"Although I clearly observed Oliver's lips form the three syllables of his name, no sound could be heard to issue forth. Instead, from his mouth dropped what appeared to be a wooden ball of irregular, though roughly spherical, shape."

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Is Ridicule of ID Creationists Counter-Productive?

Over at Pharyngula, a couple of commenters brought up the subject of using ridicule to "turn people against a bad idea" (i.e. "Intelligent Design" creationism). I agreed with the second commenter, who was concerned that by being insulting we might turn away "the folks we should want to reach". Without suggesting an alternative, I said that the "divisive and polarising effect" of ridicule would work against us, unless a majority the audience were inclined to be driven into our camp already.

At this point PZ Myers complained that unless we stopped "sit[ting] around all deferential and crap", the likes of Hovind and Ham would be allowed to keep regurgitating their outrageous falsehoods without restraint, which is of course just what they want. Since that's not what I wanted to suggest, I tried to expand on my original thoughts, in a further comment, reproduced below:

Sorry if I gave the wrong impression in my previous comment. I'm certainly not advocating a policy of sitting politely in silence while outrageous falsehoods are flung around. In fact, I'm not advocating anything in particular yet, just turning some ideas around in my mind.

The truth needs to be defended vigorously against the BS peddled by the IDC crowd, and I want to figure out the most effective way to do that. That's why I'm suggesting that it's not enough to be right on the facts; it's important to have the right kind of presentation as well. By this, I just mean knowing the target audience and behaving in a way that will convince them.

The target audience isn't the community of real biologists, who know about evolution and don't need to be convinced of anything. And frankly, the target isn't the IDC true-believers either, whose brains have been turned to dogmatic mush - they're lost causes, and a pretty small minority anyway.

No, the real target audience who we need to win over to the side of reason are the vast millions who have never really thought too hard about evolution (or any scientific matter). They're the ones we have to convince, the ones who have to be prized away from the reassuring lures of comfortable falsehoods. For the most part they're pretty reasonable people, who just happen to be severely ignorant about what science is, how it works, what is known and not known, etc. There are millions of them, each with one ignorant uninformed vote to cast, so their opinions matter.

These 'floating voters' are the audience I was thinking of when I wrote my previous comment. They're so far down the 'non-expert' end of the scale that they can't even tell who the experts are. They see two people who disagree on a subject they're unfamiliar with, and they just use whatever clues they can find to decide who to believe.

To people like us who know about the subject, nonsense like talk of "the missing link" are enough to reveal someone as a phoney. But the average Joe can't do that, and has to use other (perhaps unreliable) indicators. The folks at the DI have learnt to use some of these indicators - calling themselves Professor, quoting well-known scientists, using complex terminology. To the uninformed layman this cargo-cult science is close enough to the real thing that he can't tell the difference. Meanwhile, if the real scientists make no arguments, get angry, and shout abuse, what kind of impression does that make?

We all know that any conflict that exists between evolution and IDC isn't scientific, it's political. The tactics and methods we use, then, have to be political to some degree. Merely having the facts on our side isn't enough. We have to present the facts in a way that wins the audience's trust, and reveals the IDC crowd for the clowns they are. Simply calling them clowns in front of an audience that has no reason to trust us isn't going to work in the long run. The trouble is, I don't know what is going to work - and that's why I'm not making specific suggestions.

There's certainly a place for mockery and ridicule, and Pharyngula is one of them. But in the larger public forum of newspapers, radio and TV we need to look carry on looking like scientists - because that's an act that the impersonators of the Discovery Institute are getting good enough at to fool the public.