Richard Dawkins Takes The Crotchety Old Man Tactic To Communicate Science To Rick Perry. Will It Work?
This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., a research scientist, policy analyst and science communications strategist, who encourages the scientific community to get engaged in the policy-making process
In response to Rick Perry’s latest comments on evolution, Richard Dawkins has chosen to revert back to the “browbeating approach” to science communication. Dr. Dawkins has scaled the steps of the ivory tower and disdainfully shouts down at his subjects in his recent post on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog. In the opening paragraph, he says,
“There is nothing unusual about Governor Rick Perry. Uneducated fools can be found in every country and every period of history, and they are not unknown in high office. What is unusual about today’s Republican party (I disavow the ridiculous ‘GOP’ nickname, because the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt has lately forfeited all claim to be considered ‘grand’) is this: In any other party and in any other country, an individual may occasionally rise to the top in spite of being an uneducated ignoramus. In today’s Republican Party ‘in spite of’ is not the phrase we need. Ignorance and lack of education are positive qualifications, bordering on obligatory. Intellect, knowledge and linguistic mastery are mistrusted by Republican voters, who, when choosing a president, would apparently prefer someone like themselves over someone actually qualified for the job.”
In one short paragraph, Dr. Dawkins has violated nearly everything we have come to know about effective science communication. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how Dr. Dawkins believes hurling insults, like “uneducated fools” and “ignoramus,” can advance his position. How far do you think readers of the opposite mind continued into this article?
It has been documented here at the Intersection countless times that the problem with conservative white males like Perry is not a lack of education. I’ll have Dr. Dawkins know that Governor Perry graduated in 1972 from Texas A&M with a 2.22 GPA and a bachelor’s degree in animal science.
The problem is that the Governor, and many like him, subscribe to a type of thinking that embraces hierarchical authoritarianism. People who participate in this form of thinking are not satisfied with the uncertainty that comes from evolutionary science. They need black and white answers…answers that the existing science cannot provide.
Take for instance this conversation between Piers Morgan and Penn Jillette:
As you see, Morgan is not satisfied with Jillette’s answer of “I don’t know.” Therefore, he disavows the science and turns to something that gives him comfort so he can fall asleep at night. People want comfort (especially during these trying times) and if they cannot find it in science, they seek it from other sources. To insult them is not going to bring them to your side of the issue.
By the time Dr. Dawkins offers his brilliant summary of evolution, it’s too late. His target audience, those who are resistant to the theory of evolution, have already closed off and put up barriers. To continue is pointless. Instead of attacking them, it might be more effective to communicate science in a way that meets their needs. I do not claim to have yet identified this method. However, I believe we are making progress in that direction. In the meantime, for the good of science, I suggest Dr. Dawkins rethink his approach.