The subject of this post could really apply I think to any ‘silent majority’ though as a science blog I really have to focus it on a specific aspect so science it is. I could be more specific and target something like BAD-BAND, or tyrannosaur culinary habits or if I really wanted to stir things up (which I don’t) the culture wars and creationism. I guess the real question is what keeps the silent majority silent?
I recently read a blog post by a scientist who claimed that his non-involvement in the ‘new atheist vs science’ discussion was because he was simply not interested in it, and certainly a lack of interest is going to be a key aspect for something that does not necessarily affect someone’s work or life directly. I tend to keep myself out of this area for much the same reason, but also because I don’t want to dive into the raging hornet’s nest that typifies these kinds of debates (that is, ones that are largely unresolvable due to the fixity of the two sides and the enmity between them) and have to fight on all sides for something I don’t care passionately about.
The final reason for staying out of a debate that is typified by the loud minority is the one that I think is the most common in science, and while it is understandable, I think it is also often unhelpful, especially when in concert with public understanding of science. That reason is that no one bothers to argue in favour of something they inherently know and accept as being true. Have you ever seen a sign “The end is NOT nigh”? No one argues or debates the likelihood of the sun rising tomorrow since, well, it’s pretty obvious that it will. So why is this a problem?
Well, if there is a vocal minority (and for most things, as I have noted before there is a minority, and it’s generally pretty vocal) supporting a view that everyone else inherently knows and understands to be incorrect then there is no one to disagree with them. At best a few people will stand up and make some noise to try and get the good science across and even up the contest. In the minds of the scientists there is little going on here – an argument between two factions, one of whom is wrong and one of whom is right, but to the journalists who might pick this up, or the public who spot this, the image is far from clear. Not knowing the details of the situation, the technicalities of the discussion and the merits of the relative points and most importantly the *consensus* among the silent majority what they see is two groups arguing over an issue with apparently equal numbers of supporters on either side. It does therefore look like an even split of support between the two positions when in fact it is noting of the kind, merely the majority of people are not bothering to counter a position they know is wrong, nor argue in favour of one they know to be right.
It certainly does not help that the media likes nothing more than a good ‘debate’ to generate some interest and will even promote these kinds of things as major divisions and subjects of extreme disagreement when in fact they are not. With most people not bothering to voice their opinion then apparent disagreement can completely mask genuine consensus as recently noted on Tetrapod Zoology. This is obviously problematic and since one cannot expect the public to delve into the details of every ‘debate’ that passes across them in the news or on TV or the internet, and based on my previous writing you might have guessed that I don’t trust the average journalist to spin this out correctly. The job therefore lies at least in a large part with the scientists at hand to this problem and we return to the issue of performing science communication at all, and most especially here also in the face of ennui and in opposition to a minority group who one likely feels a certain amount of antipathy or irritation from.
In short therefore if you *are* part of that silent majority I would suggest that it would be beneficial all round to stick your head a little further above the parapet. Yes it will be dull in that the point is obvious and settled long ago, yes you still might catch some flack from those trying to maintain that their position is incorrect and no you are not likely to gain much prestige from your peers for doing this service. However, I would contend that as ever the point is that (hopefully) the public will become educated a little better as to the science behind the ‘debate’, how science works, what a consensus really means and how we get there. If that vocal minority lose public support, or public interest and cease to have their ramblings listened to or reported on then it might make them rather less vocal. Shutting up those parroting nonsense while educating the public, what’s not to like? So write that blog post, reluctantly do that interview, explain to the journo why they are wrong (not just state it), or give a talk. In short, make your voice heard and counter the bad with good – it’s not much effort and can make quite a difference.