Science and Rhetoric: Our Own Damn Fault

by Ian Tingen

Good afternoon! Here’s a piece adapted from a wonderful back-and-forth I had on Facebook. One of my friends, a biologist, was lamenting how much anti-science rhetoric she was seeing in social media. Most of you know my answer: it’s science’s own damn fault.

What do you think? Do scientists advocate for themselves effectively? Should they be expected to?  Let me know, comment and share below!

…My point about epistemology and jargon can be broken down over THAT word: ‘theory’. It’s the perfect distillation of how scientists obsess about putting our own meanings over everything. To us, theory often means the closest thing to capital-T truth that we can “know”. We know the limits of our own ways of knowing – and we define those limits in very specific ways.

That said, not everybody understand those limits, and they certainly don’t understand our jargon, hence the infuriating “it’s just a theory” argument often tendered by laypeople. When scientists hear that, many immediately dismiss the person saying it. Unpacking those moments of dismissal are critical in understanding our own failings as advocates.

We have to be willing to ask ourselves three key questions:

1) Why are we reacting like this?
2) How much methodological training have I had that I’m taking for granted right now?
3) How can I explain this more plainly?

We don’t have to react harshly to people who don’t have our privilege, but we often do.

Regarding this: “You can’t claim to have answers and in the same breath acknowledge you don’t have all the answers and expect to inspire confidence.” I disagree! This is the PERFECT time to shed our own epistemological biases and blinders for a broad perspective.

When we say ‘we don’t have all the answers’ we say it in the sense of the science we are practicing, not in the sense of the audience we are addressing. No matter how few answers we think we may have, we often have near-infinitely more answers than your average layperson.

Advocacy is about telling the world, not talking to our peers. That means looking to them, not taking our own training for granted, and learning to communicate IN THEIR LANGUAGE.

Brass tacks on one final point: pedantry kills us.

The example I love to use when explaining methodology talks about differences between the prediction of planetary orbits using models based on Newtonian physics vs Special (Einsteinian) Relativity. While the latter model better predicts what we have observed the ‘truth’ of orbits to be, the former is really a ‘good enough’ estimate in many instances. To most people, the differences are negligible, and immaterial to understanding the bigger concepts at play. We are biased by knowing the history of our own disciplines – a history of iterating better models and theory. But the objective reality is that we know more now than we have ever known before – and that IS the functional truth until we find something better. We need to be willing to represent that, conclusively.

We should be able to say “Here’s the most comprehensive version of the truth we know, now – and that if we learn something in the future, we will be happy to share!” That’s not dishonest, and it’s much more rhetorically powerful than what we often do now.


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