29 June 2011

Beauty pageant contestants vs. science advocates: this isn't helpful

As a science fan and a PR guy, when I see something like this video - where contestants from the Miss USA 2011 pageant answer the question "should evolution be taught in schools?" - I really cringe.

If you are a science fan and you sat through this entire video then kudos to you. (Actually the answer from Miss Vermont was rather good.)

Let's get something clear from the get-go here.  Evolution is real.  It's sound science and it must be taught in public schools.  Myriad advances in health and science derive directly from evolutionary biology.  It's not a secular alternative to the Bible.  You don't "believe" in evolution any more than you "believe" in gravity.  If you're reading this and you're a person of a particular faith and you're offended by this, I'm sorry - but you're wrong. The sound science of evolution isn't encroaching on your faith, your faith is encroaching on sound, provable, evidence-based science and when you try to take evolution out of classrooms you're only making things worse.

But let me make something else clear: I think the Miss USA contestants were set up for failure. As I understand it, the goal of a contestant in a preliminary interview competition isn't to advocate for science or religion or anything else - it's to sound reasonably pleasant and articulate and avoid offending the judges.  I don't think it's fair to expect a woman in her early- to mid-20's to speak competently and at length to the pedagogic merits of evolutionary biology if that isn't something she's studied.  If you were in your early twenties, and you were put on the spot about a controversial issue you hadn't studied in depth, and you assumed you were talking to a group of people who had different opinions, chances are you'd come out where most of these women did - "present both sides fairly and let people decide."

As someone in PR, that's a very recognizable phrase.  Nearly everyone agrees with that blanket statement.  Give people the right to choose. Present both sides fairly.  If you're against those statements on just about any issue, you're typically seen as an elitist or worse. You're positioned as the person who doesn't want people to have their views heard and you're not interested in a fair debate.  PR folks like me recommend taking this tack in a messaging strategy for clients all the time.

This is where many scientists see themselves today on important issues like evolution, climate change, and vaccination.  Scientists point to the data and say the debate is over - those with interests on the other side take advantage of the fact that the issues are still not well known to everyone, and align themselves with consensus-claiming, PR-driven statements.  They're just trying to be heard and they want a fair shake.

So scientists and science communicators find themselves right on the facts but wrong in the eyes of the public.  So they sometimes resort to mocking:

Personally I think it's pretty funny. And it probably wasn't produced for the purpose of changing minds. But mocking beauty pageant contestants - as good as that may feel for some - doesn't really help.  A lot of people think pageants are silly, but a lot of other people really like them.  And we're trying to reach everyone.

Perhaps it makes sense to do some outreach to the contestants, give them some education, help them understand the issue, and then let them be great messengers and advocates for science?

I've heard cheerleaders are pretty good at that...


XtalGrrl said...

I agree completely. It is not that these women are stupid in any way. Their job at this point in the competition is to not piss anyone off, and be a good ambassador/diplomat. So they are not going to argue strongly in any direction, and will try to show that they are uniters, not dividers. But what does this teach anyone not informed about evolution as a scientific theory? Nothing, except it competes with religion. This is absolutely false, but how would the average person know that?

Anna said...

Seriously, I think beauty pageants should be ended. All over the world. It's promotes this idea that there are people in this world that have absolutely no need of their brains. While I understand that these people aren't as stupid as they appear to be, I question their devotion to the whole concept of pageantry. It makes me think that if they had in any way been raised to believe that they may use the other parts of their head to succeed in life and that there's absolutely nothing wrong with being both beautiful and productive human beings, I don't know if they'd want to do this.

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Anonymous said...

It's very frustrating that this is always approached as a dichotomy. There was a very good report on NPR today about Evangelicals and evolution:

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I am completely agree with your article because some of this girl are prepared and went to the university, well some of them