why science shouldn’t produce just so stories

May 5, 2012 — 2 Comments

Why did the state of Tennessee just let a bill allowing teachers to preach creationism in the classroom if they really felt like it without any repercussions? Well, according to writer Tom Bartlett, it’s because evolution isn’t an exciting enough story for the public while creationism has the right mix of sex, violence, and drama to vie for people’s attention. In fact, evolution isn’t even a story at all, he continues, citing a professor of psychology’s conclusion that evolution’s lack of a protagonist, motivation, or determined outcome disqualifies it as what we would call a narrative. And yes, technically there is a point there. When we’re talking about evolution, we’re not selling a story about the triumph of intelligent life slowly but surely culminating in us and continuing until we’re immortal transcendent beings of pure thought, as New Age inspired sci-fi would have us believe. Instead, we look at a nearly 4 billion year process of trial, error, random events, and odd twists and turns that managed to create the world we see today. True, to many people that’s not a satisfactory explanation for how we got where we are today and it deprives them of a sense of purpose and being divinely spawned for a noble cause.

But here’s the big question we should all ponder for a minute. Since when is it our job to make sure that facts fit in with the narratives people want to hear? Wouldn’t we just be lying to them if we misrepresent the data we collect and the research we conduct? And for what purpose? To make them believe us not because we have the data but because we cherry picked and massaged it for popular appeal? If the goal is to simply tell people what they want to hear, why even bother doing any science in the first place? Might as well just concoct a good story and run with that. This is why, as Bartlett notes, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne cites religious beliefs, not the quality of evolution as a popular narrative as the main culprit in evolution denial and he has the data on his side to prove his point. When he cites polls in which some 60% of Americans say they’ll just continue with their belief system no matter what they science says, that’s not even a red flag anymore, it’s a wailing alarm. If you really think that you’re going to get people who reject science to suddenly accept it when you just let them substitute their personal ideology for facts they don’t like, you are headed down the path to this…

At the very least, though, evolution’s weakness as a story creates a PR opportunity for creationists. For example, one Christian Web site tries to fit evolution into a standard fairy-tale narrative, telling the intentionally absurd tale of an amoeba’s transformation from salamander to monkey to man, all thanks to a character called Mutation who just waves a magic wand. It doesn’t read like it was written by someone with a background in biology, but it’s hard to disagree with the conclusion that evolution is a “strange story.”

Well of course it’s a strange story when it’s written by someone who has no idea what evolution is and tries to desperately wrangle it into a narrative of personal glorification, i.e. that humans are somehow the pinnacle of the evolutionary process or at least on their way towards it and our appearance was predetermined, or to turn it into a laughable parody of the facts. And of course it doesn’t fit into our tidy self-centered vision of nature, but then again neither do electrons, or black holes, or stars, or quantum mechanics which can technically violate causality according to a recent experiment. That’s the whole point of doing science, to find out what can and what does happen rather than weave a tale everyone involved finds palatable. Those so wrapped up in all the dogmas they hold so near and dear they will rabidly refuse to let them go no matter what, and treat something that challenges their views with contempt without even bothering to try and understand it, are just not going to care what the facts have to say and it’s their attitude that’s the problem here, not the data. As long as they don’t hear the story they want to hear, they’ll move goalposts, argue, and dismiss anything that we have to say out of hand no matter how much evidence we present. Further insulating them from facts by demanding that we give room for their favorite just so stories in science classrooms only makes things worse for everyone.

Just like giving a petulant child who throws an embarrassing temper tantrum in the middle of a store what he wants is a bad parenting strategy, placating anti-scientific crusaders by letting them do whatever they please, dismissing all the damage they do to public education and discourse as their inalienable right, is pretty much the absolute worst way to teach science. Next time the hypothetical spoiled brat wants something, he will just throw another tantrum in a public place to force you to submit. And next time anti-science crusaders want their preferential treatment from school boards and lawmakers, they’ll just engage in the same hysterics and paint any effort to teach actual science to potential future Babbages, Einsteins, and Darwins, as nothing less than a war on their very right to exist. Appeasement is not a valid strategy against those who believe that their word is to be treated as law and once in a while, they need to be politely but firmly told that while they have a right to go to whatever house of worship they want and pray to whatever deity their desire in any way they see fit, schools will teach objective, documented, verifiable facts to students, not serve as their indoctrination centers.

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  • venqax

    I agree. And the problem is not just with evolution. People, genearally, distrust science and even more, people are rarely willing to give up ideologies or worldviews on the basis of scientific evidence or even empirical evidence that is right in front of their everyday eyes and part of their own personal experience. Just look at political beliefs and public policy preferences for “proof” of this.

  • DARWYN V. NORRIS

    Most people’s only contact with anything to do with science is the Wow-Gee Whiz shows on T.V. showing the extreme of physics. (black holes,multi-dimensions, parallel universes) Or worse yet, the ones that intermingle science with woo like Through the Wormhole. Talk about misrepresenting the data. “Unbelievable” they say. And the creationist say, “yes. unbelievable.” Pop science is fodder for the creationist cannon. If these shows would get off the idea that they have to baffle everyone and just show the physics of how your cellphone works or laptop, GPS, etc. Not just the nuts and bolts of “how it’s made.”