Friday, March 9, 2012

Dealing with Doubt

I’m not talking here about the doubt that we all feel sometimes about our writing. Rather, I want to give a great example of how an author deals with a sensitive topic, where readers may have encountered controversy that makes them doubt the validity of a book’s subject matter--in this case, evolution. Scientists know from research spanning about 200 years that evolution by natural selection, the mechanism Charles Darwin proposed in his book, The Origin of Species, has helped shape the living world from its beginnings to the present day and that it carries on today and into tomorrow. But in the United States, many people doubt the reality of evolution, largely because they don’t understand how science works or how to interpret the scientific vocabulary.

Laurence Pringle, in his 2011 book, “Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution,” has handled this problem very well. He starts off by putting the reader into the story, by mentioning how human families can go way back in history, then proceeding to evidence about how long the Earth has existed. Next, he leads readers through a brief discussion of geology, then on to fossils. By this point, the reader can see why we know that life on Earth has been around for hundreds of millions of years. They will realize there’s no reason for doubt about the ancientness of our planet.

Larry follows a logical progression of information, explaining the factors that enter in one by one—variation, competition, and natural selection, gradually building up the evidence. Early on, he carefully explains in a sidebar what the word “theory” means in the scientific world in contrast to what it means in our day-to-day language. This sidebar is critical, as the misunderstanding of the word “theory” is a major stumbling block in much of the American public’s perception of evolution. As Larry points out in this sidebar, “No scientist would ever say that the theories of gravity, germs, or evolution are ‘just’ theories. That would be nonsense, because they know that theories—the scientific kind—are backed by huge amounts of trustworthy evidence.”

The rest of the book contains lots of fascinating information, with excellent photos, about various evolutionary findings and principles, including the importance of evolution in our understanding of how diseases can change over time.

I’m sure Larry put a lot of thought in how he organized the book. He presents the facts without getting sidetracked by the unsupported doubts of evolution’s critics, and he gradually builds the story, always backing up with reliable scientific findings.

It’s easy to become frustrated when a large segment of the public doubts the clear evidence compiled by scientists over decades of careful research. But being confident that “the truth will out” can help us avoid wasting words on spurious ideas and instead help us focus on informing our readers about real science and how the efforts of intelligent, dedicated researchers can separate the fact from the fiction.


Vicki Cobb said...

If people really knew how science works they would understand that the body of evidence for the big ideas of science is HUGE. Science is the original wiki where people constantly check the evidence by repeating procedures and contributing to the body of knowledge. In other words, there are no anecdotal reports in science but only replicable human experience. The evidence for understanding electricity so that the lights go on when you turn on a switch was amassed as painstakingly as the evidence for evolution. As a result you can't cherry pick science, only believing what you agree with. It is a failure of our educational system that so few people understand this. Larry's book ought to help. Thanks, Dorothy.

Dorothy Patent said...

I agree, Vicki. I get angry some times when I see uneducated people just brush scientific findings aside when I know these scientists devoted hours, days, weeks, and months of hard, often tedious work to produce their findings.
Any young person who reads this book won't be able to dismiss evolution, in my opinion.