In many ways Travis Bickle, the disturbed taxi driver in Scorsese’s famous film, is a model of public engagement.
For one thing, he really thinks about his audience. He rehearses in front of a mirror so that he will be fully prepared for his encounters with the people he wants to reach. Legs apart, arms folded, his stance is confident — his body language is really very good.
Then, with the merest tilt of the head: “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?”
You see how Travis secures the complete attention of his audience before putting his message across? Textbook.
And not only that, he is also careful to use the tools best suited to his method, which is to change the minds of his conversants by rearranging their brains. So he takes guns. Just the job.
There’s no doubt Travis is an effective communicator. Scientists and science writers might sometimes be tempted to resort to such extreme measures, especially when trying to resist the relentless assaults from the wackier screw-heads of pseudoscience. Not with guns or knives of course — use your words — but with a similarly aggressive attitude to redress. How good it would feel. They are so very, very wearisome these science frauds, the dreary homeopaths, the fact-shy opinionists, the star-struck-dumb astrologers and any of the other numberless trolls lurking on the Internet. And now the government’s own chief scientific officer, Professor Sir John Beddington, has called on scientists to be ‘grossly intolerant’ of the mis-use of science. Maybe it’s time to tool up?
Go on — it would make your day. Wouldn’t it? Well, wouldn’t it… punk?
Of course it wouldn’t. That’s not how we do things in science, or at least not how we’re supposed to do them. Even Beddington — caught off-guard at the time of his original statement — has cooled and explained his position in more measured terms: scientists have to expect to face skepticism and criticism, but they should do so willingly, proactively and with careful explanation of the evidence (and its limitations) as their only weapon.
In taking the time to account for his initial outburst, Beddington is walking in the large footsteps of Carl Sagan who preceded him by fifteen years in the sagacity (how well the astronomer was named) of his advice. Sagan’s book, The Demon Haunted World — Science as a Candle in the Dark, is a handbook for our times. More particularly, this collection of writings is a reassuring touchstone amid the noisy, chaotic growth of the scientific blogosphere.
Famed for his landmark television series, Cosmos, it is no surprise to discover that Sagan is a gifted writer. But more than that, as a communicator he is so admirably thoughtful — in both senses of the word. The book starts in the back of a taxi cab where Sagan deftly but politely dismisses the driver’s assertions about extra-terrestrials, the prophecies of Nostradamus and the shroud of Turin.
From there the book takes the reader on extended excursions in and out of the illusory Martian canals, through the tortuous narratives of alien abductions and UFOs and back in time to a world populated by demons where women were routinely put to death as witches. He also muses on the problems of how to turn people on to science and how to convince governments to take the long view of the value that can come from scientific research (the chapter on “Maxwell and the Nerds” is especially good on this topic).
Sagan’s approach might not be for everyone. The tone is calm, the slow turning-over of the evidence is meticulous. He is so God-damned reasonable. The curiosity is endless — Sagan is genuinely interested to know how people can become so absorbed in the improbable. He is resolutely skeptical but — and this is the mark of the man — ever respectful. Mostly.
“Have I ever heard a skeptic wax superior and contemptuous? Certainly. I’ve even sometimes heard, to my retrospective dismay, that unpleasant tone in my own voice.
But he has learned his lesson and drills insightfully into the core of the problem.
“There are human imperfections on both sides… Even when it’s applied sensitively, scientific skepticism may come across as arrogant, dogmatic, heartless and dismissive of the feelings and deeply held beliefs of others. And, it must be said, some scientists and dedicated skeptics apply this tool as a blunt instrument, with little finesse… All of us cherish our beliefs. They are, to a degree, self-defining. When someone comes along who challenges our belief system as insufficiently well-based — or who, like Socrates, merely asks embarrassing questions that we haven’t thought of, or demonstrates that we’ve swept key underlying assumptions under the rug — it becomes much more than a search for knowledge. It feels like a personal insult.”
And so, when asked by a fellow astronomer to sign a scientific manifesto called “Objections to Astrology”, Sagan refused — not because he had any truck with the pseudoscience of predicting human character or destiny from the stars — but because the statement struck the wrong tone. It was authoritarian.
Sagan died in 1996, well before the science blogosphere took off, but there can be little doubt that he would have been an enthusiastic proponent and participant. He wrote for Parade magazine — a popular Sunday newspaper supplement — and received many letters from readers (some of which are quoted in the book). He was engaged and engaging. At a time when too few scientists unbent themselves from their experiments, here was a man who stood up.