Lighting the Way

Nov 11 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

"You are found guilty as charged. You shall be cast out with your family, into the darkness, to live out the rest of your short life. And miserable it shall be be without the Light." The oracle's voice echoed through the chamber.

The final reverberations stirred the man. "But-"

His protestations were cut off as the oracle boomed, "You have made your case, and in doing so, it is clear that you have abandoned the Light. It is only just that the Light now abandon you. Remove him from the court." The last was addressed to the guards, who immediately came forward and drug the man away. His unheeded protests were blocked out as the heavy doors to the chamber banged shut.

The oracle spoke more quietly. "There is only one case left to attend."

Those gathered in the chamber looked about curiously. There were no opening of a door to usher in another offender. This was very odd indeed.

The oracle remained silent, but he raised his arm and pointed at a woman in the crowd's midst. Those around her glanced to their left and right, building their confidence that they were not being singled out. Then the eyes turned to her. The oracle beckoned, and she slowly made her way forward until she was standing a few meters away.

The oracle gazed down at her haughtily. "You understand why you are here."

"Not entirely," she replied meekly.

He sniffed disdainfully. "You have been a keeper of the Light for years. You have worked diligently to understand the Light. And yet, we learn that you reject one of the central tenets of the Light, the truth of how the world and all that lives within were formed."

She shifted from one foot to the other. "Well... yes. It is how I was tau-"

He spoke over her. "You have confessed your crime. You are found guilty, betrayer."

She interjected. "But it doesn't change who I am or what I have done."

"Silence!" the oracle shouted. "How could any student of the Light believe such nonsense? It calls  you are and everything you have done into question. You are to be exiled into the darkness. It is the only suitable recourse." He motioned for another pair of guards to come forward. They escorted her from the chamber, but unlike her predecessor, she was dumbstruck and did not utter a sound.

 

 

The establishment and enforcement of "truth" can take on disturbing tones. We need only look back through history at the individuals ostracized by religious institutions and society for their scientific findings and theories. Even today, we witness highly polarized debates over big issues that should be driven by science - origins of life, climate change, genetic engineering, vaccines...

Scientists have an obligation to get involved in these debates, to inform the public, to see that solid science drives policy. Scientists are sometimes stereotyped as emotionless automatons, but these debates can stir the passions of scientists as much as they do the opposition. We can be so consumed by the rightness of our cause that we respond with the certitude and hubris that we condemn in others.

Some may say, "Well, we have facts and data on our side. We have the right to speak with authority and the responsibility to educate the masses." I say, though, that how we do so matters, and if we're not careful, we risk alienating those we are trying to reach.

It is remarkably simple to state, "Creationism is ludicrous. Science proves it." or "How can you possibly ignore human impact on climate change? The data are clear!" It's easy to respond to "anti-science" sentiments with snark or an aloof dismissal.  admitting a contrary belief or even ignorance on an issue is oft met with derision rather than a desire to share knowledge. I have observed and experienced the attitude firsthand, and it does little (and I would go so far as to say, nothing) to advance the discourse.

Even backing a position with evidence may not have the intended impact. Coming out of the gate laden with disdain for a group's or an individual's stance creates barriers to true communication. "You're wrong, and here are the reasons you are wrong." This is not a position that invites engagement. It can easily move beyond establishing authority and into projecting superiority. Interest in active listening and participation wanes when someone perceives a feeling of inequality. It's no longer about discussing differences; it's about winning - for both parties involved.

We liberally apply the label "anti-science" to creationists, anti-vaxxers, and so on. But I suspect that most people who hold beliefs contrary to evidence are not actually "anti-science". They often have a deep interest, and even at times an education, in science. But the issues push back against deep-rooted beliefs, and it takes much more than saying, "Well, this is how it is." to change those. In some ways, we've been asking people to trade in one set of fundamental doctrines for another because Science says so. Yes, there are experiments and data to affirm scientific theories and conclusions, but how well are we explaining the process? And do we take for granted the base level of scientific literacy students coming out of high school and college? Perhaps these are among the reasons I adhered to creationism for so long (even well into a PhD in the sciences) and why I still don't have a good understanding of evolution to this day.

The transfer of knowledge takes time. On some issues, we are working against years of ingrained instruction, the rejection of which carries weightier consequences than failing a test, for some. On others, we have to push back fear, propaganda, or distrust of industry in science. These are not barriers that can be overcome in minutes, or an hour, or even a day. It could take months, even years, to make progress. Patience brings no guarantee of success, but it does offer a chance. If we really want to change the world's - or even one person's - understanding of science, we need to be ready for a long haul. And that means getting them back to the table, the bar, or wherever we might meet time and again.

 

Related & Recommended - Should Scientists Promote Results over Process?

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