Here is a Man Who Stood Up

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?”

Travis rehearses in the mirror

Travis rehearses in the mirror

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?

Do you feel lucky?

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.

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41 Responses to Here is a Man Who Stood Up

  1. Tom Hartley says:

    Clever post, because it let’s you vent your frustration, while making the case for more reasoned, calm response to pseudoscience.

    It is always tempting to escalate the argument when you disagree with someone, and that’s often when reasoning starts to go out of the window. You start by attacking the speaker, rather than what they’re saying. You distort their argument, creating a straw man etc. We’ve all been in the receiving end of this, and if we’re honest we’ve all felt at least the urge to go on the attack this way. It is a human failing, and science gives us the tools to resist it – using evidence instead. But apart from the reasoning errors the angry approach leads to, it is very unpersuasive. Whoever changed their mind in this kind of argument? I suppose ad hominem attacks and straw men are useful for persuading on lookers, but if you actually want to change the mind of the person your debating, then Sagan’s approach is the only way.

    One more point. What we call pseudoscience and superstition are beliefs founded on an imaginative urge to make sense of the world, leading us to see patterns and meaning sometimes where there is none. This imagination, while it can be misleading also plays a vital role in science, because only by imagining the possible, or possible alternatives to what we now think, can we look for it and perhaps find it. It must have taken an enormous leap of imagination to go from classical to quantum mechanics, and the newer ideas must at the time have seemed crazy; likewise evolution was an extremely challenging idea when it was first put forward. Sagan himself was an enthusiastic supporter of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence at a time when most scientists thought the idea of aliens crackers. Although there’s been little new evidence to change our mind since then, the idea that we are alone in the universe is now regarded as implausible. So one generation’s pseudoscience can become the next generation’s science, and we need to resist the temptation to reject the very idea that our current understand is the only way to think.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks Tom and spot on, especially with regard to your point about beliefs in the second paragraph which is an issue that Sagan discusses — at greater length — in the book.

      There’s more to science than just collecting and analysing the data — the way you tell it also matters. But now I’m getting a bit po-faced (which is a danger with this sort of pontification).

  2. steffi suhr says:

    Thanks Stephen, you (and Mr. Sagan) have struck the biggest “issue” I have with authoritarian (or even self-righteous?) skepticism. Shouting at someone that the believes they hold are idiotic is hardly going to change their thinking.

  3. Brian Clegg says:

    ‘Demon Haunted World’ is one of my favourite books – I’ve re-read it several times. I was really just going to say what Steffi said: if only Dawkins (et al) could take Sagan’s gentle, understanding tone, rather than call everyone who disagrees with him idiots and worse, he would convince a lot more people. We need more Sagans in science.
    (Sounds like a campaign: Sage Sagans In Science!)

  4. “…Stephen… (and Mr. Sagan) have struck the biggest “issue” I have with authoritarian (or even self-righteous?) skepticism. Shouting at someone that the believes they hold are idiotic is hardly going to change their thinking.”

    Oh dear. Do you mean me, Steffi??!

    I think there is a counter-view, which is that you cannot give the rational explanation for the 956th time if it is already clear the person listening has zero interest in it. see e.g. homeopaths. Or especially the anti-vaccine fanatics.

    I obviously have a lot of sympathy for the AV Hill line that

    “laughter is the best detergent of nonsense”

    – but I think that the response really depends who one is talking to. Is it a genuine enquiry? Or just more (in effect) trolling?

    Whatever Beddington exactly meant, I think the way I took his meaning was that scientists had to be more clear-cut about which things didn’t stand up, and where the science really stood, rather than letting “being respectful” end up sounding like “You’ve made a very important point”… when they haven’t… which is a danger of being over-repectful. So I think Beddington was saying that, rather than explaining at length (again) to people who are not interested in an actual discussion, we should do more of what Paul Nurse did to James Delingpole, and use simple analogy and other things to expose the absurdity of their position.

    • Stephen says:

      You make very important point about the exasperation induced by some particular individuals who only seem to be in it for the sake of stirring up controversy for the sake of column inches and headlines. It’s really hard to know how to deal with such people. Delingpole springs to mind in this regard — though still I wonder what motivates him and I think Paul Nurse was right to speak to him (and to do so in the pretty measured way that he did).

      And of course there is the legion of homeopaths or creationist who are so determined to cherry-pick their way to the last word. Paolo Viscardi had a typical encounter recently and I know you have tales to tell yourself. Even here, I’d hope be be able to bite my tongue, remain calm and then simply walk away if there seemed to me no way to make the communication two-way.

      • PaoloV says:

        Great article Stephen,

        I’m still having the same encounter and although I’m finding it easy enough to stay calm, but it’s a bit boring having the same old rubbish spewed at you time and again. Much as I dislike reliance on ad hom rebuttals, they serve a purpose if the quality of the argument is so poor it renders an deeper response redundant.

        It’s been said before, but arguing with these people is like playing chess with pigeons

        • Stephen says:

          Cheers Paolo – I understand your weariness (having seen some of your exchanges with creationists over on Scientopia. Ideally one would be able to find the inner strength to just walk away… but the provocation sometimes seems unbearable.

          Thanks for that link – I had never come across the ‘playing chess with pigeons’ metaphor before. Perhaps it’s not his intention, but I imagine anyone of dissimilar views on evolution would be unlikely to dally long there.

          • Troy Britain says:

            Yes, that did occur to me, however I doubt most would “dally long” anyway. Usually they’re of the mindset that only looks at things that are confirming of their currently held beliefs and avoiding anything that challenges those beliefs like the plague (such things are inspired by Satan after all).

            If this were not the case then they wouldn’t be as ignorant as they tend to be regarding evolutionary theory, or science in general and would thus not be quite so “pigeon-like”; so to speak.

            On the other had it is a memorable name and a lot of people (who are not creationists) seem to enjoy it. So it’s a trade off. If one can get past the title of my blog, I do try to avoid outright name-calling in my arguments (despite the constant temptation).

    • Tom Hartley says:

      I understand the frustration, but I think that you do in fact have to keep giving the rational explanation. At least if you want to change their minds. Because if you don’t give the rational explanation you are likely to give an irrational and unpersuasive response.

  5. cromercrox says:

    we should do more of what Paul Nurse did to James Delingpole, and use simple analogy and other things to expose the absurdity of their position

    An excellent point. I am often getting into scrapes with creationists who quote from my oeuvre selectively to suggest that I am not really an ‘evolutionist’. In another place a helpful commenter reminded me of a sentence in Paslms 14 that runs ‘There Is No God’. It’s in the Bible, so it must be right, eh?

  6. stephenemoss says:

    Stephen – hugely enjoyable post, whether one reads it as a film review or a treatise on public engagement. I have to admit that I tend to take the Dawkins rather than the Sagan approach when it comes to addressing pseudoscience and irrational beliefs – I just get too exasperated. It’s out with the Magnum .45 and to the devil with the calm measured voice of reason.

  7. j0ns1m0ns says:

    I agree this is an excellent post, and have long thought (and written) that scientists and science writers should, and would do better, to adopt a more thoughtful, more Sagacious approach. One point though, which leads on from Tom Hartley’s comment, is that one reason often advanced for such an approach is, as Tom puts it: “if you actually want to change the mind of the person your debating, then Sagan’s approach is the only way.”

    However, I’ve seen some of the more “angry” skeptics (e.g., Myers, Dawkins) argue vehemently that the thoughtful, reasonable approach doesn’t win anyone over, particularly not intransigent homeopaths, astrologers etc. In these instances, I’ve often wondered if there’s any actual, you know, evidence about whether a thoughtful or an angry approach is more likely to be successful in changing someone’s mind. This isn’t at all my area, so does anyone know?

    • Tom Hartley says:

      I understand that there is a wealth of evidence on persuasion and the merits and disadvantages of rational, social and emotional tactics, and I’ll try to put some of it together in a future blogpost. There are at least two aims we might have. 1) to be right 2) to persuade someone else of our position. It’s possible for these to be in opposition. But if that happens, I’d rather be right than persuasive. For that reason, I prefer to stick to the evidence. As soon as we move away from the evidence, whatever our intention, we run a much greater risk of being wrong – and in that case being persuasive will do no one any good.

      When selling snake oil it might be more effective to use an emotional/social argument (because the evidence-based argument fails), but when buying, an evidence-based critique is vital.

    • Tom Hartley says:

      And here is an overview with reference to one particularly relevant study.

  8. pssalgado says:

    Excellent post, Stephen. A brilliant way to introduce the main topic – and as analogies go, a very good one indeed.

    I do understand both points: we should be calm and reasonable and use fact based arguments but sometimes, when you are trying to explain the true science facts behind these pseudoscience false claims for the nth time, you do get exasperated.

    That relates to another point I’d like to raise: what are we trying to achieve? Change the minds of pseudoscience advocates or elucidate people on what the facts related to them are? If the later, arguments have been presented over, and over, and over again – I actually don’t think they would change their minds or even want to have a real discussion about it. No matter how belligerent or reasonable you are.

    However, if instead of being on a self appointed ‘quest’ to ‘convert’ all pseudoscience advocates, we really aim to inform and elucidate people on the true facts and scientific theories, then clearly Sagan’s approach would be the most appropriate and successful.

    The choice of tone and approach is ours to make – but it is also intrinsically related to what our aims and goals might be. Are we on quests or are we mainly presenting the facts?…

  9. Stephen says:

    Thanks to all above who have commented – am struggling to keep up this morning. I’m aware that I am not mapping out any new territory here; just voicing my preferences.

    @stephenemoss – you be careful with that gun now… 😉

    @j0ns1m0ns and @pssalgado – you raise good points about efficacy and aims. Frankly on efficacy I don’t know what the evidence is (I’ve seen via recent exhanges on twitter that it may amount to no more than a few anecdotes in most cases). Even so, I think I would incline towards some form of the ‘precautionary principle’ here in asserting that it seems likely (note careful choice of words) that a cool-headed, rational approach that is sensitive to the listener (as fas as possible – mileage may vary!) is more likely to have some sort of impact.

    Then again, perhaps there’s a point to showing a bit of passion for your side of the argument?

    As regards audiences, I think we need to try to address both the passionate adherents of pseudoscientific beliefs (this is what Sagan did) and to speak out so that the more general public gets to hear the discourse in a way that is accessible and not off-putting. Those two audiences will require different approaches, not least because the first is likely to be extremely resistant.

    Scientists and skeptics can at least take some comfort from the long view of the development/ascendancy of the scientific world-view over the past several hundred years. I guess to some it seems baffling that there is so much pseudoscience still abroad in the world, but that is telling us something about our fellow human beings that we maybe need to be more aware of.

  10. steffi suhr says:

    However, if instead of being on a self appointed ‘quest’ to ‘convert’ all pseudoscience advocates, we really aim to inform and elucidate people on the true facts and scientific theories, then clearly Sagan’s approach would be the most appropriate and successful.

    To me it’s that one. Honestly: does anyone believe they are actually going to convince hardcore quacks? So, in my view, the issue boils down to these two things:

    – We need to calmly present the facts (over and over and over and over and as long as it is necessary) to the people “in the middle” of this debate. Which I suspect is the vast majority of “the public”.

    – Someone (go ahead, Austin!) needs to confront the quacks online when they pop up. If they can do that calmly, or at least with humour, all the better. Because that vast group of people who are not on the “extreme ends” of the spectrum may read the comment strings and will end up not taking either side seriously.

  11. Rebekah Higgitt says:

    Many thanks for a great post, Stephen, and to the commenters for some excellent points. In my view it is key to think about who the intended audience really is and what you hope to achieve. Even when debating with dedicated homeopathists, astrologers or whoever it might be worth remembering that other people are likely to be listening-in to your conversations, especially if they are online. It might be easier to find the right tone, and the right arguments, if you think that your discussion may not be about trying to convince the person you’re actually conversing with, but the audience looking on. Sympathies can be won with by avoiding vitriol and, just as importantly, allies can be retained.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks – the point about keeping onlookers/ear-wiggers in mind is a very good one.

      • Austin says:

        I think we do do this, Stephen – by “we” here I mean the debunkers. I would certainly like to think that I do (most of the time, anyway). The first response is usually more “Sagan-ian”, and I try to be polite and give factual information /rebuttal, specifically because one wants other readers to get “just the facts”.

        Of course, many of the crazier anti-science-ers (the anti-vaccine people are a particularly choice example) just keen banging on and on until they goad you into losing your rag with them. You probably remember that Gruaniad Uber-thread on autism genetics we both participated in, the one I wrote about here and here.

        One of my own failings is precisely hanging on in such settings when it has become apparent there are no “neutrals” still reading. Unfortunately the desire to have the last word is strong. Call me an academic…

        • Stephen says:

          Oh, I agree Austin — there’s plenty of examples of what I’d call good practice out there. You are yourself a shining example. I remember well that extended thread on CiF – sheesh.

          For some in the pseudo/anti-science crowd, it is just about baiting and they do play rather well sometimes on that all-too-human trait of wanting to have the last word. I’ve felt it myself on more than one occasion. Trying to think now if I’ve ever truly disgraced myself… if so, no doubt someone can dig up a link.

  12. Jon Simons says:

    Thanks Tom, I think an understanding of the persuasion literature would be a very valuable contribution indeed.

  13. ricardipus says:

    @Henry – “Even the Devil may quote Scripture”, or so I am led to believe.

    Stephen – thanks for that. I’m passingly familiar with some of Sagan’s works (copies of Cosmos, Comet and Pale Blue Dot can be found in our house) but didn’t know about this one, which sounds like a good read. Added to my list.

    • cromercrox says:

      Not only that, he has all the best tunes. Lawdy Hush Mah Mouth.

    • Stephen says:

      Which of the three that you have would you recommend, Richard (bearing in mind that I’ve already watched Cosmos)?

  14. A great post Stephen and plenty of food for thought for science communicators everywhere. However, I believe there to be two levels of pseudoscience advocates: quacks & the misinformed. The quacks you can never reason with, but the misinformed can be – but only with creative use of communication. Clear, concise and uncompromising facts presented in a way that engages the misinformed can bring them into the realm of real science. The challenge for science communicators is to avoid wasting our energy on the quacks and focus on the making the misinformed informed.

  15. Stephen says:

    Thanks Humphrey and welcome to the blog. I agree with you that the ‘true quack’ are probably impossible to reach because they already know that what they are hawking is a sham and are only in it for the money.

    But there is a broad spectrum out there and it can sometimes be hard to distinguish the charlatans from the true believers. Plenty of people who are advocates of pseudoscience are genuinely sold on it, I believe. The same is true of (all?) creationists. Here the difficulty is deep-seated beliefs that are hard to shake. That’s not to say that scientists shouldn’t try – just that we should be sensitive to the audience. And make sure to practice in the mirror… 😉

  16. cromercrox says:

    However the battle is fought, it will be long and hard. I received most of my secondary education at a Rudolf Steiner school where I was very happy. However, these places are full of homeopaths and anti-vaxers, and their minds simply cannot be changed. Recent encounters suggest that they accuse you of being in with a scientific conspiracy to poison our kids, and then they unfriend you on facebook.

    The case I’m thinking of was with a former classmate, who I think is just stupid. As teenagers on a trip to Italy, while walking up the leaning tower of Pisa, I convinced her that the tower wasn’t actually leaning, it was the rest of the world, an effect due to the particular latitude we were at.

    Perhaps the only answer is to arrange things so that they can be stupid on their own dollar and not affect anyone else…

    • Stephen says:

      A nice story Henry – you wag – but it does raise the more interesting point about cultural conditioning. Since you and your friend went to the same school, how come you ended up with such different world views? Stupidity, maybe, but I wonder if there was also an influence from the home? That said, plenty of kids kick against their parents’ belief just because they belong to their parents.

      Not sure where I’m going with this but more time on the curriculum for ‘critical thinking skills’ — perhaps introduced in a non-religious, non-political context where beliefs may be firmly embedded — might sew a few seeds of doubt that would flower in later years. That was the case for me I think (slow learner you see): prolonged exposure to a scientific training eventually wore away the roots of my Catholic upbringing. Too a long time, though, I think because of its cultural power within Northern Ireland.

  17. nico says:

    LOL Henry, that’s an impressive brain fail!

  18. Marianne says:

    Lovely article Stephen, thanks 🙂

    I agree for the most part, of course – it’s always better to be nice where that’s an option.

    However, as Austin alluded, it really depends on what we’re talking about and indeed who we are talking to.
    I have to agree with the call for scientists to stand up and fight pseudoscience, but this takes a number of forms – the attack, if one wishes to perceive it that way – comes from many fronts.

    There is the one-on-one calm conversation with a friend, acquaintance or indeed stranger in which the collected and attentive words will certainly make the best impression and leave that individual open to finding out more – where shouting them down is pointless and alienating.

    But then there are the industries, the exploiters and the criminals. These are largely faceless, there is rarely one person responsible, though there might be an occasional figurehead people like to focus their attention on.

    In this case I think it is more important that scientists – and everyone else who sees the rubbish for what it is – stand up and shout about it. Not just calmly, Britishly, mumble ‘well I don’t like the cut of his jib very much at all…’ – that doesn’t really achieve anything.

    The alt-med crowd are happy to cry that Big Pharma is killing us all, that medicine is a lie and nature will heal you. They too have their figureheads, but it’s mostly a general, wafty attack on science/medicine. We must do the same, and better, or that is all the public sees, and that is why this crap is so popular.

    ‘Oh I heard it’s good for you… oh I heard that’s not a good idea’ – if the scientific community can present a more united front against things that are demonstrably bollocks, that’s going to filter down to a lot more people than a few polite conversations.

    And that is my 2 pence 😉

  19. Jim Kakalios says:

    Excellent post. As I have said too many times, people are not anti-intellectual, but rather they are anti-snobbery. When we come across as authoritarian lecturers, we can be sure of one point that our audience receives: “I belong to a club that does not include you as a member.” Sagan, Tyson, Plait, and others try to get others to join the club, by showing all the fun benefits of membership.

    Inspires me to go re-read some Sagan, particularly “Demon Haunted World.”

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