Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Scienctists, Heads, and Hearts

I have been reading Randy Olson’s book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist. Randy produced the movie Flock of Dodos, which many of you have probably seen. In his new book, Randy points out the many ways in which popular perception is very different from the way scientists think. In particular, scientists believe in reaching conclusions by evidence and reasoning, while most people are more strongly influenced by emotions, gut feelings, and hidden (or not) sexual feelings. This doesn’t make them stupid. It just makes them human. The human brain evolved not just to solve problems but to create beauty, to tell stories, to win the affections of mates and the loyalty of comrades by making use of the emotional and intuitional centers of the brain.
(I saw a cartoon one time that contrasted the way scientists think with the way “normal people” think. A man presses a button and gets zapped by lightning. The normal person says, “I guess I’d better not do that anymore.” The scientist says, “I wonder if that happens every time I press the button.” The point is that scientists really think differently than most other people.)

I think Randy’s approach makes a lot more sense than the still-quoted “two cultures” of C. P. Snow. Of those two cultures, science still has a lot of people, but Snow’s humanist and artistic culture is not a major force in the world today. I’m not even sure how insightful Snow was at the time he wrote it. (By the way, I didn’t like C. P. Snow’s novels either.) Instead, popular culture depends on quick impressions, sound bites (bytes), and emotion. Popular culture was not swayed by the evidence that smoking is a deadly habit, but once this evidence had been around for awhile and entered popular experience, there was a watershed change in popular culture and smoking is no longer considered cool to most people.

Reading Randy’s book helped me understand some things. For example, my book Green Planet (released in early 2009) has been well reviewed and deals with one of the most important things in the world. I present eight arguments, each with its own chapter, about how plants keep the Earth alive and how we need to protect them so they can continue to do so. This book is my botanist Gospel Tract that I could hand to anyone who asks, “Of what use are trees?” Why have its sales been modest? Of course I blame the recession. But I now realize that I was presenting a reasoned argument, rather than an emotional appeal. I wrote emotionally and informally, but still structured my book more around an appeal to the head more than the heart. (But hey, it’s still a good book—see my author website.)

If scientists want to reach people, they have to reach their emotions, not just their minds. But does this means that scientists have to be evangelists, or even comics, in addition to being scientists? Scientists do not receive such training. I invite your comments, and invite you to look for installment two on this topic.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Is Bruno Maddox merely deconstructing Darwin?

Bruno Maddox had an article in the November issue of Discover: "Deconstructing Darwin." The article is headed by this sentence: "The best thing we can do for the theory of evolution may be to bring its revered creator back down to earth." And from that point, rather than constructing a clear argument to prove his point (e.g. demonstrating that our admiration for Darwin is actually interfering with the public understanding of evolution) the author just proceeds to not simply bring Darwin back to earth, but to pour on ridicule.

Here is a taste: "Mr. So-Called Charles Darwin, with his dumb beard and his dumb theories, born 200 years ago this very year, was wrong. Not just a little bit wrong. A lot wrong. Wronger than a bluetick hound on moonshine. Wronger than a Dixie Chick wearing a blindfold. And he could, additionally, be a real pain in the you-know-where about it. Happy birthday, smart guy."

What was it that so infuriated Maddox? (I tried to find evidence that he was joking, but he appears to have been serious.) It was that Darwin published an erroneous theory for the origin of Glen Roy, a geological formation in Scotland. Darwin thought it was ancient shorelines. Turns out it was glaciers, as Louis Agassiz had written in 1840.

Yes indeed, Darwin was wrong about Glen Roy. But he admitted that he had made a mistake. Darwin wrote to Sir Charles Lyell, "My paper was one long gigantic blunder from beginning to end." But no, this is not good enough for Maddox. Darwin did not admit his error until 1861. Maddox indicates that Darwin should have admitted his mistake right away, as soon as Agassiz presented the correct explanation in 1840.

The point is well taken that nobody is perfect. And that people like me should remember Darwin's humanness. I have a tendency to be extremely reverential towards Darwin--it was almost a religious experience to be in the presence of some of his first editions at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History in Norman, Oklahoma, last week, and to actually see his tree-of-life notebook and Annie's little box at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 2006, all esconced in their plastic reliquaries. Fine.

But the fact remains, confirmed by overwhelming historical evidence, that Darwin was not only a gentle and humble man, striving to gather all the evidence he could before dumping his theory on the public, but that he was more gentle and humble than any other scientists of his day or ours. He was the exact opposite of the conceited racist Agassiz, who just happened to get the story of Glen Roy right. He got nearly everything else, except the Ice Ages, wrong. And he never admitted his errors. For Maddox to criticize Darwin so abusively yet have nothing bad to say about Agassiz is pretty stupid.

I do not know anything about Maddox's political views, but his choice of the Dixie Chicks as the epitome of stupidity suggests that he is a right-wing firebrand. This would explain why he is taking the very same approach to truth as Rush Limbaugh. This is all the more bizarre since Maddox seems to believe that Darwin was right about evolution. He just seems to have this conservative need to attack someone.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Darwinathon in Oklahoma

Yesterday, November 2, 2009, the University of Oklahoma hosted a "Darwinathon" which was twelve uninterrupted hours of fifteen-minute presentations, mostly about evolution. All the presenters except me were from the OU faculty. It was an intellectually stimulating event. I learned a lot from the talks I attended. When scientists are constrained to fifteen minutes, and when they are told to speak to a general audience, they can be very clear, delightful, and passionate. It was a place to see what an exciting adventure science is.

I gave my presentation ("Darwin never knew how right he was") in my Darwin costume. One question I got at the end was why I (Darwin) had not understood the importance of Gregor Mendel's discovery of heredity, even though I (Darwin) had read it. (Mendel was the Austrian monk who discovered inheritance patterns of genes.) I pointed out that he had also read mine, and not understood its importance. Then I pointed out that Mendel became an administrator in his monastery, after which time he never again had an original thought.

It is not quite right to say that the University of Oklahoma sponsored the Darwinathon. It was the scientists, led by Drs. Ingo Schlupp and Rich Broughton. The student newspaper, infiltrated by creationists, ignored the event, which was attended by (usually) no more than 20 or 30. The creationists presumably did not want people to know that we scientists have evidence for our claims and that we are really nice people. They want people to think we are angry haters of religion. All we can do is to keep up our speaking, writing, and educating. Eventually the truth may prevail.