The Big Fluffy

Another item from Pharyngula. About the fact that scientists talking about the details of a scientific subject can quickly bore an audience.

It’s true: we aren’t trained to be showmen. We are very good at talking to other scientists – I’m sure Wesley’s talk would have been a pleasure for me to listen to, and I would have learned much and been appreciative of the substance – but most of it would have whooshed over the heads of a lay audience. I wrestle with this in my public talks, too. There’s always this stuff that I am very excited about and that I know my peers think is really nifty and that gets right down to the heart of the joy and wonder of biology, but it’s so far from the perspective of the audience that it is well nigh impossible to communicate. And I know that when I try, I usually fail.

And the important thing to notice there is that we’re the ones who are missing out. Necessarily; we can’t know everything, and we’re all always going to have subjects we don’t know enough about to follow detailed discussions with interest, let alone excitement and joy – but I think it’s really important to keep always in mind that that means we are missing out. There’s something there, and it’s joy and excitement to people who understand it. This is kind of basic to the running argument I’m always having with ‘anti-elitists’. With people who accuse me of 1) thinking I know a lot (which is a joke; I know damn well I don’t know a lot; I know damn well I wouldn’t be able to get the joy and excitement in PZ’s public talks) and 2) thinking that means I’m Special. But that’s not it. That’s completely point-missing. No, what I think is that there is joy and excitement to be had in many kinds of knowledge and intellectual exploration, and that the more ‘anti-elitists’ insist that easy obvious poppy stuff is every bit as good as more challenging subjects, the more they encourage people never ever in the whole of their lives to find that out. ‘Anti-elitism’ pretends to be somehow sticking up for ‘ordinary people’ or some such amorphous group, but what it’s really doing is just encouraging them to remain permanently shut out from intellectual excitement. With friends like that who needs enemies, kind of thing.

The two creationists in the series, on the other hand, are simple and clear (and the young earth creationist has the advantage of being entertainingly insane). They don’t have any complex data to explain, so they aren’t tempted to try, and they put everything in terms everyone can follow. An absence of evidence can be an advantage in a talk, because then everything rests on well-honed rhetoric; the scientist’s reliance on actual information means we often skimp on the presentation. I’ve heard Johnson speak, and he’s smooth and confident, and slyly appeals to his audience’s prejudices. Of course, he also lies like a [censored] . It simplifies lecture preparation if you can simply make up glib lies to fill in the holes, another strategy to which scientists will not resort.

And that’s another important thing to keep in mind. Part of the appeal of the religious side is that it’s easy. It’s easy. Never forget that. In fact it ought to play a much bigger part in the rhetorical toolkit. Religion is for lazy thinkers, because there is literally nothing to do. No evidence-finding, no argument-improving, no illogic-detecting. It’s easy. Easy, easy, easy. It’s like lying back in a soft chair watching tv while the cat gently spoons chocolates into your mouth. Got that? Easy. Couch-potato thinking, lazy thinking, easy easy easy. Not impressive. Not buffed. Not butch. Easy.

They won’t like that!

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