Eugenie Scott plays many roles in the evolution debate. Now, in a recent enlightening interview in Science News, she offers her wisdom as a media coach for scientists talking publicly about evolution. Her most important piece of advice? Never use terminology that could imply any real weakness in evolutionary biology. Dr. Scott counsels:
To put it mildly, it doesn’t help when evolutionary biologists say things like, “This completely revolutionizes our view of X.” Because hardly anything we come up with is going to completely revolutionize our view of the core ideas of science…. An insight into the early ape-men of East and South Africa is not going to completely change our understanding of Neandertals, for example. So the statement is just wrong. Worse, it’s miseducating the public as to the soundness of our understanding of evolution.
So what happens when we do make a discovery that refutes or challenges some evolutionary hypothesis? Are scientists supposed to just spin it positively and never acknowledge they were wrong? Essentially, Dr. Scott says yes, because, in her own words: “You can say that this fossil or this new bit of data ‘sheds new light on this part of evolution.'” Funny, because I always thought that scientific progress is made when we reject false hypotheses, and scientific literacy would require disclosing those sorts of things to the public.
Later in the interview, Scott makes an even more startling comment, saying: “Ultimately the solution to this problem is not going to come from pouring more science on it.”
When scientists in a field are instructed to avoid publicly admitting when they’re wrong, and are advised that improving the public’s perception of science is not best served by doing better science, then you know that field is steeped in intolerance towards dissent, and political pressure to give assent to orthodoxy. These are not the signs of a healthy science.