Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Demonizing the enemy

On New Year's Eve, anthropologist John Hawks asked, "What questions should paleoanthropologists be focusing on in the upcoming year?" on Twitter and Facebook.  Based on 40 responses, he quickly posted his own thoughts on New Year's Day, Can we build a science of human evolution that people can trust?

What struck me most about this exchange was one of the questions that he addresses towards the end of his post:  Why should taxpayers continue to fund our research?  Part of his response:
Our field ignores the voices of the broader public. In the United States, human evolutionary scientists have been treating the voices of more than half the country with derision. If more than half the taxpayers no longer want to fund our science, it is because of our history. People don’t trust us.
Wow, I think he's right.  I'm unfortunately not really accustomed to seeing such self-reflection from the scientific world.  I don't want to overgeneralize, but there is definitely an attitude from scientists that we are correct (because of the science), and therefore self-evidently moral, and therefore any opposition is self-evidently evil.  Some might even claim that that superior attitude pervades all of academia.  It's the good-vs-evil bit that makes disagreement dangerous.

But let's not forget that it goes both ways.  It seems like every divide in the developed world has become a moral issue, where the other side is just wicked, no matter what the position is.  In creationism, I've seen this emerge over my lifetime, where political and legal arguments of the eighties turned into moral crusades in the nineties.  Today, "evil-utionist" isn't really a joke any more.  Plenty of people believe it.  On the other side, perceptions of creationists have changed from simpletons and rubes to liars, frauds, and cheats.  In 2007, the Council of Europe declared that creationism could become a "threat to human rights."

As long as we stay in our ideological ghettos, wallowing in confirmation bias, I suspect things are only going to get worse.  Even venturing out to interact with someone on the other side won't fix things though.  I can think of plenty of people on both sides that regularly harass their opponents and then brag about how they really got to "know" the enemy, even though they still don't have a clue.  If you only listen long enough to compose your rebuttal, you're not really listening.

What we need are people willing to listen, understand, and then ponder their own shortcomings.  Self-reflection is probably the most important ingredient.  How is my own position weak?  What can I do about it?  What can I do about people on my own "team" that are promoting dubious ideas and claims?  How is my own position ignoring the values (not arguments) of the other side?  This self-reflective attitude requires changing your thought patterns from tribalistic self-preservation to something more concerned with all the tribes.  It might even be described as loving your enemy.  Where have I heard that before?

As we begin the new year, that's a good challenge for us all.  We need to try harder to really hear those who disagree with us, not just nitpick the logic of their complaints.  For every argument, there's much more going on than just the issue at hand.  That's what we need to discover.

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