Tuesday, 1 November 2011

A rant about discussion boards...

Facebook recently announced that they were shutting down discussion boards, though it seems to have not happened. When the deadline was looming I reflected back on my many years on those boards and how I was perceived. At first I was not very active, mostly observing, but before long I gained respect and even appeared to be intimidating to some. In recent months the respect seemed to decline and instead I am simply known as an argumentative know-it-all. I am clearly argumentative, or else I would not be on a discussion board, but if they met me in person those views might change, as I am shy and reserved.

What really stuck in my mind, and prompted this post, is the "know-it-all" accusation. Many have noted that I show confidence in the things I present, that I rarely if ever state that I don't know or that I might be wrong, and people find this surprising, a negative character trait even. I only wish they would read my blog! On discussion boards I mostly end up discussing the basics of evolution, those things which are beyond reasonable doubt in the scientific community, things which I have been studying for several years now. Why would I be anything other than confident in that situation? Why would I say that I don't know, when we are talking about the basics, about things I do know? I have often acknowledged that I could be wrong about evolution, but that the chances are so slim that it is not worth thinking about.

When we get into more complex aspects of evolution (try reading Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection by Peter Godfrey Smith) then my certainty steadily diminishes, I openly acknowledge that I might be wrong or that I don't know. On this blog I believe I have stated openly that I do not know whether contingency or convergence is the dominant trend in long term evolution, so I am critical of both Gould and Conway Morris. But really, anyone who has read my posts on Ediacarans should know that I prefer topics where I lack all of the knowledge, but sadly nobody on a Bible discussion board wants to talk about Ediacarans.

Ediacarans are a group where people have good ideas concerning what they are, but nobody really knows. They constantly defy classification. The small shelly fossils, which I am working on for my dissertation, are similar in this sense, though many of them can be classified. I am intending to make my career saying "we don't know, but let's try our best". That's what many palaeontologists, many scientists in any field, do. In fact, that's how science really works. Saying "I don't know" is a big part of science, as long as it motivates one to find out. So the know-it-all accusation is really unsupported, they just need to broach a subject which is not so simple and beyond doubt.

If you ever engage in such discussions, try doing what I do and stick to what you know, stick to your strengths. Mine are evolutionary biology, palaeontology, geology and theology of nature. But in sticking to those topics which favour your interests/qualifications, you risk being dismissed as an arrogant know-it-all.

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