The Patience Required to Deal With The Public

Josh, no offense intended because I think what you are doing could be very important, but I’m pretty turned off on this community right now. I spent the day relatively unplugged, helping with a professional development workshop on evolution for high school and medical school biology teachers in Alabama, who often don’t get good support in this area. It was so uplifting and energizing. We were talking about important and oft-misunderstood parts of evolution theory, cool and innovative teaching strategies and activities, bringing recent research into the discussion, covering the multiple lines of evidence… We had a geneticist, a paleoanthropologist, an animal behaviorist, a comparative anatomist, a molecular biologist… it was amazing. They learned a ton, I learned a ton, we all had fun and enjoyed camaraderie and solidarity around our passion for biology education.

And now I open my email and all of this… stuff… hits me like a smack in the face. It also helps me realize that my attempts to engage with opponents of evolutionary theory have brought out the worst in me and I won’t let them drag me down to their level of nastiness, insult-slinging, and worst of all, the debate is not even remotely scientific. At its best, it’s semantic, and it’s worst, it’s about trying to score cheap debate points with slick rhetoric. (which is not nearly as slick as they think it is.) How do you engage with people like @mung and @greg and others, whose only goal is to bring you down in the mud with them, and maintain your good mood and your enthusiastic love of science?

Having completely lost this debate within the actual scientific institutions and organizations, and anywhere where evidence rules, they take their argument to the street and try to convince the non-scientist public that working professional scientists don’t know science but their gang of pariahs do. Imagine being a complete amateur and seriously thinking that you know something better than someone who has spent their entire adult life professionally studying that thing! Ignorance + hubris makes for a nasty bunch and I don’t know how you put up with it.


@NLENTS no offense taken, and I really hope you don’t feel I said anything rude to you. I’ve been enjoying the exchange with you, and really think your work is important too.

This is so important. Thank you for doing all of this. I want to find some ways to get your more engagement like this.

Not everyone can engage this side of the conversation. I think it is important that:

  1. We have some scientists dedicated to engaging the public, even the hard to reach corners of it, for the long run.
  2. We find also ways to make easier for science to contribute in small defined contexts, so it doesn’t suck up all out time.

That is one reason we tried out the Office Hours approach, which has usually worked well. You are started getting involved in lots of conversations, and that is great. However, that might have also opened you up to more attack from ENV and random posters. Perhaps the right way going forward is to make sure that we are strategic about the conversations we include you in, and police them more tightly?

As for your notifications, there are ways to limit that as well. Message me privately if that would be helpful.

I suppose I am an idealist and a realist. If no one qualified deals with them, the divides are just going to grow. It is important to stand in the gap and try, even if it doesn’t work. That is the idealist in me. At the same time, for every obstinate poster online, there are several more people watching and learning who they can trust. They trust scientist that respond with kindness to rudeness, and care to engage them. Some day, if we get a chance to grab coffee, I’ll explain some of the big doors that this sort of engagement opens up for all of us.

There are other scientists here who have been doing this even longer than I. Why are you all engaging the public? Why do you find it worth it and how do you keep it contained and prevent it from dragging you into the mud?

@Art @evograd @glipsnort @cwhenderson @jordan @Mercer @Herman_Mays @T_aquaticus @John_Harshman


Also, this report is a must read. I suspect it will be influencing my strategy going forward for years to come. It has evidence based explanations of how to engage with the more difficult to reach communities: AAAS: Scientists in Civic Life: Facilitating Dialogue-Based Communication.

@NLENTS Don’t let them get to you. Can you image what Darwin had to deal with? As the REM song lyrics,
“Darwin had the gall to ask.”

Keep up the good work. Keep writing books like “Human Errors”. The next generation will get it.

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There are a few reasons. In researching creationist claims I expose myself to a wide spectrum of science that I have no training in, and I find that to be very enjoyable. If I hadn’t gone into biology I probably would have gone into geology, so digging into the creationist young Earth arguments lets me scratch that itch.

I think it is also worthwhile to shoot down the claim that mainstream science can’t address creationist arguments. There are some who think that we are somehow giving creationism more respect than it deserves by engaging with creationists, but that type of arrogance doesn’t play well with the general public.

The final piece of the puzzle is a quite common one. It is best explained in this cartoon:



Of course you haven’t offended me. You’re a charming and well-mannered gentleman. :slight_smile: I’ll be in St. Louis speaking at the public library downtown and maybe we can meet up before or after? Or maybe you want to appear on stage with me :wink:

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Let me know when? It would be great to meet you face to face sometime soon, and it would be both fun and an honor to do an event with you.

Also, it’s not “the public” that is frustrating here. I’ve been speaking to large crowds for the last four or five years. It’s a small and specific element that seems to revel in throwing cheap shots and seeing what frustrates us. I always agreed with your position of engaging these kinds of intentional misinformation but now I’m not so sure. I don’t see it as productive, and it’s time we could spend more productively. But your point about the people watching and reading silently is a good one that I will reflect on. I’m just pissed at how these bottom-feeders managed to completely zap my good mood this evening.


Just don’t give them that power over you. We’ll talk more when you are in Saint Louis. There is much under the surface that isn’t visible on the forum. Remember too that we live in a fractured society. It is messy right now. Seeking peace is the work set out for all of us, and it is not easy.


I agree with a lot of this. I grew very impatient and short with someone in a discussion on climate science. At some point I really had to ask myself why I let them make me that angry, and I really didn’t have a good answer. I took a step back and asked what got me interested in the topic to begin with, and what I found the most interesting. When I came back to the discussion I started from the position of “this is the basic science of the greenhouse effect, and this is why scientists think adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will cause warming”. I didn’t get drug down into the inanities of conspiracy theories or political agendas. Instead, I just dug down into the physics. I think it made for a much better discussion.

I also think there is a large and relatively quiet crowd that really likes learning about science. If we focus on what excites us about science I think we would all be better off.


Yep, well said. See my last post on the evolution of the eye thread. Annoying people are annoying.


This is the Dunning Kruger effect. Unfortunately, it is quite common.

My personal approach is to mostly ignore people who do this. In particular, it is important to not take their bait.


It seems to me an important function of a forum like this is providing information to average people interested in these topics. Discussions with some individuals may be very unlikely to change their opinion, and seem pointless, but your arguments may well be convincing to anyone else reading. If the individuals in question don’t engage /aren’t engaged with, that opportunity doesn’t exist.


This should be sticked to the top page of the web site and be required reading for all new posters IMHO. There are always 2% who try their best to ruin discussion for everyone else.


Already is @Timothy_Horton.

I think the downside of being very passionate about an idea is that it can be easy for us to go from having a great discussion to feeling like we have to engage everyone everywhere. Sometimes this forum is like drinking from a firehose. I especially appreciate the high-quality discussion and debate that has occurred here between people truly trying to understand each other and the topic better. Quite often though, there is a significant amount of “noise”. Here’s what I’ve been doing , it may or may not be useful for other people:

  • constantly remind yourself that you don’t have to respond to every post, pick only the most valuable ones. Just because you don’t respond doesn’t mean they “won” or that you can’t come back to the subject later.
  • take a break (a couple days away from a forum like this can really help), but come back, the community at large needs its expert voices. The people that are most passionate about a topic and most able to give quality insight are often the ones that burnout first. It’s the professional trolls that can go on and on and on and on…
  • use the forum tools. I got a lot of help out of setting default for tracking/notification and then being very judicious in which threads I allow to capture my attention (via the forum notification/tracking features). This has been one of the biggest helps for me lately. I can take a look at a thread and if I decide there’s not enough signal/noise I set the tracking to Normal or Muted. Also using the categories and New and Unread lists at the top of the front-page are useful for taking the firehose down to something more manageable.
  • figure out your primary objective. For me at this point my objectives are 1) to see how people from various position make their case and interact. I’m in a pretty insular community so I want to see how other people approach these topics. 2) to sharpen my own thinking on these topics with smart people in the room, so to speak. So if I see a topic or thread that seems interesting I have a look, but if it feels like I’m just getting dragged into a debate I try to walk away when it’s not meeting my objectives.

Importantly, in my case, I don’t come here with any intention of changing anybody’s mind, that just leads to frustration too often in my experience. That is often best left to face-2-face conversations with people you can build trust with, in my experience.

Anyway, those are my thoughts, for whatever they’re worth.


With a goal as lofty as this, you make it hard to walk away from this forum. :slight_smile: Well done and well said.


@Jordan Your whole post is just DRIPPING with wisdom. Thank you for that. A couple reactions:


So true and a very important reminder.

Here’s where I have to admit that I never took the time to learn them. Doing that now.

They’re worth a lot and thank you for sharing them.


Im not trying to bring anyone into the mud. On the contrary, i just dont appreciate suggestions that eyes are an example of randomness and chance where the final product is incomplete and backward. There You Go Again, Nathan Lents | Evolution News
You may not think that i understand science. Untrue. I understand that i have a Maker who does not design mistakes and i am really sorry if this post is going to ruin your day sir. If a scientist is that enthusiastic about real results and believes nature can create stuff, then please show me real rationale about how selection of mutations which are generally neutral and many times detrimental is more likely to lead towards creation of eyeballs and not more likely to lead towards devolution so to speak and extinction. It seems that peaceful science is becomming, just the same as biologos, a club of likeminded evolutionists which are self deceivingly encouraging each other towards the same old same old godless mainstream materialism.

Thank you for the apology @Greg.