Thursday, April 27, 2006

Where Have You Gone, Mr. Wizard, Our Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes To You

As he is wont to do, PZ Meyers at Pharyngula has put up a great post looking back at the Dover/Intelligent Design decision, wherein he quotes a Seattle Times article on the Creation Wars. There are a couple of points from his discussion that I would like to comment upon.

The thesis of his post is call to remain vigilant. One court case does not a victory make. The Dover decision, he argues is merely a "stopgap." While a positive local development, it will become a rallying cry for the most intensely anti-scientific players to redouble their efforts. "We're holding the top of the wall while they undermine our foundations, and we know where that is going to lead." Those leading the attack on evolution theory are working on younger minds, while most of those on the front lines are working in higher ed. By the time the college profs get at them, their views have hardened and infected a wider population that may not make it into a college classroom at all or at least not one that deals with these issues. As such we need for our focus to be broader than our classrooms. "Every court case in this struggle, from Dayton to Dover, has failed to change a single mind, and while they have told us much about creationists and creationism, they've done nothing to educate people about science and evolution. And that's the only place where this war can be won, in public education, both in the schools and among the general public."

While I agree with the central proposition, I think that the situation is both better and more dire than presented. Dover wasn't a mere stopgap. It was more important than that. Sitting here in Gettysburg, not far from Dover, I would equate the case with Pickett's charge, the Confederates' move into the Union lines. The ID folks had soft general support until they started gaining traction with their "teach the controversy" campaign. This was brilliant packaging on their part. The question ceased to be about science and became a moral question of fairness. "If you are so sure about the superiority of evolution theory, why are you afraid of a fair fight?" It was a smartly placed trap. Any response could easily be typed as elitists or cry-baby. They were winning the PR in a big way.

I think the turning point was with Barbara Forrester's testimony. It was there (indeed throughout, but especially there), that the "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" defense was destroyed. The mask came off and the ID people had to shed their sheep's clothing and stand as the creationist wolves they are. What this did was crucial. Their case was built on a moral claim of fairness to two competing scientific theories; but at this point, they were shown to be liars. They were trying to deceive the public by putting up a product that was not "as advertised". As such, they lost the foundation for their moral case because the people who had bought into it realized that they had been played. They lost the fence-sitters who while generally not well-schooled in science, aren't knee-jerk anti-science either. At this point, the narrative changed. Science went from "Nasty big guy with a stick who refuses to play fair because he thinks he's above the rules" to "misunderstood victim who was innocent all along." what this has done is give us an advantage, an advantage we need to seize. The charge was repelled, now we need to make sure it will be the high water mark.

How to do it? Here is where PZ is exactly right. We need to take it outside the college classroom because that is where things really are won and lost. Not only because that is where the creationists have focused their efforts (they figured out that many high school science teachers are in their camp, those who aren't are less well trained at responding to their talking points, and those who can respond are often nervous about administrations and school boards who are in their camp), but because young minds are the ones who grow up to be citizens, scientists, and scientist-citizens.

I was in a 6th grade classroom a couple of years back because they had questions about relativity theory from a reading they had done. The request got forwarded to me by a colleague(I'm a philosopher with a physics background, work on interpretations of relativity theory, and have given several lecture series on the history of science and Einstein) and I went in trying to figure out how to make all of my best jokes age appropriate. I work in classrooms every day, but I was not ready for the energy I was about to experience. Oh, my, goodness. These kids were more than hungry for knowledge, they were starving. They had amazingly insightful questions about all kinds of scientific issues. At one point, a child was so excited about his thoughts on why a candle flame always goes up that he jumped out of his chair, grabbed the chalk from my hand, charged the chalk board and launched into a lecture. Boys, girls, children of color, children of European heritage -- they were ALL exploding with interest in science.

Then I came back to my afternoon college class with their blank stares and "Is this going to be on the exam?" I wondered what the hell we did to make those kids into these kids. Some of it, no doubt has to do with puberty and that hormone thing, but part of it isn't. I have a schtick I do at the beginning of every class. I say, "Ask me any question, auto mechanics to quantum mechanics. Anything." I get all kinds of questions, politics, personal relationship advice, smart-ass silliness. But a stunning amount are about science. But the sad thing is that they come from students who would rather stick an ice pick in their left eye than take a science course. They want to know about science, but we have lost them. On the other side, whenever I have a student excited to study science there is always a story about this incredible physics/chemistry/biology teacher s/he had in high school. Teaching at the secondary and high-school level is so unbelievably important that it is criminal that it does not receive more support.
But then there is the real opportunity afforded to us by Dover. We now have the big mo' in terms of public sensibility. We need to make the most of it. We need scientists to regain their places as public intellectuals. We need Mr. Wizard back, damn it. I am extremely proud of a former student of mine is now working for the Boston PBS station and is involved in the production of NOVA (the show that first made me fall in love with science). We now have outlets like the Discovery channel and Animal Planet. We need a new generation of Carl Sagans. We need people to make science fun and funny and interesting and exciting. We need to make science so cool that you start seeing designer lab coats coming down the Paris fashion runways.

But I'm worried that we're not set up for it. We don't have the infrastructure. We train Ph.D.'s as lab technicians. We reward them with jobs and tenure only if their work stays inside the building. We need to realize that advancing science requires more than advancing science. As a physicist colleague of mine says, "I was never taught to talk dinner party physics." Just as lawyers have to do pro bono work, so we need to take our intellectuals and start to realize that outreach is a necessary part of the gig. It is too easy to be insular and when we don't come out to play, the vacuum is filled with charlatans and charismatics. We need an army of Don Herberts and Isaac Asimovs. Dover has given us this moment.

UPDATE: An intersting ID-related post today over at Buridan's Ass . Well worth the read.