Why it’s Hard to Debate the Scientifically Uniformed.

*Another catch-up article for me. Enjoy!”

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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 educated 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 my 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 willfully uninformed? 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 be cause I feel it is so. I don’t understand why so many feel they can enter a scientific dialogue as an equal, when they have no idea or education in the topic being discussed.

Where does this idea that by simply reading a half-assed synopsis of an elaborate scientific paper now gives someone all the knowledge they require to challenge career scientists come from? Just because we live in the Information Age, doesn’t mean you can now know everything just by googling it. Some things require focus and education. Things like advanced 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 how to talk about science that they can’t ask questions, or attempt to learn. 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. However, like Chess, it’s easy to learn and hard to master. Some topics will take years, and hours and hours of study just to begin to understand the basics. You may need to read books, watch videos, and talk to experts in the field. This is the process of education, and education always leads to better understanding.

However, reading a brief synopsis off a news blog, or non-scientific website (I’m looking at you NPR), doesn’t mean that now you’re all ready to go toe to toe with someone who has dedicated their whole life to the study of a topic. Trust me, this will lead to many uncomfortable and embarrassing arguments, that will probably end in name-calling and ad-hominen attacks.

So, to end, I want to leave with a few suggestions:

1) Do the research first, and don’t just stop with one source. Look up as many as you can find. Read them all and take notes. Also, keep track of your sources, people will ask for them and evaluate them for validity.

2) Understand the difference between a good source and a bad one. Do they cite? Are they qualified to talk about the topic? Are they on/in a reputable website/publication? Do they have a reputation for being a good source or not? If you craft your argument based on bad sources, it’ll show.

3) If you have questions about something, find someone to ask. It’s been my experience that professional and experts love to answer questions, as long as you come to them openly and not in a hostile manner. It might take them a while to get back to you, but most of the time they will when their schedule allows. I mean, they do have jobs too.

4) Don’t assume that you know everything about a topic after reading one article, or had a friend tell you about it, or you heard it on Coast-To-Coast. Pretty much every-time you’re  not getting all the information, it’s colored by personal opinion, or they’re just trying to bamboozle you to boost ratings. Don’t fall for this, see #1-3 and repeat as necessary.

If you follow these few suggestions, in time, you’ll find your conversations will become more productive, informed, and result in less logical falsies (I hope).

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