Friday, June 29, 2007


It's obvious that both global warming and evolution are supported by reams of evidence, yet why are people so loathe to accept this? There are of course many many reasons and answers to this question, some of which I have discussed on this blog. But on a public basis, what I think is quite key is the simple fact that it's easy to dissent, but relatively difficult to justify. By "difficult" I certainly don't mean that it's actually difficult to justify the evidence for global warming or evolution. In fact that's extremely simple because the evidence is right there in front of us.

But what's dificult is to justify and explain viewpoints from a public debate standpoint. Consider a global warming debate in which a dissenter throws around a 10 second general objection, for example, "Computer models can be unpredictable because they are built on assumptions". This statement is much easier for the lay public to understand because it represents a pretty general fact that is true in many cases. Now it's the climatologist's turn to defend himself. This is going to take much more time because he or she would have to explain how it's true that computer models can be unpredictable, but how researchers take this uncertainty into account, run multiple simulations, weed out fudge factors, do statistical analyses coming up with multiple scenarios, and assign degree of confidence to predictions. This knowledge is surely out there, but it's quite obvious that the climatologist is going to take more than the 10 minutes alloted response time to explain this. And with good reason; although the punchlines of science can be simple, actually explaining science often takes time, and that too with good reason, since science wants to do as thorough a job of analysing the data and drawing conclusions as it can.
But the lay public often does not see this. What they think is that the climatologist is unable to answer the dissenter's objections in 10 minutes. They take this to mean that he cannot defend himself. In the public's eyes, the dissenter has scored points.

A similar example exists for evolution, where actually the argument should be much simpler, but unfortunately it's not. Some dissenter (or god forbid, ID guy) will say something like "The bacterial flagellum is too complex to have arisen through chance". Not withstanding the fact that this statement is just plain wrong ("change" is not operating here), we have to admit that the bacterial flagellum does at least look complicated for the layman. But now, when the biologist has to answer this objection, he needs to demonstrate how each part of the flagellum has counterparts in other organisms, how even "half a flagellum" can actually work, and how the flagellum has actually arisen as a result of a mix-and-match kind of strategy adopted by natural selection. He would also have to explain the experiments leading to these conclusions. The explanation is elegant and extremely persuasive, but naturally it will take more than the allocated 10 minutes, leading laypeople to believe that perhaps the disssenter has a point.

The reason why this situation is unfortunate is because the burden of proof is always put on the scientist, when it is actually on the dissenter who has to prove his point. But the public often does not understand this, because they don't understand the weight of scientific evidence that strengthens the scientist's positions. Understanding this evidence itself will take some reading and exploring, but what they want is a 10 minute (or less) answer. Unfortunately for the public, the very fact that something can take more time to explain means that it may be dubious. Needless to say, this is absurd for obvious reasons.

In addition to this problem, such dissenters also are usually good at rhetoric, since unlike scientists, they have spent most of their time practising it in the absence of actual evidence to support their claims. Scientists are often not very good at rhetoric since don't feel a need to be a good at that, and rightly let the evidence speak for itself. But that means that in public debates, where the public is unfortunately more easily swayed by rhetoric, they are inherently pitted on the hard side.

A similar situation also exists for people in non-scientific fields. Noam Chomsky has made the good point that he is always on the losing side in a short television debate, because the objection of the dissenter is a 10 second statement which reflects what's expressed by the conventional media. Since it's already there in the papers and on TV, people already know this, so all he has to do is to state it. On the other hand, when Chomsky needs to counter his point, he needs to reference and cite non-conventional and minority sources that the public has not heard of. Clearly, this is a more time-consuming task. Unfortunately, Chomsky has only 10 minutes to respond, so he cannot do this convincingly in those few minutes. The result is that the public goes away with a false impression that Chomsky is wrong and the dissenter is right.

This situation is rife throughout the media. It is inherent in every interview that TV channels do and every talk show where guests are invited to present their views. In each and every one of these cases, there is a potential and many times actual risk of the public getting the wrong impressions simply because someone does not have enough time to make their views clear.

There is no clear-cut solution to these problems except to educate the public through means other than the 10 minute segment shows. In that respect, the books written by Chomsky or climatologists or evolutionists and many others serve an absolutely essential and admirable function. But the public also should be informed about this very point; that they should not trust debates held in a studio that last for 30 minutes, with 10 minutes alloted to each speaker. Because in such a case, they are almost always going to get a biased impression, no matter how convincing it seems.

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Blogger Patrix said...

On similar lines, isn't it strange how Presidential candidates get exactly one minute to explain a complex policy stance whereas a stupid contestant on Deal or No Deal gets oodles of time to decide on a suitcase with a number on it? Tsk Tsk...

9:28 AM  
Blogger justescaped said...

Grouping anti-evolutionist and anti-global warming voices in the same category of un-scientific and unreasonable minds is unwarranted. While ID or creationism proponents don't have a shred of scientific proof and descend into fantastic and ridiculous methods of argument, man made global warming has its fair share of "scientific" doubters - people who debate and present their doubts in a scientific manner. For example, here:

Noone is denying that the temperatures have been rising since 1970; however there are a few genuine researchers who dismay at the trumpeted reason (that of man-made emissions and other changes). While it is true that emissions need to be reduced, doing it for the wrong purported reasons may (and strictly may) back-fire in the sense that scientists, and science, may lose its credibility in the future, just like religion did.

8:46 AM  
Anonymous Ash said...

Your post reminds me of something I read in a Sagan book... I forget which one , though I supect it is "Demon-haunted World"

Anyway, he talks about how important it is for people, and school kids in particular, to understand the history of science and the process of science scientists work, how hypotheses are tested and upheld/ science builds upon itself.

1:30 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Pat: Yeah, that too. But sometimes Presidential candidates also get a lot of time to explain why they don't believe in evolution ;)

Justesc: There's also no doubt about the contribution of human activities to rising temps. The latest IPCC report and Stern report make this clear. The real problem is about what to do, and we do need to be critical about people who have knee jerk reactions about that "Reduce emissions by 50% in 10 years"). It's going to be anything but simple.

Ash: Quite so...for example as far as evolution and natural selection are concerned, they do a pretty bad job of teaching it in schools, with the result that children come away thinking that evolution happens "by chance"

5:19 AM  

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