Maybe it’s a false dichotomy

I’m currently enjoying Rick Perstein’s Nixonland . In it, Perlstein partially attributes Ronald Reagan’s 1966 victory over Pat Brown to the ability of the former to cast issues as “black and white” versus the grey that Brown saw. Reagan won by a landslide 15% margin because the voters preferred to be offered simplistic formulations and solutions, not because Reagan was “right” in an objective sense.

In my experience as an educator, I have come to see four things: (i) scientific knowledge is generally weak among the public, (ii) scientists are usually not good communicators of science to that public, (iii) educators – and not just science educators – do not seem to be succeeding in their goal of educating the public, and (iv) religion has too influential a place in American public life.

Physioprof has offered a rant regarding the whole “New Atheist” versus “Accomodationist” debate that has reignited following the publication of Mooney & Kirshenbaum’s new book Unscientific America. The claim is that there are two prevalent views concerning the reason why Americans (as a group) do not accept the scientific view of the history of life. The first view holds that scientists and science educators are responsible. If you hold this view, then you will tell these two groups that they need to improve their interaction with the public. The second view holds religion’s position within American culture responsible. If you hold this view exclusively you go after religious believers even if they support improving science education and a clear separation of church and state. (In the words of the original rant, “you implacably debunk patently absurd wackaloon religious bullshit everywhere you see it”). This often takes the form of claims about the “incoherence” of the views of religious supporters of science. The dichotomy offered in the original post is just that sort of simplistic formulation that Reagan used throughout his political career.

Obviously, one could also claim that these two views are non-exclusive and offering such a simplistic dichotomy will not achieve anything beyond scoring rhetorical points. In this view, scientists, educators and the privileged position of religion are at fault. and one has to work on all three of these issues (often with religious believers who decry the influence of belief on public life) to improve the situation. This claim will, no doubt, be seen as “mushy accomodationism” and may thus be safely ignored by some.

Solely removing religion from the public life is not going to miraculously improve science education in this country. Solely improving scientists’ ability to communicate or improving educational practices isn’t going to lead to improvement either. To offer a false dichotomy that neatly divides the apes from the angels is not to offer a workable solution.


2 thoughts on “Maybe it’s a false dichotomy

  1. Really though, I think it’s some of each. There’s way too much magical thinking going about, and not enough science education is getting through to enough people at an early enough age. However, if Mooney and Kirshenbaum are being correctly represented ( I haven’t read their book) then they’re wrong. you don’t change the science to make the believers happy.

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