Tag Archives: Framing Science

The War On Science: What It Is And How To Win It

Thinker, writer, and independent scholar Shawn Otto has written an important book called “The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It” (Milkweed Editions, publisher)

Read this book now, and act on what you learn from it, for the sake of your own future and the future of our children and their children.

The rise of modern civilization, from the Enlightenment onward for hundreds of years, was the same thing as the rise of modern science. The rise of science was a cultural novelty with only vague foreshadowing. It was a revolution in the way humans think.

People come to believe what they believe in a way that rarely involves scientific thinking. The human mind is not inherently rational in the sense we usually use the term today. The process of learning things, of inference, and developing habits that guide our reactions to the world around us, evolved to function well enough given our usual cultural, social, and ecological context. But the modern world presents challenges that are better addressed, and problems that are only solvable, with a scientific approach. Science is something we willfully impose on our own process of thought and, at the level of society, formation of policy and law.

You have heard of the concept of “diseases of civilization.” For example, we evolved to seek and love sugars and fats, and then we developed methods of obtaining seemingly unlimited quantities of said nutrients. The success of our system of feeding ourselves solves the problem of uncertainty in the food supply and creates the problems of atherosclerosis, widespread obesity, and all too common diabetes.

Self damaging stupidity also seems to be a disease of civilization. One would think that with the rise of science, the opposite would happen, and it has to some extent.

People spend a great deal of time and energy, and other resources, acting on beliefs about food production and personal health that are contrary to their own best interests. Had a fraction of that energy been spent on trying to understand the relevant science of food production and health, those individuals would be much better off, as would the rest of society. The same pattern can be seen in all other aspects of life, from energy production and use to systems of transportation to diplomacy and warfare. Again and again, great ideas emerge that may become excellent new laws or common best practices, only to be watered down and compromised because of this self damaging stupidity. How, when, and why did we get here?

Today, increasingly and powerfully, anti-science forces are strong and shape the way people think and act to our collective detriment. This is the problem Otto addresses.

How is it that humans invented science, used science for all sorts of improvements (and, admittedly, a number of unintended negative consequences), and then came to new ways of developing policy and practice that hobble the use of this important cultural and social resource?

Shawn Otto’s book is a careful and detailed scholarly examination of this question. I struggled for a time with whether or not I should make the following statement about The War on Science, because I want this statement to be taken in a positive way, though it might be seen as a criticism. Otto’s book is similar to, and at the level of, an excellent PhD thesis. I very quickly add, however, that since this is the work of a very talented writer and communicator, it does not read like a PhD thesis. It reads like a page turner. But the substance of the book is truly scholarly, contributes new thinking, and is abundantly and clearly documented and backed up. I can’t think of too many books that do all of this.

The Enlightenment and the early rise of scientific thinking was a self conscious effort by a small number of individuals to rethink the way we think, and it was a very effective one. Almost every advance in technology, economy, and society – from vehicles and energy to the invention of money and markets, to new or modified forms of government – arose from the self conscious application of scientific thinking. The same great mind that contributed so much to the invention of modern physics and mathematics, that of Sir Isaac Newton, modernized the production of coinage and regulation of international exchange of money (as well as modern systems of engaging and neutralizing counterfeiting). The invention of the American system of government was the intentional and thoughtful product of individuals who called themselves and their actions scientific.

But, as Newton would say, for each and every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Science is not only a powerful tool for doing new things and improving old approaches, but it is also very inconvenient. For some, under certain conditions.

It isn’t that science itself is bad for powerful entities that make up the political and industrial status quo. Science is as essential today as it has ever been, or more so, to the owners of energy companies, the producers of military gear, the growers and purveyors of food, and so on. But there are times when the best available scientific evidence suggests that the best decisions that society or government should make are contrary to the vested self interest of those power brokers. So, really, the best method, from the point of view of stockholders in major corporations or the owners of vast energy or agricultural resources, or others, is to use science but also to control the interface between scientific action and public policy.

In other words, the scientifically derived answer to a question is different when the premise is different. What is the best way to increase profits from making and selling energy? What is the best way to protect the public health while making and selling energy? These are two valid questions that, at least in the short and medium term, can produce dramatically different answers.

In 2012, Shawn Otto posed the conundrum, “It is hard to know exactly when it became acceptable for U.S. politicians to be antiscience.” One could ask the same question about leaders of industry. The answer may be fairly obvious. This became acceptable the moment the interests being served by those politicians shifted from the populous to the smaller subset of owners and investors of business and industry. The money trail, which one is often advised to follow to find a truth, leads pretty directly to that answer.

A harder question is, how did large portions of the academic world also decide to be anti-science? For this, one needs to take a more fine grained cultural approach, looking at self interest in the context of scholarship.

How does religion fit in here? The modern, mainly social network-bound, conversation about religion science, secularism, etc. is over-simplistic and mostly wrong. It is not the case that religion and science are opposite things. Rather, the rise of science was part of revolutionary changes in European religious institutions, culture, and politics. There are ironies in that story and the details are fascinating and important. Otto covers this.

Otto also identifies and discusses at length something I’ve been talking and writing about for some time. The nature of the conversation itself. If a conversation proceeds among those with distinctly different self interest, it quickly goes pedantic. If, on the other hand, a conversation proceeds among those with the common goal of understanding something better, or solving a particular problem, then it progresses and discovery and learning happen. On all of the different fronts of the “war on science” we see the honest conversation breaking down, or even, not happening to begin with, and from this nothing good happens.

Otto identifies a three-front war on science: The identity politics war on science, the ideological warn on science, and the industrial war on science. Conflate or ignore the differences at your peril. Postmodernism problemtizes the very concept of truth. Much of what you think of as the war on science is part of the ideological war on science, often with strong religious connections. The industrial war on science is in some ways the most important because it is the best funded, and the anti-science generals have a lot at stake. When cornered, they tend to be the most dangerous.

The last part of Otto’s book is on how to win this war. He is detailed and explicit in his suggestions, producing a virtual handbook of action and activism. Recognizing how the system works, how to marshal resources to reshape the conversation, what scientists need to do, what communicators need to do, are part of a coherent plan. He ends with a “Science Pledge” which is “a renewed commitment to civic leadership based on the principles of freedom, science, and evidence.” And there is nothing new in this pledge. It is, essentially, a fundamentalist approach to science, society, and policy, going back to the beginnings of the coeval rise of science and civilization. There is little in Otto’s pledge that would not have been said by Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, or Francis Bacon.

You will enjoy Otto’s “The War on Science” and it will enrich and advance your understanding of the key, existential, issue of the day. And, it won’t just inform you and rile you up, but it will also help you define goals and give you tools to meet them.

The War on Science is an essential work, a game changer, and probably the most important book you’ll read this year.

Here’s an interview with Shawn Otto on Ikonokast Podcast.

From the mouths of babes: “We’re worried. Please debate science.”

I had previously mentioned the ScienceDebate ad with the kids asking for a science debate. Here is some local coverage on the story (the ad was made here in the Twin Cities) including an interview with one of the stars, Susanlyn Singroy. (I don’t agree with everything she said, but what the heck, she’s asking for a debate, and is up for it!)

Here is the coverage.

More about ScienceDebate.org here.

A challenge to my readers and fellow science bloggers!

Many months ago, the fossil primate “Ida” was reported to the world with much fanfare, including an entire mass market book and a huge press conference, and everything else one can possibly do to announce a new fossil find. Science bloggers and others got rather upset at the Ida team’s over the top fanfare, though few bloggers ever explained why it was a bad thing to make everyone on the planet notice an important new scientific find (and no one made the claim that Ida was not very important). One of the things the Ida team did was to use the term “missing link” in connection with that fossil, which was entirely inappropriate in that case. But the science blogosphere reacted to the use of this term so strongly that a dozen or so bloggers made strong arguments that the term “missing link” is NEVER correct (which is not true).
Continue reading A challenge to my readers and fellow science bloggers!

I might or might not be a science journalist

One of the great things about Coturnix is that he brings two context-broadening tools to the table in any discussion: Synchronic and diachronic. In a recent post (Am I a Science Journalist? he adds the diachronic. I had not previously realized or considered (or at lest, not thought it relevant) that early science journalists were not trained in journalism school, as has been the case recently. Recognizing this serves to place the professionalized (read “fetishied”) version of journalism in a different light, and weakens models of modern practice that rely on potentially constraining standards.

Continue reading I might or might not be a science journalist

Framing the Pacific Garbage Patch

Various environmental organizations have been using imagery of dead baby birds with toothbrushes in their guts and solid floating masses of garbage to describe and raise alarm about what has become known as the North Pacific Central Garbage Patch. Yet, the small but important amount of research that has been done there shows that the NPCGP consists of many (alarmingly many) pieces of plastic that are very small, the largest being “about the size of the fingernail on your pinkey.”

Albatross may or may not be affected by garbage, but it is not likely that the garbage shown in the guts of the baby birds in these particular media comes from the NPCGP. Yes, the plastic in the NPCGP and elsewhere may have a negative environmental effect, but the pictures of floating garbage, which are all from coastal estuarine regions down river from major “third world” population centers, are NOT of the NPCGP and thus constitute bald faced lies. Bald faced lies by organizations like Green Peace is the fuel that right wing anti-environmental pro-business neo conservative yahoos run on.

But the situation is even worse than that because of what appear to be the misguided efforts of a British Billionaire who has managed to frighten those best in a position to criticize him into remaining silent. In fact, I’m a little nervous writing this blog post.

Continue reading Framing the Pacific Garbage Patch

#scio10 Science Online 2010 recollections and reflections on the sessions I attended

Last weekend I attended Science Online 2010, which is a conference of science communicators with a heavy mix of bloggers, many journalists and others from the print industry, an increasingly large number of book authors, and OpenX (X=access, notebook, science, or whatever) advocates and practitioners.
Continue reading #scio10 Science Online 2010 recollections and reflections on the sessions I attended

Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum: A review.

Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum tries to make several different points. The central framework of the book, on which all the arguments are hung, is that science has a status, a place, in American culture, politics, and economy, and that this status has changed over time. Mooney and Kirshenbaum make the claim that science rose to an increasingly higher status than it had ever previously enjoyed through a series of events and transformations during the early and middle part of the 20th century, and subsequently, suffered a series of political and cultural defeats so that today real science holds a precarious position in the public view. The outcome of this reduced status is that important policy decisions that require an understanding of and appreciation for, and most importantly a certain level of trust in science are contaminated by right wing generated pseudoscience and politically motivated denialism.
Continue reading Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum: A review.

What is Wrong with the American System of Education?

Roughly half of the people in the United States reject one or more fundamental tenets of science (most commonly evolution), while a larger percent, perhaps more than 80 percent depending on how we measure, would fail a basic science test. A strong majority of those American citizens who would claim to have strong feelings about one or more science policy issues such as climate change, stem cell research, or nuclear power either know very little about the relevant science or are so badly informed regarding the science that their knowledge is not merely insufficient, but is actually opposite what is generally accepted by experts in the area. Most Americans would prefer to make science related decisions on the basis of political affiliations (while at the same time often claiming to not be affiliated with a particular party, and to be ‘independent’ ‘thinkers’) than on the basis of scientifically demonstrable realities. This is true even to the extent that it is possible to predict a person’s likely stance on a scientific issue on the basis of their politics than on the basis of their own economic self-interest or concern about personal or family health and safety. Hmmmm.
Continue reading What is Wrong with the American System of Education?

Unscientific America Related Items

I was sick Sunday, and I’m a bit off today, so everything is 36 to 48 hours off. So, my review of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future will be delayed. In the mean time you can have a look at these items:

1) An interesting post by David Dobbs places the current discussion regarding religion and science in an historical context: PZ Myers, Chris Mooney, Asa Gray, and the religion-science divide

2) Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds discusses the Mooney/Kirshenbaum strategy.

3) Stephanie also addresses this issue a bit more circumspectly in a post on “Mere Factual Accuracy” at Quiche Moraine.

Are the “new atheists” not civil enough?

There is an interesting post on The Intersection called Civility and the New Atheists, by Chris Mooney. In the post, Chris reviews Barbara Forrest’s statements that in engaging int he cross-world-view debate (scientists vs. creationists, atheists, vs religion, etc.) one should maintian etiquette, respect and understand diversity, and practice humility.

Atheist and pro-science writer Mooney notes in speaking of a talk by Forrest:

Forrest therefore concluded her talk by saying that we need are “epistemological and civic humility”-providing the groundwork for “civic friendship.” To which I can only say: Amen.

This is, of course, going to make certain commenters including Jason Rosenhouse cringe (see: Coyne is Right, Mooney is Wrong). It makes me cringe too, in a way .. the Amen part (OMG, Chris, a little OTT????). But I actually do agree that the conversation should always be done in the context of these three virtues. But at the same time, I believe it is possible to practice Etiquette while kicking someone’s balls up into their throat if necessary. Diversity is to be respected, but the far right needs at this point to be simply cut out of the conversation.

And Humility is good. As long as you understand that it is, like, my tenth or eleventh greatest quality.

But seriously, I agree completely with what Chris is trying to say here. At the same time, I do not want to see any compromise whatsoever in the science and the law. The trick is, how to do that. Without occasionally kicking someone’s balls up into their throat, diversely, and with humility.

Meanwhile, I eagerly await the chance to read Crhis and Sheril’s new book on a related topic (scientific illiteracy) … maybe it’s in the mailbox now…

Don’t be such a scientist

Randy Olson is a film maker and marine biologist who has focused in recent years on the critique of science communication. You may know him from his documentary work on the sexual practices of barnacles, the evolution-creation debate, or global warming.

Randy is coming out with a new book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. It will be available sometimes in August.

Here is a synopsis of the book:

“Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style” has been 30 years in the making. It draws on Randy Olson’s 15 years as a scientist (Ph.D. Harvard University, tenured professor at University of New Hampshire), followed by 15 years of making films (In 1994 he resigned from his marine biology professorship in, moved to Hollywood, entered film school, and took acting classes). The book opens with the pivotal moment in his journey — his first night of acting class when his psychotic acting teacher screamed her lungs out at him for being, “too cerebral.” Thus began his journey of realization that came full circle when he returned to working with scientists and science communicators, and began to concede his acting teacher wasn’t as crazy as he originally thought.

In this short book he draws together what he’s learned about communicating science to the general public, and offers up his observations in the form of four main chapters which he calls, “The Admonitions.” They are:

  1. Don’t Be So Cerebral
  2. Don’t Be So Literal Minded
  3. Don’t Be Such a Poor Storyteller
  4. Don’t Be So Unlikeable

In an effort to practice what he preaches, Olson infuses the book with plenty of humor, storytelling, and even a little bit of emotion.

My review copy is on the way, and I’m looking forward to reading it and letting you know more!