between both sides becomes less and less likely with every angry jab back and forth. It turns into a 21st century war of angry op-eds, vindictive tweets and increasingly hostile and belligerent Facebook posts shared back and forth. This isn’t just limited to religion though – many discussions end this way with people being forced to take sides in an issue that is more complicated than simply being black/white. Rather than discuss the details and come to an understanding of what we agree and disagree on, we’re immediately placed into teams that are at loggerheads with each other.

What is most interesting is what happens to extreme viewpoints when they are criticized. Rather than taking in new information and evaluating it based on its merits, criticism actually results in the consolidation of those perspectives. In lay language, if you have an extreme viewpoint, you dig in your heels, build a trench and get ready to defend yourself against all attackers. This isn’t entirely surprising – when someone attacks you, and in particular attacks you *personally*, why wouldn’t you get defensive. Studies of this have look at this from a political perspective, comparing extreme conservatives to extreme liberals. To quote Psychology Today:

Extreme conservatives believed that their views about three topics were more superior: (1) the need to require voters to show identification when voting; (2) taxes, and (3) and affirmative action. Extreme liberals, on the other hand, believed that their views were superior on (1) government aid for the needy; (2) the use of torture on terrorists, and (3) not basing laws on religion.

But wait! Aren’t these just fringe opinions being heard in the media? The good news is yes. The bad news is that the extremes are what people hear. If you imagine everyone existing on a normal distribution – with extreme opinions on the edges – then the vast majority of the people exist in the gulf between those people. However, those extremes are what people hear. In fact, this is what led to Popular Science shutting down their comments, based on findings by Brossard and Scheufele. What they did was ask people to read a study, and while the article remained the same, one group was exposed to civil comments, and the other to uncivil comments. What they found was striking:

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

So seeing negative comments not only made people more skeptical of the article, it made them more skeptical of the science itself! That’s a huge concern for us, and how science is written about and discussed. Seeing negative comments, no matter how poorly written or ill-informed they are, makes people fundamentally view the science as being of lower quality. And that resulted in Popular Science closing their commenting section.

So to bring it all full circle, the “debate” was a microcosm of science and the public. Scientists sit back, do their work, and then turn around and say “Hey! You should do this” and then wonder why no one listens to them and why people fight them. We saw this with the New York soda ban, we’re seeing this in other spheres as well, and unless we change how we approach these hot button issues, we’ll lose the support of the fringe opinions (which we have already lost), but also the support of the moderates (which we can still get). I was having this discussion with my friend Steve Mann, who is one of the smartest men I know, and he sums it up best:

“It’s easier to poke fun at people with whom you disagree, particularly if you can imply that they are childish, old-fashioned, religious, or uneducated, than to honestly examine whether there is any merit to what they’re saying, and I think that’s a shame.”

I’m not taking sides – that wasn’t the aim of this piece. The aim of this piece is to tell you to listen with a open mind, discuss issues with others, and at all costs avoid ad hominem and personal attacks. If we want to bring people together, we have to avoid using language that drives us apart. If we want to promote science, we have to discourage hate. And if we want to educate others, we first have to start by understanding others.

K. Toner, M. R. Leary, M. W. Asher, K. P. Jongman-Sereno. Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613494848

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9 Responses to Creation vs Evolution: Why science communication is doomed

  1. Robert Hunter says:

    Kevin, I think the issue goes deeper than that. In various religions and cultures, people have been conditioned to believe things based on little or no real evidence for thousands of years. Thus for a long time, religious ideas had ‘special privilege” .
    There has been a tradition that unquestioning belief is some sort of virtue, and along comes more skeptical and analytical views [including science] that challenge these long-held beliefs.
    People have been habituated to emotionally invest in claims and ideas, so an attack on the idea or claim is incorrectly felt as being a personal attack.
    Religious ideals [some good, some bad] have been drivers of ethical thought and public policy. And people are becoming upset when this status quo is challenged.
    Some religious people really cannot tell the difference between someone saying: “That is a silly idea or belief” and “You are silly”. And providing evidence or reasons of why something is silly just rubs salt in the wound.
    Lastly, science is the most self-critical system ever devised. So I don’t understand your comment about science and science education being hostile to criticism.
    Part of the problem is education. If people are taught to think critically about everything, if the culture of society was changed to really value a respect for evidence, the value of reason, and some understanding of epistemology, then most of these problems would disappear. Evaluating the worth of a science such as evolutionary biology should not just consist of: ” I don’t like [my imagined ] implications evolution has for my faith. For how can evolution [fact or theory] be rationally questioned if people are both ignorant of the science and don’t understand the science.
    If people put as much energy into examining their own beliefs as they do science, then the fight would be fairer.
    Although there is no direct threat science poses to any religion, the general use of critical thinking is obviously a threat to any claim of belief that does not enjoy much support from evidence.
    For if religious ideas were indeed self-evidently true, surely no argument or evidence could be presented to challenge it. Sadly for believers, especially of the more literal kind, their ‘self-evident truths” are indeed full of contradictions, lack epistemological sound evidence, and generally fail when examined.
    Indeed, it is possible to debunk creation science using creation science, eg:-

    Senter, P. (2010). “Using creation science to demonstrate evolution: application of a creationist method for visualizing gaps in the fossil record to a phylogenetic study of coelurosaurian dinosaurs.” Journal of Evolutionary Biology 23(8): 1732-1743.
    It is important to demonstrate evolutionary principles in such a way that they cannot be countered by creation science. One such way is to use creation science itself to demonstrate evolutionary principles. Some creation scientists use classic multidimensional scaling (CMDS) to quantify and visualize morphological gaps or continuity between taxa, accepting gaps as evidence of independent creation and accepting continuity as evidence of genetic relatedness. Here, I apply CMDS to a phylogenetic analysis of coelurosaurian dinosaurs and show that it reveals morphological continuity between Archaeopteryx, other early birds, and a wide range of nonavian coelurosaurs. Creation scientists who use CMDS must therefore accept that these animals are genetically related. Other uses of CMDS for evolutionary biologists include the identification of taxa with much missing evolutionary history and the tracing of the progressive filling of morphological gaps in the fossil record through successive years of discovery.

  2. robertfdressel says:

    I’ll be sending you an email I hope it gets to you if it doesn’t just email my Gmail and I’ll forward to you. Should give you sound peace of mind

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  4. Kevin Shi says:

    Seeing negative comments makes people more polarized, so that includes people being more skeptical but it also includes people re-affirming their belief in the science. Would you have no negative comments ever being made about science? People need to see the criticism and they need to judge for themselves which information to value and which to discard. I think the conflict between creationist and evolutionary ideologies will resolve itself as more people are presented with evidence and they weigh its value. Science communication needs to embrace criticism and combat it head on rather than try to censor it.

  5. Suzanne says:

    I definitely agree with this, we need to understand the perspective of others, not just bash their opinions. It’s easy to criticize others for having beliefs different than your own, but this will not help in the long term. Our society will separate instead of come together because we cannot accept other’s differences. Great article!

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  9. Queezer says:

    “you can imply that they are childish, old-fashioned, religious, or uneducated”
    The major media speaks with one voice and censors all others. What part of real science is censorship? That thrust usually indicates the side with the weakest case. I have studied origins for 50 years and concluded Darwinism is something-for- nothing-ism whereas real science is still about sufficient causes for observed effects. we have writing in our cells, once called “the blueprint molecule,” our DNA encoded instructions. Al language use indicates involvement of a conscious mind. That’s intelligent design evidence.