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Scientists Versus the Public on Airing Scientific Dissent

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I am guessing that biologist Larry Moran represents more than just his own opinion when he suggests that the upcoming Royal Society meeting might well be canceled rather than open a “can of worms.” The hotly anticipated confab, “New trends in evolutionary biology,” to be held November 7-9 in London, promises a high-level discussion of “revising” the “standard theory of evolution.”

Organizer Denis Noble, the distinguished Oxford University physiologist, speaks of “replacing,” not merely “extending” or “revising” modern Darwinian theory. This is awkward, clearly, and another organizer has gone so far as to write to journalist Suzan Mazur to ask here to stop calling attention to the prospect of a “paradigm shift.”

That’s the background. Moran writes:

It looks to me like the organizers of this meeting didn’t think very carefully about the can of worms they were opening. When you have speakers like Denis Noble and Jim Shapiro you are just inviting trouble. When you try to lecture Suzan Mazur about paradigm shifting you are bound to regret it.

I’m beginning to think this meeting isn’t going to happen. The Royal Society is going to end up looking very bad and there’s no easy way to fix the problem short of cancelling the meeting.

What a contrast with public opinion. A poll released over the July 4 weekend reports extremely broad public support not for sweeping scientific dissent under the carpet but for airing it in all its glory. One question asked:

  • Rate your level of agreement or disagreement with the following statement: Scientists who raise scientific criticisms of evolution should have the freedom to make their arguments without being subjected to censorship or discrimination.

Of respondents, 88 percent agreed, including young and old, Democrats and Republicans, theists and atheists. Another question:

  • Rate your level of agreement or disagreement with the following statement: It is important for policymakers and the public to hear from scientists with differing views.

On this one, 94 percent agreed, once against sweeping all demographic categories. Another question:

  • Rate your level of agreement or disagreement with the following statement: Disagreeing with the current majority view in science can be an important step in the development of new insights and discoveries in science.

This one commanded 86 percent agreement, and yes, once more across all categories.

Download the full the survey results here, including a description of methodology.

Do you notice a trend? The American public, at least, wants to hear about scientific controversy. They believe publicizing differing scientific opinions is necessary to the advance of science. Some scientists (e.g., Denis Noble) also evidently think that “scientific criticisms of evolution” should be openly discussed, that the public needs “to hear from scientists with differing views,” that disagreement among scientists “can be an important step in the development of new insights and discoveries.”

But another group of scientists, it seems apparent, strongly disagrees. Writing at the Huffington Post, Suzan Mazur gives the remarkable text of the email she received from an (unnamed) Royal Society meeting organizer, objecting to her candid reporting. It begins:

Could I request that you stop referring to the forthcoming RS-BA meeting (“New Trends in Evolutionary Biology: Biological, Philosphical and Social Science Perspectives”), and to the extended evolutionary synthesis, more generally, as in some way advocating a “paradigm shift”. Such language is both misleading (the vast majority of scientists working towards an extended synthesis do not seek revolutionary change in neo-Darwinism) and counterproductive (such talk undermines calm scientific discussion by creating an unnecessarily emotive and antagonistic atmosphere).

That is some gall. He is trying to direct a journalist in how, or whether, she informs the public that a major revision in evolutionary theory may be in the offing.

Larry Moran isn’t trying to quiet Suzan Mazur, and I don’t read his post at Sandwalk as a call to scuttle or censor the meeting. He is, I think, simply recognizing that a significant body of opinion among his colleagues would breathe a sigh of relief at such a move. They would welcome trying to put the worms back in their can. Moran is “beginning to think this meeting isn’t going to happen,” because the “Royal Society is going to end up looking very bad and there’s no easy way to fix the problem short of cancelling” it.

He’s probably wrong about what will happen — the PR that would accompany such a naked move to quash debate would likely be unacceptable even to those who wish the meeting had never been scheduled in the first place.

What will happen, then? It’s going to be messy, and fascinating. Some will deny the significance of what happens, whatever happens. Many will downplay it. Others will report on it honestly, as we plan to do here.

Photo: Royal Society, © Kaihsu Tai [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

H/t: Denyse O’Leary.

I’m on Twitter. Follow me @d_klinghoffer.