Saturday, January 12, 2013

Public Encounters of the Pleasant and Frustrating Kind

I am a nervous public speaker, but I have come to terms with it and use that nervous energy to ramp up before a talk rather than let it reduce me to a puddle of babbling goo. I prefer speaking to small groups or having one-on-one conversations with people. Through my work and being part of a small community, a great deal of my conversations are with people who are not directly involved in the sciences. Most of these follow the usual conversational patterns, but every so often science-related topics come up. This usually starts with someone asking "So, how's work?" I usually reply "Bloody awesome!" (or, "These paper revisions will be the death of me!") and then proceed to regale the person on all the cool paleontology projects on the burners.

My paleontology training means that I am sometimes called on in conversation as the "expert." I can't speak for all scientists, but many of the paleontologists I know are natural educators. We love talking about the latest finds, our own research, and science in general. Paleontology training involves a heck of a lot of training in general science, so paleontologists are fairly well versed in biology, geology, anatomy, physiology, evolution, taxonomy, ecology, geography, and other disciplines depending on that paleontologist's area of specialization. Any time we get to spread some of that information around and increase the general understanding of the natural world is a good time.

However, sometimes these conversations with non-scientists become mind-bending exercises in patience. After many of these interactions, I have started to see groupings into which non-specialists fall. I will be speaking from my personal experiences, although I know from conversations with friends who are also in the sciences that these types of interactions are common. I will list these self-designed categories in the order of pleasant to tearing-my-hair-out frustrating.

Category 1: The Investigator

People in this category provide the most enjoyable experience. In fact, I do them a disservice by even including them in this category scheme, but these interactions deserve special mention because they are what should happen when a specialist and a non-specialist exchange information. The interaction usually begins with someone asking me "Hey, did you see the latest dinosaur show on the Discovery/History/National Geographic Channel?" Then the questions become more specific: "So, do paleontologists really know that dinosaurs could do [INSERT YOUR FAVORITE DINOSAUR BEHAVIOR HERE], or did they just add that for the show?"

I enjoy these questions. They show that a) the Investigator knows there is a difference between data and the speculative padding that is added to many documentertainment programs, b) the person is genuinely curious and wants to add to their knowledge base, and c) they have no problem asking a question. It opens the door for us to talk about all the cool facts we actually DO know about the lives of fossil organisms.

There are side benefits to these conversations. Not only do I get an opportunity to talk about supporting evidence for, say, colors on avian theropod feathers or parental care and group behavior in dinosaurs, I might get an opportunity to explain how the information is collected and analyzed. Documentertainment programs also provide opportunities to point out the differences among speculation, hypotheses, and theories. In short, I get to sneak in an explanation of the scientific method. My educator friends call these events "teachable moments."

Long live the Investigators: their drive to learn fuels our drive to seek and answer!

Category 2: The Fallacy Flinger

Perhaps the Fallacy Flinger is using doctrine, religious faith, conspiracy, or anecdotal stories as their  "evidence." Perhaps the Fallacy Flinger believes that dinosaurs did not originate on planet Earth (believe me, THAT was a frustrating conversation). Perhaps the Fallacy Flinger just enjoys an argument. Whatever the motivation, the theme of an interaction between a scientist and a Fallacy Flinger is contradiction. Unlike the Investigator, there is no desire to learn on the part of the Fallacy Flinger. They are not entering the encounter with ANY intention of incorporating new information into their knowledge base. They know ALL the answers. I become the "so-called expert", the "secular scientist", or the "shaman of the atheistic sciences." Any answer or supporting evidence that I provide will not have any impact. The Fallacy Flinger has a misconception about how science operates and does not want to be corrected. Opinion becomes fact in their world. This error is a double-edged sword, because Fallacy Flingers treat scientific data and observations as merely the opinion of the scientist.

Fallacy Flingers rely on the logical fallacies of personal incredulity, black-and-white and false dilemma arguments, cherry-picking, burden of proof, begging the question, and middle ground arguments. If the conversation takes a turn for the worse, the ad hominem attacks come out. The Fallacy Flinger truly believes these fallacious arguments are valid counters to a well supported observation, either due to a lack critical thinking skills, or because of their desire to win the argument at any cost.

These are the conversations (if you can call them such) that leave me wanting to repeatedly bang my head against the wall. I can't speak for any paleontologist other than myself, but "frustrated" does not begin to describe the feeling I am left with after interacting with a Fallacy Flinger. These interactions always leave me wondering "Is it worth my time interacting with Fallacy Flingers?" As mentally painful as these encounters are, many paleontologists still try to educate the Fallacy Flingers. Many of us are educators at heart: we can't help it. We believe that people want to learn accurate information. I have friends whose natural educator instinct is so strong that they attempt to make logical inroads at every possibility (usually unsuccessfully). I have friends who also enjoy an argument once in awhile: the one benefit of a conversation with a Fallacy Flinger is that it sharpens those critical thinking skills. If there are bystanders, then I will argue until the mountains erode in the hopes that at least someone within earshot will absorb at least one piece of factual information.

Category 3: The Rejector

I will take on an infinite number of Fallacy Flingers before I will willingly enter into a conversation with a Rejector. Rejectors and Fallacy Flingers have one trait in common: they are not willing to take on new information. However, the Rejector does not claim to have all the answers. The Rejector will announce with pride that they neither NEED nor WANT the answers. They have absolutely no use for anything remotely resembling science. It doesn't matter that most of the modern conveniences enjoyed by society are the direct result of science: the Rejector will proclaim that "I made it this far without knowing any science. I have no use for it." Why should anyone take pride in choosing to remain ignorant?

[NOTE: My definition of ignorant is "lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact." I am not using it in an insulting context. Everyone starts out ignorant until we gain knowledge and information.]

I am faced with this attitude more than I thought would be possible, and I have not yet found a way to make any inroads during these encounters. It is my hope that, over time, the proportion of Rejectors will make up an increasingly reduced part of the population. Attitudes that foster the distrust or dismissal of science (and scientists) are persistent in our culture. We see it at the government level: remember the recent elections in the United States? Several House and Senate candidates were quite open about their views on science-related disciplines, and these views ranged from denying climate change, bat-crap crazy views on reproductive biology, or proclaiming that science was sent from Hell. I felt ridiculous having to write that, but then truth is stranger than fiction as Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain once said. The truth that should have been fiction was that these people had some level of public support.

The United States is not alone in their vocal distrust of all that book-learnin'. As pointed out by Andrew Nikiforuk earlier this year, our current Prime Minister (Stephen Harper) belongs to an organization that practices what Nikiforuk describes as "evangelical religious skepticism." Given the myriad of recent decisions by the Canadian government that seem to fly in the face of logic, reason, and science (including restricting public and media access to Canada's federal scientists), many are wondering if Lawrence Martin hit the nail on the head when postulating that the distrust of science in favor of non-scientific doctrine might not be influencing recent government decisions. Again, this is a government official that was elected by the public.

I do not mean for this post to become a political commentary on the anti-science trend within government. I highlight these two examples because politicians are a subset of (and represent) the general public. The persistence of the anti-science sentiment is so prominent that the UNESCO 1999 World Conference on Science had an entire forum on the public perception of science. Please read the abstracts for a more in-depth look at the findings. In summary, despite the fact that many do view science as useful and beneficial to humanity, there are also many that suffer a type of science disconnect that has many sources (e.g., inefficient transmission of results to the public, lack of a larger context in perceiving results, government influenced trust, folk/religious beliefs, persistence of conspiracy theories, lack of science communication programs, etc.) leading to a portion of the general public rejecting science.

Category 4: The Mocker

This is an interaction that I thought would have been left to rot in the wasteland of high-school stereotypes. On occasion, when I have asked a non-scientist a question on how to do something technical, mechanical, or trades related, my question has been rebutted with "Oh, so the Ph.D. student doesn't know something as simple as X!" or "You're so smart, can't you figure it out?"

Some of my interactions with Mockers have been quite amusing. One person took it upon themselves to give me instructions on how to sweep and mop a floor. Some have expressed verbal astonishment when they learn I can operate a masonry saw. That I can smile at. Mockery I cannot accept, especially when I am going to the Mocker because the Mocker is an authority in their field, whatever that field may be.

I think this reaction stems from the common misconception that scientists a) claim to know EVERYTHING, and b) we hold those that do not enter the sciences in contempt. In short, we scientists are arrogant tools. Sometimes it is easy to mistake confidence for arrogance. I need some level of confidence if I are going to succeed in presenting a new idea to my colleagues. That confidence is provided by the data I collect.

I am not going to say that there are no overly arrogant people in the sciences (scientists are made up of all personality types) but from my encounters those types are the exception. When I was an early undergraduate, I had one acquaintance hand me a bone in front of a crowded booth at my very first professional paleontology meeting and loudly ask me to identify the bone. All I knew was that it was from the leg, and I guessed femur. It turns out it was a large metatarsal. This acquaintance made a big show of demonstrating all the reasons he knew it was a metatarsal and why I was wrong. Damn, was I humiliated! It turns he was an extremely insecure graduate student, and that most people studying paleontology do not feel that they have to humiliate a newcomer to make themselves feel smart.

My point with this anecdote is that if a non-scientist encounters an overly insecure scientist who resorts to the above antics, I can understand why the non-scientist might want to get a little revenge. It is unfair, however, to tar all scientists with the arrogance brush, just as it would be unfair to assume that people who are not in the sciences are not intelligent. I would never make someone feel bad for asking a question, and I expect the same courtesy in return when I ask a question.

I am glad that most of my interactions with non-scientists fall into Category 1. Is there any way to decrease the numbers of categories 2 through 4? I think that the more we engage the public, either by talking to school groups, giving tours, and presenting research updates at local public events, the easier it is to combat the disconnect the public feels towards science.

Never stop learning!


  1. Great post, as always, Lisa! I've likewise found that most people that I talk to are in 'The Investigator' category and are usually keenly interested in having a discussion and asking questions.

    The next largest category, to a dismaying degree, are 'The Rejectors.' I run into these people a lot , and I'm quite often confronted by people who claim to 'hate' science, by which I can only assume that they mean they hated the science classes they took in school. Sadly, I think this category is growing, not shrinking, in number. Science and technology advances at such a rapid pace that people are increasingly left behind. For many science = magic, and only care that their smart phones, Blu-ray players, GPS units, and other gadgets of convenience work, but don't know or care how they work. Fortunately this large group is not a lost cause; I usually try to explain that science is nothing more or less than a systematic method of figuring things out, and that everyone is potentially a scientist.

    The Fallacy Flingers I do not waste my breath on. There is nothing, whatsoever, that can change their minds, so I refuse to give them the soapbox to climb on. These types have always existed and always will. It is unfortunate that the lunatic fringe often yell loudly enough to be heard, but one hopes that the rest of us can tune them out.

    The Mockers are also very common, and I think they, too, are acting out of insecurity. They often assume that just because a scientist might be better educated than they, we also think that we are smarter than they and are looking down on them. This is a reflection of nothing but their own feelings of inadequacy, and there is little to be done to combat it.

  2. Upon further reflection, it occurs to me that mockery may also stem from decades of indoctrination by way of Hollywood movies that almost always portray scientists contemptuously. Hollywood has only two varieties of scientist: the hopelessly inept Bumbling Buffoon, and the and the Power-mad Megalomaniac who tampers with Secrets Man Was Not Meant to Know. Invariably, it falls to the lantern-jawed hero to save the day from the follies of 'book-learnin.'

    Is it any wonder that people who have been bombarded with these absurd caricatures since childhood grow up to embrace them?

  3. I agree. Scientists in general are still portrayed as as stereotypical caricatures: we're either tripping on our own feet (OK, I do this on a regular basis), or we're on a Lovecraftian quest to sell our souls for immoral knowledge and power. Cthulhu fhtagn! :-)

    You make a good observation on the Rejectors and their love of convenience technology and a simultaneous rejection of science. It is as if they cannot see a direct benefit to the science (a "what's in if for me" attitude) they write it off without any consideration. Some Rejectors are able to change their minds about science if they view it as accessible. Some (at least some of the ones I have contact with) continue to stubbornly refuse to learn ANYTHING about fossils, even after countless invitations for back-stage tours. In the end it is their decision, I suppose.