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here be dragons

This post is also on Talking Teaching.

Over on SciblogsNZ we had a bit of a discussion around the issue of science & belief systems. How far should scientists, & those who communicate about science, go in 'pushing' against strongly-held beliefs? (These could include creationism, but also beliefs about 'alternative therapies' such as homeopathy & TCM.)

It is an area where care is needed, because if you 'push' so hard that people feel their ideas are threatened, they may become defensive & those ideas more entrenched. Neither's a desirable outcome from science's point of view. On the other hand, in teaching about science, from time you actually need to put students in an 'uncomfortable' place regarding their conceptions about the world, if they're to examine those questions critically & perhaps reshape them in the light of the new knowledge they've acquired. (If that doesn't happen, then that new knowledge is likely to be learned only superficially - quickly gained & just as quickly forgotten.)

I'd like to reproduce a comment from that thread, partly because it would be good to get a discussion going around the question of how far & how best to promote a science-based world view, & partly because the comment reminded me of the late, great Carl Sagan: I'm just re-reading his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I enjoy the lyrical nature of much of Sagan's writing, but I also like this book for it's 'baloney-detection tool kit' - a set of useful questions & approaches to encourage & strengthen critical-thinking skills. 

Anyway, here's the comment: 

[if we just accept a belief system], in the end we pass deeper into the land of moral equivalency (how dare you question my belief system - it's as valid as yours!).

Here be dragons.

Dragons are best slain - no good comes from people attempting to turn them into pets, or ignoring the fact that they scorch the curtains and eat children.

What do you think about this?

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7 Comments

I think you’ve got two different audiences there.

For students I think it’s fair to push them—that’s what they’re at university for.

For the public-at-large, for example on Facebook forums, blogs, and whatnot, it’s a bit harder. Online at least, groups like that tend to have a few individuals who drive them; they tend to speak up defensively "justifying" their members’ views and ‘dissing’ what you’ve written, often out-of-hand (as opposed to using substantive content). In this sense on top of the individual’s views, you have the group social politics to deal with.

You're right, & I hadn't thought that far into it. It can be pretty difficult to go against the 'group-think' on some of these forums. (This means - although it may sound a bit contradictory - that I respect those who take a 'contra' stance on skeptical blogs like Respectful Insolence & are prepared to argue their case as opposed to being a common-or-garden troll. It takes a lot of inner conviction to do that in the face of strong opposition to your views.)

“I respect those who take a 'contra' stance”

I agree - provided, as you say, they’re basing it around substance and trying to make themselves understood rather than just opposing others or just picking for fights and whatnot.

I feel it can be played both ways in some senses. I occasionally try to offer polite suggestions in a few anti-vaccine forums. (For want of a better label. They usually avoid the term ‘anti-vaccine’, but certainly oppose them so let’s call them ‘anti-vaccine’.) I suppose I have the advantage of being used to defend my views by substantive arguments, as scientists do, but even so it’s hard to remain focused and just try gently make your point while the ‘group leaders’ are busy trying to rouse people to the ‘group-think’ & hit on you!

It never came up, so I didn't get to use my prepared argument. Student says, "I don't believe in evolution, and think it should not be taught." My reply, "Know your enemy. If you are going to be against evolution, you can be much more effective if you have good knowledge of evolution."

Do you mind if I steal this, Jim? It's a great response :-)

My pleasure. Another one, from a colleague,"I do not believe in evolution. I have studied the matter, and I am convinced of it." I think this is in the public domain also.

I say something similar: "I don't believe in evolution - I accept as the best current explanation for the available evidence."

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  • Alison Campbell: I say something similar: "I don't believe in evolution - read more
  • Jim Thomerson: My pleasure. Another one, from a colleague,"I do not believe read more
  • Alison Campbell: Do you mind if I steal this, Jim? It's a read more
  • Jim Thomerson: It never came up, so I didn't get to use read more
  • Grant: “I respect those who take a 'contra' stance” I agree read more
  • Alison Campbell: You're right, & I hadn't thought that far into it. read more
  • Grant: I think you’ve got two different audiences there. For students read more