Vulgarization and its Discontents
I have a confession to make and I find this very uncomfortable to admit. However, in the interest of intellectual honesty and academic integrity I must tell you this: until my early 40s I believed that analogies could prove my point. Of course, during this earlier stage in the development of my thinking I had convinced myself that my analogies were made of gold. Your analogies, on the other hand, were made up of base metals or other substances, but mine were solid gold. This belief, I realize now, is made of a substance typically brown and smelly. I can tell you from personal experience that letting go of your (certainly brilliant) arguments from analogy does not come easily to anyone.
A colleague and I discussing this topic led to an amusing example of vulgarization. When she was 5 her mother explained to her why her grandmother had to exercise extreme caution when using knives. The removal of her grandmother's lymph nodes from her armpits as part of breast cancer surgery greatly impaired her immune response in her arms. How do you explain that to a 5-year-old? Her mother told her the glands the doctor removed were like firehouses. When she cut herself the firehouses would send fire trucks to the cut to put out the fire: the infection. Good enough for a 5-year-old. But does anyone
believe that the human body literally has firehouses dispatching fire trucks? This is vulgarization.
Some people don't get this.How does this relate to evolution
This explains the biggest challenge anyone attempting to explain evolution or natural selection in an online forum will encounter: that the listener/reader will mistake the use of simplified explanations as the reason to believe the "truth" of the theory. I recall a talk that +PZ Myers
gave at University of California Berkeley a few years ago about his experiences arguing with creationists. He showed us a slide of an article from New Scientist which his creationist opponent in a debate the year before used as "proof" that evolution was nonsense. The audience laughed at the article which clearly showed the evolution of whales. It demonstrated "macro-evolution," which the creationist insisted has never happened.
Here's the tricky part: this actually does make a kind of sense once you see the article from the creationist's point of view. The 10 diagrams of skeletons and the 3 pictures of skulls certainly do not prove that evolution happened. The "missed step" here comes from the fact that the uninformed person viewing the article mistakenly comes to the conclusion that the 13 pictures constitutes all of the evidence. Obviously 13 specimens fail to prove anything without a larger context. In reality, we have many thousands of specimens just for cetaceans (whales, dolphins, etc). The vulgarization in this case comes from the presentation of a sample of the evidence rather than from simplifying a complex theory. If you mistake the vulgarization as the full explanation or for an inventory of the entirety of the evidence then of course you can dismiss the theory it explains.
This happens. All. The. Time.
For example, in a recent exchange with a CDesign proponentist (google it if you don't know what it means) who trolled this community I countered his argument from analogy that genes encode "digital information" by asking "where are the 1s and the zeros?" The reaction? Repeated insistence that somehow, genetic material encodes digital information, just like a computer program. Some people have so internalized their vulgarizations that they can not distinguish them from fact.
In reality, there are no "orphan genes" nor was there ever a "pre-cambrian explosion," and no one has ever experienced "weightlessness." A group of DNA sequences without an apparent function are not "orphans" lacking a relationship with earlier organisms, The pre-cambrian "explosion" took place over about 60 million years, and the perception of "weightlessness" results from a constant state of free-fall. Oh, and there are no fire engines rushing from the firehouses in your armpits when you cut your finger. All of these are vulgarizations, some better or worse than others. Here's the problem
Quick answers, sometimes eloquent or humorous, fill up online discourse to overflowing. Face-to-face discourse too, as we see on television and Youtube. Brief, simple explanations often have a power and a beauty that can impress most of us -- possibly even "win" arguments. The trouble is, they are nearly always wrong.
Popular works on science have to use simplifications in order to explain complex ideas without the reader having to take years of science coursework. But simplified explanations often rely on analogies, metaphors, similes, comparisons or stories in order for the reader to obtain some idea of what a given theory, established as the best present explanation for a given body of evidence, “says” about that evidence. Stephen Jay Gould explained in the prologue to Bully for Brontosaurus
the word “vulgarization” comes from the French meaning which is not pejorative: unrefined, broad strokes, big chunks, general picture, etc. The use of such rhetorical devices has explanatory power that often proves persuasive, but vulgarizations remain explanatory tools only. If all a person reads are popular works on science I see how it would be easy to mistake a scientific theory as “proven” (or not) by means of the quality of "the argument" rather than the explanation having come from rational inferences from evidence which then pass objective tests of verification. Vulgarization has a very limited usefulness: it can inform people about what our culture has discovered. It can inform people as to what scientists consider the best explanation of a given body of evidence or phenomenon. What a vulgarization can never do is prove any assertion as true.
The educational system in the U.S. does not teach the philosophy or history of science. Some individuals, for whatever reason, do not need to learn the scientific approach to problem solving in a class. They may already think in that manner, or their parents taught them that approach, or they gleaned it from their science classes. But other people need to have certain principles explained to them. Slowly and carefully.How to deal with the person who has mistaken the vulgarization for the theory
1.) Anticipate that they have made this mistake (You'll be right 99 times out of 100). Point this out as nicely as you can. Establish right away that a short answer in an online forum will never "prove" anything. Have some "go to" book titles handy (i.e.: The Origin of Species
, obviously, but others too). For online sources, no need to re-invent the wheel. Talk-Origins and The Panda's thumb are well organized sites which allow you to find the relevant posts batched into useful categories. They also have references to scholarly sources (This tends to be true more often for Talk-Origins than Panda's Thumb). It works best to re-direct someone who "demands proof" to one of these sites than to duplicate the effort in the comments.
2.) Beware the "I saw your video now you have to see mine" argument or the "how can you know it's wrong if you have not read [name of crackpot]'s brilliant treatise?" Most IDiots notoriously fail to understand the concept of peer review resulting in about 10,000 other "brilliant treatises" posted to the internet and all making the same argument.
3.) Always keep in mind that you are writing to the "lurker" in an online forum and not
to the intransigent troll. Learn to recognize lost causes and abandon them quickly.
4.) Ask for "proper questions" if they insist on engaging you. If someone writes "I just can't accept that humans evolved," my standard reply is "If you want to have an exchange with me then please ask a question about why evolution is true in the form of a grammatically correct complete sentence ending in a question mark." When a person has to formulate an actual question rather than make a statement which invites you to disagree with it, you will usually find the "problem" in the person's understanding or reasoning.
There we have it, the two mains forms of vulgarization which, over and over again, confuse uninformed people in "brief-format" discussions: either the explanation itself relies on simplifications which remove important information needed for a non-specialist to acquire a full understanding of the theory or the information shows a tiny portion of the existing evidence as illustrative examples. On the one hand, we must use vulgarization, not only in online discussions but also in early education for children who do not yet have the foundational knowledge to understand the "full" theory. Unfortunately, this comes back to bite us when a given person never learns anything beyond the simplified version.
"Can you grasp all that?"
"Yes. I think so."
"Good. Everything I have just said is nonsense. It bears no resemblance to the truth of the matter in any way at all. But it is a lie that you can … understand, I think." [from Thief of Time
by Terry Pratchett]
(This post contains some "recycled material" I originally posted in a comment on the Pharyngula science blog on Dec 7, 2008: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/12/07/if-you-want-to-know-why-our-pu/
(A big, enormous thank you goes to +Alain Van Hout
for his editing of a draft of this post).