The silent majority in science

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.

14 Responses to “The silent majority in science”

  1. 1 Peter Falkingham 23/07/2009 at 8:48 pm

    That’s a great post Dave.

  2. 2 Tor Bertin 24/07/2009 at 1:45 am

    One thing that always relieves me when hearing the ‘loud minority’ is that they’re not always beyond outreach and understanding–some are just ignorant of how science truly works and what it truly says.

    Mary Schweitzer at MSU is a fantastic example–before she started taking classes with Jack Horner and the like, she was a young Earth creationist. But listening to just how truly extensive the evidence in favor of the contrary was, she opened her mind to new horizons that she wouldn’t have thought possible beforehand.

    Though ironically (but coincidentally) it’s her work on dinosaurian soft tissue that fundamentalists latch onto the most!

  3. 3 Tor Bertin 24/07/2009 at 3:33 am

    Though to be fair, I don’t think she was so much a ‘loud minority’ as a much more quiet person with the same belief system.

  4. 4 Nathan Myers 24/07/2009 at 12:40 pm

    I used to call myself an atheist (because, y’know, I really am), but seeing how painfully and aggressively stupid many of the newly-loud atheists are, I’ve stopped. To say I’m an atheist would be to suggest that I’m like them. The religious have miracles (well, they think they do), and atheists are supposed to have, in compensation, Reason. Reason is the atheists’ superpower. When they don’t have Reason, what do they have?

    So, nowadays I say I’m Buddhist, which is the same thing, really, but I haven’t encountered a loud and aggressively stupid contingent of Buddhists. Yet.

  5. 5 Tor Bertin 24/07/2009 at 1:16 pm

    Eastern philosophy in general absolutely fascinates me… Taoism especially, though when I can I delve into Buddhist practice as well.

    They absolutely tend to be a lot more relaxed in life view, though Hinduism has a few sects that fall on the crazy side (like, in the murderous part of the spectrum).

    Buddhist philosophy also matches my punk rock sensibilities quite a bit too (‘question everything’). Cool stuff.

  6. 6 Tor Bertin 24/07/2009 at 1:22 pm

    To ramble just a bit more, I find myself incorporating a lot of Taoist concepts into my scientific practice as well–not just thinking about fossils, geology, and our world’s history in strictly abstract mental terms; but *feeling* the fact that these processes and animals exist and have existed, as well as how they relate to the current existence and moment.

    Can’t think of another way to describe it, but that’ll do for now.

  7. 7 Morgan 24/07/2009 at 9:07 pm

    Good article

    It is a little more difficult for me to add my voice to the vocal majority as it would be for you, there is rarely vocal opposition to Geochemistry and Volcanology as there is to, say, evolution and Palaeontology. The only danger that I can see with the vocal minority is when they get in a position of power, as seen by the recent texan initiative to teach “there would be no USA with the help of God”. In those instances, I think it irks enough of us scientists into action. Another analogy is the recent rise of the BNP in the UK and the subsequent backlash. The vast majority of Brits are opposed to Neo-Nazism, but still couldn’t be bothered to vote in the european elections, thereby giving the vocal minortiy a bigger share of the vote. I strongly suspect that next time there is a vote, enough people will be spurred into action to deny the BNP from holding positions of power. In no way am I insinuating from this comparision that the uber-christian right are anything like the BNP, save the similarity that I abhor their view of the world.

    So, in conlusion, I think these arguments ebb and flow, with the vocal minority waxing and waning in their ability to be heard. If the stakes are high enough, the silent majority will raise their heads over the parapet, to use your metaphor (doesn’t always work though, 2 million people demonstrating to try to tell our government that a war in Iraq was a bad idea didn’t seem to do anything).

    • 8 David Hone 25/07/2009 at 8:36 am

      I broadly agree Morgan, although this was a ‘science’ directed post, obviously much of my direct experience / annoyance in this area related to palaeo and evolution though I am sure there are other still out there. I imagine that 50 years ago there were still sufficient numbers of anti-tectonics people out there to make geology awkward, though of course without the level of media interest etc. we see now it may have only been a real problem at meetings whereas up to 10 times a year I see a newspaper report along the liens of ‘once more scientists argue about bird origins, when will they get it right eh?’.

      However I do like you point about more mainstream motivation for scientists in the public / political arena(like the Palin faux pas wrt fruit fly research that galvanised many) rather than just my point about more general science education. I guess my point is that I rather people stuck their heads up earlier to prevent it getting far enough to be ‘high stakes’. We don’t have to convince a few entrenched people (the politicians in your Iraq simile) but more those around us. Get the public interested and understanding the evidence for say birds as dinosaurs and hopefully they will be a bit more thoughtful the next time homeopathy or anti-vax rares up again. I think it’s worth a shot.

  8. 9 Mike Keesey 24/07/2009 at 11:30 pm

    If you don’t like the stigma associated with “atheist” (which is more a statement about what you aren’t than about what you are, anyway), then there are alternatives, such as “humanist”, “materialist”, and, my favorite, “freethinker”. (Not exactly synonyms, but similar.)

  9. 10 lockwooddewitt 25/07/2009 at 3:14 am

    I consider myself an agnostic, which might mean either “I don’t know,” or “I can’t know.” I have come to the conclusion that I can’t come to any meaningful understanding regarding the existence or nature of “God.” Therefore there’s no need for me to spend time trying to reach such conclusions… and certainly no point in trying to promote my own “beliefs.”

  10. 11 Matt 26/07/2009 at 12:06 am

    The reason the majority stay silent is that we actually like other people being dumb. The less they know, the more space we have. Look at it from an evolutionary point of view – what’s in it for me to piss you off by telling you you’re wrong?

    • 12 David Hone 29/07/2009 at 10:21 am

      Well because if, as in this case, that person is influencing a bunch of other people whose opinions / understanding matters (and I would argue that the opinions / understanding of the general public does matter quite a lot) then it’s better for me to annoy someone who is generating misinformation and correct the understanding of many others than to remain silent and have to deal with the consequences. I think that’s a worthy trade off. If we act in concert it becomes even easier – it 1000 of us make it clear that one guy is very wrong, it’s going to be hard to him to get angry with all of us individually too.

      • 13 Matt 31/07/2009 at 4:58 am

        Unfortunately, people of a herd mentality are always going to outnumber people who look at hard evidence, for which I blame evolutionary biologists ;-). And journalists always prefer contrasting opinions – e.g. that dj who claimed sensitivity to wifi as a publicity stunt was reported as medical fact. The things we do outnumber them 1000 to 1 on are generally accepted as fact e.g. water doesn’t have a memory and gravity goes down. Ultimately we have to let people make their own mistakes and unfortunately, doubting evolution has no real life consequences whatsoever so they’ll never learn and never actually listen to anyone else.

        (I’m playing devil’s advocate here, I do agree with you that it’s worthwhile)

  11. 14 David Hone 31/07/2009 at 8:34 am

    You play devil’s advocate Mat, that would be a first…

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