By Dr Michael Edmonds
We’ve all come across them before — commenters on science blogs who propose less than scientific arguments. The fodder for such arguments is varied — vaccines, climate change, ’alternative’ medicine, the list goes on. The response to such people can vary; on many blogs they become the immediate target of derision, name calling and condescension. However, there is another, and in my opinion much better, response used by some members of the blogosphere — a calm and rational dismantling of the commenters arguments; an attempt to educate not only the commenter, but also other blog readers who may not yet fully understand what science tells us about the topic being discussed.
It strikes me as hypocritical that supporters of science (an endeavour based on rational thinking) can choose to defend science by making emotive attacks on those who they consider ignorant of science. A further frustration is that some ’defenders of science’ use flawed arguments to defend their own position. Yet if one tries to make even a polite attempt to correct THEM it may be seen as a personal affront. Being able to integrate new pieces of information into one’s arguments, and to admit when you have made a mistake, are important virtues in science. It is unfortunate that these same virtues are not readily embraced by science bloggers and commenters.
One of the hazards of challenging the use of derogatory remarks on blogs is that one may be dismissed as a ’concern troll’ or an accommodationist. This is another example of hypocrisy. Science does not dismiss arguments out of hand without considering the evidence, nor does it erect strawmen. Most of those who promote the educational approach do not want to accommodate anti-scientific arguments. Instead, we choose to debate them, point by point, on their scientific merit (or lack thereof). It may require more patience and tolerance, and lack the temporary satisfaction of ’showing how smart WE are’, but in the long run it seems to me to be the only scientifically valid approach.
Those who question the educational approach may argue that it does not work against the more hardened ’anti-scientific’ posters. This may be true, but is abusing them a viable alternative? Furthermore, what influence do such attacks have on the casual blog observer other than to convince them that science is the domain of the arrogant and the intolerant.
It is easy to forget, that while many of us find science easy to understand, this natural understanding and enjoyment of science is not necessarily shared by the wider population. Perhaps we need to consider how we have felt in situations when WE were less able and abused for it? As a high school student I struggled with speaking Maori in a class where the teacher would verbally abuse students when we mispronounced words. Did the verbal abuse help me learn to speak Maori? Of course not! To this day I cannot even think about speaking Maori, without my stomach knotting up.
My experience as an educator has convinced me that derision has no place in science education or advocacy. Learning does not occur through bullying or arrogance. Such approaches are more likely to harden the resolve of those arguing with us. However, if one is persistent in explaining how science works, takes the time to listen to opposing arguments and challenges them only when they are erroneous, we will not only be teaching science, we will be demonstrating the scientific process in action.
Dr Michael Edmonds is an educator, researcher and manager at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. He has strong interests in the communication and promotion of science.