Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Why scientists stayed away from the Kansas hearings

Everyone seems to be jumping on an article about Ron Numbers lately, so I may as well join in.

The article comments that (PDF):
When Kansas convened public hearings to discuss the merits of intelligent design, most scientists stayed away, thinking that if they refused to testify, it would be obvious that the idea wasn’t even worth discussing. They were shocked when the decision went so clearly against them.
No. Scientists chose not to participate in the Kansas hearings because the asinine exercise was a transparent attempt by the Board's creationist majority to give IDC the semblance of scientific legitimacy, thereby giving their foregone conclusion a veneer of legitimacy. By forcing IDC to stand or fall on its own, the scientists allowed the world to see the IDolators for exactly what they are: pedantic attention-whores with an axe to grind and an excess of leisure time.

There was a lot of worry when KCFS announced that they would like scientists not to agree to attend the hearings. After all there had been three possible outcomes: the challenge could be accepted and top scientists recruited to debate a foregone conclusion, the challenge could be rejected and second-tier debaters could try to fill in for the people who heeded the warnings about the irrelevance of the hearings, or the challenge could be rejected and no one would show up.

The last and first options had various things going for them, while the middle case would be a mess. The hearings would be confusing to everyone involved, IDolators would get what they wanted, and science would put its worst foot forward while local science advocates would look weak. Bad all around. And pretty much impossible if the science community took the challenge head-on.

Taking the challenge was appealing partly because it would head off that possibility. It would give some chance to educate the public, but the only people paying attention to the substance of the "hearing" would already have made up their minds, so the public education benefit would be minimal.

The last case was appealing because it meant that every article about the hearings would explain that scientists boycotted the hearings because the results were pre-determined and the event was a sham. And pretty much every article did so. The point is no one was "shocked when the decision went so clearly against them." The decision was clear as soon as the creationist majority announced their intent to hold the hearings, and indeed as soon as the sixth creationist was elected to the Board.

The downside, and one that will have to be addressed, is that it's easy for IDolators to spin the boycott as scientific arrogance. The hearings were not a scientific forum, they were a political forum, and the boycott was smart politics. But it wasn't good PR for science.

There are various ways to mitigate that damage, and scientists are working on ways of reaching out to the public more effectively. Most of the effort is currently on the political problem, but scientists do recognize that there's a serious problem in public perceptions. And that has nothing to do with what Deborah Blum wrote.