Public literacy and self-awareness

Via Chris Mooney and The Bubble Chamber, here’s sociologist Barry Glassner calling for more public literacy among scientists:

Scientists and their advocates need to become more knowledgeable about how people come to their beliefs — who they rely on for scientific information, what they hear, and through which filters they hear it….

Nor are pleas for rationality and greater respect for science likely to win the day. Were hard data and cold logic all that mattered, any number of common personal behaviors would be long gone by now, from smoking to overeating. As any skilled public relations practitioner will attest, successful communication meets people on their own turf — by means that address emotions, fears and values.”

While I’m deeply sympathetic to this argument, it only goes half-way. If scientists truly want to understand the public, they first have to accept that they are part of it, that we too need our emotions, fears and values addressed. For me at least, building self-awareness and humility has been a continuous, painful process, and one that I’m far from completing. Confronting and interrogating your most deeply-held beliefs and concluding that you do not, and may never, really understand them is not easy. I now look back with more than a little embarrassment at my Richard Dawkins worshipping days and wonder how I could have been so stupid.

As I’ve done so often, here’s Barbara Herrnstein-Smith articulating my thoughts better than I can in the context of (yet again!) science and religion:

Scientists share cognitive tendencies, achievements, and limits with nonscientists; religious believers share them with nonbelievers. Although each may put the world together and conduct his or her life in ways that are at odds with or opaque to the other, the cosmology and way of life of each deserves minimally respectful acknowledgement from the other. Such acknowledgment would not mean accepting ideas one finds fantastic or claims one knows are false. And of course it would not mean approving practices that one knows are confining, maiming, or murderous to oneself or to others. What it would mean is recognizing, as parallel to one’s own, the process by which those cosmologies and ways of life came to be formed.

Not me, says the self-vaunting evangelical atheist. Tu quoque–you too–says the defensive, resentful theist. Et ego–I, too–says the reflexive, reflective naturalist.

The best two closing paragraphs to a non-fiction book I’ve ever read.

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