The Evolution of Our Discourse

Image via iStock Photo/Andrey Machikhin

Earlier this year the contestants of the Miss USA 2011 Pageant were asked a simple question – “Should evolution be taught in schools?”  Their responses were posted on YouTube and viewed by roughly a million people.

For supporters of science education, the answers from most contestants were disappointing.  Here were some prominent female role models, put on the spot about a controversial issue, either rejecting or hedging on well-established scientific consensus.   The most prominent response, however, was also disappointing – a biting  mockery of pageant contestants.

A few friends and I wanted to see a more constructive and positive answer to the question – one that focused on the positive, didn’t attack anyone personally, and featured the voices of other female role models who had pursued careers in science.  So here’s the result:

The video has made a bit of a splash, with over 10,000 views in the first 2 days after it was posted and mentions everywhere from Scientific American to Feminist Philosophers to Jezebel.

The reaction from the “other side,” however, wasn’t exactly civil.  Before getting into any of the specific comments made in the video, one of the leading voices of “intelligent design” (not interested in linking to him, though he’s easy enough to find if you look) had this to say about the video and the people in it:

It shows sixteen female academics or science writers, mostly young, whose enthusiasm for evolution is so overwrought that they turn themselves into propagandists.

Eager to show how well they have been trained, they are like show mares who trot around the paddock jumping over each gate in turn. All the while they give the camera a look that says: “Aren’t I good?”

I don’t post this to start yet another flame war on a topic that has seen too many of them. But I’m sure this is all too familiar to women who choose to speak publicly on the issues that concern them.  When I see comments like this, I think the person who made them doesn’t view a civil discussion as something in their interest.

Perhaps it’s naive to strive for a civil discussion that focuses on facts before personalities.  But in this video I see sixteen women who are showing us a better way to have this discussion.

And on the other side I see a man calling those women “show mares.”

How well has each side furthered their cause?  What do you think?

  • Love the video you guys made. The problem is — and it’s a profound problem — that civil discourse, and actually discourse itself, only works with people who are willing to listen to reason, to engage with factual reality and let the facts affect their opinions. Once you’re dealing with people who deny the facts that make them uncomfortable — climate change, evolution, the holocaust — you’ve (we’ve) passed into a post-fact, post-reality, post-reason world in which the very possibility of transformative discourse vanishes. I love every attempt to speak reasonably and to engage with those of differing opinions, but that attitude is in itself a fundamentally scientific and liberal attitude: it’s an attitude that craves facts, that is willing to listen, that believes it learns by being proved wrong. Deniers start from the position of protecting themselves from being proved wrong, dismissing evidence that might do so. Reasonable discourse, however laudable, cannot reach these people. Now what?

  • Hey Scott – thanks for the comment. I think the answer is to stay positive. You’re right that some people will never be interested in fact, and there’s not much you can do to convince them. I’m after the people in the middle – the folks who don’t really have a dog in the fight either way.

    I think if you stay positive, patient, factual, and most of all ASSERTIVE – do positive OUTREACH beyond your own community – and then juxtapose what you say against the angry, snarky, fact-free rants of the other side – you’re going to win more than you lose.

    When science communicators take the bait and get into a shouting match, I think a lot of neutral parties declare “a pox on both your houses” and remain disengaged, and that harms your general credibility no matter what the topic.

    I don’t have all the answers, and I’m 100 percent confident there is no silver bullet. But I do think this video is a small, positive step.

  • Matt Shipman

    I agree with Dave, but would add this: there are many people who have simply not been educated on the concept. They may have heard about it from a friend, family member or teacher, but — and this is key — they have no hardened position on the issue.

    Taking a positive approach gives one the best chance of successfully reaching these folks. And the more they know, the more likely they are to begin favoring the concept of evolution as a valuable component of science education.

    One of the most vexing challenges is finding a way to put this in front of these “undecided” information consumers. Mainstream media would be ideal, but so far they aren’t biting.

    Lastly, a second (but not lesser) goal of the video was to highlight positive female role models in the science community. I think the video is an unqualified success in that regard. I have three daughters (all under the age of 5), and they’ll all be seeing this video when they’re older.

  • I agree with you both. I think the video is huge and I love it, and Dave, you’re exactly right: you need to stay positive and reach the people who are hearing the rants of the nuts and gently — gently! — present factual information that focuses on reality. I’m glad there are optimists like you to counter the dispirited pessimists like me.

  • Raymond

    I just came from Pharyngula. and PZMyers had this to say:”I confess to cringing in a few places — there’s too much ready equation of evolution with natural selection — but I certainly wouldn’t question the competence of these accomplished scientists, even if I might argue with them a bit.” Why doesn’t he tell us how he really feels?
    I’m more positive about the effort cuz’ what sparked it was a group of women with too many of them with their heads up their Kazoos. And I feel it is a good counter point, anything can be improved on I suppose, but as a first effort I think it makes a hit. The response, of course, from Creationists to the MRAs is predictable. They will never get it, because they see two sides where there are not two sides. Creationism has no peer reviewed papers published that comes close to proving their view, what they do is to tear down evolution, but that hardly is a positive for their notion of the strenghts of Creationism. They feel the proof they need is enough to tout Creationism, which is to show flaws(not really flaws but iffy points in Evolution) where there are non. Creationism taught in public schools is not a matter of giving both sides, again there is only Evolution not a controversy or a side to take. Evolution is backed up across the board of different field of study facts that support it, Creationism takes on the flavor of a fairy tale, something you learn in Sunday school.
    There is nothing new I guess. published a reprint in the October 25, 2003 Digital article issued in July 2002 called “15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense,” and it takes most of the arguments Creationists give and demolishes them, all 15, from “it’s just a Theory,” to “recent discoveries prove even at the microscopic level life is just too complex that evolution could not have happened” in other words, GOD did it!
    PZs distinction between natural selection and evolution is exactly what? That the words are not interchangeable? I think they are definitely related enough to be mentioned together. But I’m no evolutionary biologist, so maybe I can’t see the finer points PZ is making. And he says he cringes, not sure what that means, again, I’m no expert. I thought the scientists who are women did a good counter to the Beauties in their pageant. Kudos Ladies.

  • Raymond, the critical distinction between evolution and natural selection is that evolution just says “gradual change has occurred over time”, while natural selection is a description of WHY and HOW it occurs.

    The “intelligent design” crowd generally do not deny that evolution, in the broader sense, occurs. They just deny the role of natural selection as the mechanism, and posit an intelligent designer directing the evolution, especially in its broader strokes.

    Using the word evolution where natural selection is meant, and describing evidence of gradual change as if it were evidence for natural selection, is what PZ Myers was cringing at. This sloppiness plays into the “intelligent design” agenda, because the creationists can point to it as loose thinking and failure to prove one’s point.

    There is, of course, abundant evidence that natural selection and related non-supernatural mechanisms are sufficient to explain evolution. Much of that evidence is on Pharyngula and similar web sites. So I believe PZ Myers was just wishing that the academics in the video had been a bit more focused in their talking points.

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