Sunday, 1 May 2011

Teach the controversy in science

A few days ago I linked from Twitter to an article in Times Educational Supplement Scotland about first-year university biology students who did not believe in evolution.

The last two paragraphs of that article are quotes from an intelligent design spokesman. So I emailed the editor suggesting that an article on science and education in TESS should not be a platform for "people who peddle propaganda and have no interest in science or education."

She replied as follows: "Alastair Noble is a former HM Inspector, and we thought if it was interesting enough to run in the [Edinburgh] science festival, it was worth reporting on."

Now this seems perfectly reasonable. It's what newspaper and magazine editors routinely do in the interests of fairness, when they seek comment from opposing points of view. It's journalistic balance.

But on the same day I received an email from Glasgow Science Festival, saying "I wonder if we should make more of this. It's one vehicle for getting people discussing it. What do you think, should we try and get it talked about more?"

Here's my reply to GSF:

"The problem with any kind of engagement is that it gives them a platform, which allows them to bring very effective PR techniques into play that were first developed for the tobacco companies then later honed and improved for the climate change deniers.

It's a fight in which they are using weapons that scientists and science communicators largely don't understand.

These people give the appearance of rationality while trying to undermine reason as a way of understanding the world. It's a fundamentally and deliberately dishonest approach. So any attempt to engage honestly and openly with them only strengthens their position in the public mind.

It's all about "teach the controversy" which scientists unintentionally support and collude with, whenever we grant them an opportunity to debate with us in public - as do editors when they aim for journalistic balance, when the two sides of a dispute are anything but balanced."

GSF replied that they agreed with all that, but:

"I wasn't really thinking about a public debate or any GSF content that might be used as a platform like this. You have to fight a corner. We thought about this last year when a prominent climate change denier was offering to come to GSF and take part in an event. We decided not to risk it, as it would be hijacked. That's exactly what happened to Roger's event here.

Still, I think GSF should at least engage in some way. He was an HMI for heavens' sake. There's a lot of people and many scientists who will not have seen this TESS article, not know about Curriculum for Excellence and the Scottish Qualifications Authority and maybe we should do something for them - disseminating information, counter arguments, arming people with facts etc that might help and encourage scientists to wake up a bit and lobby SQA and Learning and Teaching Scotland."

So to summarise: The ID people managed to get a small say at an Edinburgh Science Festival event. As a result TESS, the country's leading educational publication, invited them to comment on new research findings in biology education. My own comment on this led Glasgow Science Festival to start thinking about giving more prominence to ID, if only to help scientists counter their ideas and opinions.

That is Teach the Controversy in action.

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