Monday, May 05, 2008

Primum non nocere - Part I

Translated: First, do no harm.

For those involved in the many scientific disciplines, this is a phrase which should be considered throughout the facets of their professional (and personal) lives. Earlier I mentioned that scientists need to behave responsibly when communicating with the layman because, like it or not, they represent science and scientists in toto. Act irresponsibly, and you tarnish the rest of us. Now, I'm sure that some people will take the Charles Barkley line of defense (i.e., "I'm no role model") and claim that each individual (and their message) should be judged on their own merits ... but we all know that doesn't happen. Never mind that some of the very people taking up this defense probably tend to lump groups of people into convenient, broad brush categories themselves.

Doing harm can come in many forms, but they all have the same outcome - that being, they serve to turn off the individual who is confused, disparaged, insulted or otherwise offended. How does it happen? It happens by talking over the audience, refusing to acknowledge non-scientist inquiries, open mocking of certain groups, and through insults and harassment of opinions and people holding them. I doubt this list is comprehensive, but I think my point is clear. Some people grasp these facts, others do not.

Case in point: Science Blogs. (Well, there goes my invite). I've taken to reading as many of the 71 blogs there as time permits, I stop to leave comments where appropriate, and I truly enjoy a number of them. I think denialism is a great read, and I also enjoy Not Exactly Rocket Science, particularly because Ed Yong spends a lot of time using Research Blogging. As scientists, I believe we need to be cognizant of the fact that our duties don't stop at the edge of the lab bench. That data needs to be interpreted and made known to society. And the thing is, 99.9999999% (a rough estimate) of the population are non-experts in the field we're reporting on. So, part of our role is making sure that we can distill down the important points and give it in digestible chunks for the layman. A lot of blogs do that, and to that end, I think they do the scientific disciplines a great service. The more people are informed the better their ability to grasp the importance of the work, and thusly, the more likely they are to support those efforts (in terms of policy and public funding).

But then, there is the opposite side of the spectrum. These blogs are, IMO, more noise than actual content. They're more screed than treatise. It's almost ironic that one of the entries of the linked blog (on May 4, 2008) was this one, lamenting that television programming devotes so little time to factually representing science. In the meantime, this same individual is taking pot shots at religion, here, and here, and here, and ... well, you get my point. And when he is talking about science, which he admittedly does well, he can't avoid putting in that last jab. And while I don't have the exact site statistics, judging by the numbers of comments left behind in his posts, I'd surmise his blog is one of the (if not the) most visited blogs on the site. So one must ask, what good results from this sort of screed? Other than the fact that he manages to insult a large portion of the members of American society ... the very people who pay the taxes which contribute to his research funding (if he has public sources of funding that is) ... I can't see what good can come of him professing that this is a scientific blog. It is this very type of screed which no doubt led to his being manipulated by Ben Stein. He got suckered because he has a big mouth, and can't keep it shut ... and because of that, the rest of us have to mop up his verbal diarrhea.

In my time doing research, I have found that people, regardless of political or religious affiliation, are more than willing to help you do your research and therefore develop applications which can benefit everyone. I try very hard to put a face to a name, for both their benefit and mine. When you establish that rapport (which for me isn't the most comfortable thing I have to do, being an introvert), you open a number of doors for the betterment of your own scientific program. I don't bite the hand that feeds me, I don't insult someone just because I have a platform to do so, and dozens of people will laud me for it. What exactly would it achieve?

As a microbiologist who currently studies microbial population structures in agriculture, I study microbial relationships which have obviously developed over long periods of time. I am constantly constructing phylogenetic trees ... plotting the evolutionary history of the organisms I am using to develop applications for advanced agriculture. My customers, none of whom are geneticists or microbiologists and who'd I guess are mostly evangelical Christians given my location (and probably have a dim view of evolution, and a probably even lesser understanding of it), see this and don't raise a fuss. They know I'm here to see to their problems and recommend solutions to it. I don't go around insulting their religious beliefs because I know that to do so would only make my life harder. If you don't want to get jabbed by the horns, don't poke the bull with a stick! It's as simple as that. And in the end, when they need to understand evolution, my hope is that they'll remember their discussions with me and they'll come to me for a way to understand it. This way, everyone wins.

Unfortunately, most people remember the bad. Probably because the bad is sexy ... everyone loves looking at the train wreck. Bad news and drama sell. Unfortunately, drama is the last thing scientists should be feeding into. Alas, not everyone feels this way and as a consequence they wind up harming us all.


Anonymous said...

It is this very type of screed which no doubt led to his being manipulated by Ben Stein. He got suckered because he has a big mouth, and can't keep it shut
This is an excellent point. PZ's willingness to excoriate religion at every opportunity, even when he knows it's a setup, made him the easiest of prey: one who gladly walks into the trap because he rather enjoys the thrashing about and bloodletting.

Tom said...

livius - Thanks for showing up and commenting. :)

What's even scarier (to me at least), is that from what I read, he'd be willing to walk into the trap even if it were made clear to him. The fact that he finds religious fanatacism so deplorable is somewhat amusing, given his own militant nature.

illusory tenant said...

Good stuff, TJ. Looking forward to the sequel(s). And I'm working on some related commentary of my own.

Tom said...

IT- Thanks, and I look forward to your comments on the issue as well.

Anonymous said...

Given the scientific value -- in both the sense of "principle" and the sense of "benefit" -- of accepting nuance and fuzzy boundaries, I'm particularly concerned with the occasional polarity and unsubtlety of science bloggers when they enter screed mode. Pharyngula's attitude toward religion is good example of this as well, since PZ is much given to treating atheists as enablers or appeasers, if they are less motivated to ridicule the religious than he is. I've heard "If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists" before, and didn't like it the first time.

post-doc said...

Excellent points - lovely post.