Oh, I hate these difficult questions.
If you’re a professor and you want to change the world, what do you do? In 1993–quit and become an activist. In 2007—start a blog.
Or so it seems. PZ Myers blogging at Pharyngula is probably doing more for evolution than PZ Myers publishing papers in scientific journals. Is that true PZ?
Hmmm, I guess it wasn’t so difficult after all!
Just to expand a little bit, though: it’s definitely not true that I’m now doing a better job of increasing the scientific understanding of evolution. I’m not discovering anything new (well, except that I do have an undergraduate research program that’s ambling along slowly), and I have few prospects for producing revolutionary new insights into evolution. I’m not at a Research I university, I don’t have a huge grant that is funding a large team of graduate students and post-docs. That’s just reality, so that answer is clear.
If the question were rephrased — am I doing more now to increase the public understanding of evolution? — the answer is a little more encouraging and a little more murky. I get some blowback from people who are absolutely convinced that my antagonistic stance towards religion is hindering the acceptance of evolution; they are completely wrong, of course, so that doesn’t bother me. I also get creationists who demonize me rather savagely, which is actually a plus, as far as I’m concerned. Most of the mail I get and comments from colleagues is overwhelmingly positive, so I think my answer to that version of the question is a confident “yes” — and obviously, I’d stop if I thought it were “no.”
Here’s a metaphor (any Biblical associations are entirely intentional) for what I think I do. Science is a healthy, productive apple tree, and the branches are producing delicious fruit. There are a lot of people milling about under the tree, eyeing the fruit, unable to reach it, and some are wondering if it’s rotten and tastes terrible (and some are spreading malicious lies that it is poisonous).
I’m just a guy with a ladder, up in the tree and tossing apples down to the crowd. There are growing numbers of other people with ladders, too, and we’re all using this medium to spread the fruit of knowledge around. We’ll happily accept the accolades of those enjoying the delicious apples, and I think we’re playing an important role in the system, but don’t confuse the disseminators with the producers.