Sophia was a bug loving 8 year old (reminds me of my neighbor) who’s mother put her in touch with the Entomological Society of Canada, and this eventually led to Sophia’s collaboration on a paper that was recently published.
The paper, published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, is called: Engaging for a good cause: Sophia’s Story and Why #BugsR4Girls by Morgaan Jackson and Sophia Spencer. (Annals of the Entomological Society of America, Volume 110, Issue 5, 1 September 2017, Pages 439–448), comes with this abstract:
Scientists, particularly those involved with nonapplied or “basic” science, are often asked to justify the broader impacts of their work, or more acutely, how they and their work contribute to society. Although it may be difficult to articulate the immediate importance of providing names for new flies, the inherent value of knowledge is undeniable. At times, however, the positive impact scientists have on society, or even on a single individual, can burst into reality in real-time. Here we examine one such example: a tweet and hashtag that circled the globe in support of a young girl being bullied for her entomological passion. We explore the responses to the tweet, within Twitter and in the larger media landscape, and what they mean for entomology, scientific societies using social media, and the promotion of women in science, and provide recommendations for increasing engagement on social media to improve representation of science.
This is disturbing, but since civilization is ending as we speak, I suppose it is not surprising. From the Washington Post:
Any resident in Florida can now challenge what kids learn in public schools, thanks to a new law that science education advocates worry will make it harder to teach evolution and climate change.
The legislation, which was signed by Gov. Rick Scott (R) this week and goes into effect Saturday, requires school boards to hire an “unbiased hearing officer” who will handle complaints about instructional materials, such as movies, textbooks and novels, that are used in local schools. Any parent or county resident can file a complaint, regardless of whether they have a student in the school system. If the hearing officer deems the challenge justified, he or she can require schools to remove the material in question….
Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Council for Science Education, said that affidavits filed by supporters of the bill suggest that science instruction will be a focus of challenges. One affidavit from a Collier County resident complained that evolution and global warming were taught as “reality.” Another criticized her child’s sixth-grade science curriculum, writing that “the two main theories on the origin of man are the theory of evolution and creationism,” and that her daughter had only been taught about evolution.
“It’s just the candor with which the backers of the bill have been saying, ‘Yeah, we’re going to go after evolution, we’re going to go after climate change,'” that has him worried, Branch said.
Did you ever hear the expression, “You’re a real card!” Well, if you are a notable woman in the physical sciences, you just might be a card!
My sister has a project, and Amanda and my niece Koren and some others are involved, that puts notable women in the physical sciences on cards, with a bit of biographical information. The idea is to underscore women in STEM while at the same time getting cards! The long term model is to sell the cards to interested buyers, such as YOU, and use the net thusly obtained to get decks into classrooms.
So, here’s what you need to do. Click here, and buy two decks of cards. One, you keep and play cards with, the other, you give to someone, perhaps a teacher or perhaps a young female who has shown interest in the physical sciences. Or, perhaps, you place one of these card decks somewhere were cards go, like a local bar or coffee shop that has some games, or at the cabin or something.
In addition, at this early stage of their project, they could use some plain old donations, so please consider doing that as well.
I have already heard from several physical science teachers that these cards are great and that they are doing things with them in the classroom.
As a science writer, I was at first shocked and dismayed to find that the science writers in the deck were on the Joker card! But when I asked my sister about it, she told me the Jokers are the most sought after cards for the science communicators, because Jokers are the most flexible and a bit on the wild side, and can cope and adapt to any situation. So, I suppose that’s OK (or is she joshin’ me?).
Anyway, have a look, pass it around, pick up some cards (buy double if your game is Canasta). I am not joking when I say the cards are great!
I’m currently reading Paul Offit’s Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, in preparation for an interview with him that I’ll be recording later this week. I’ll let you know about the interview, but at this time I can say that I’m very much enjoying the book. The publisher’s description:
What happens when ideas presented as science lead us in the wrong direction?
History is filled with brilliant ideas that gave rise to disaster, and this book explores the most fascinating—and significant—missteps: from opium’s heyday as the pain reliever of choice to recognition of opioids as a major cause of death in the U.S.; from the rise of trans fats as the golden ingredient for tastier, cheaper food to the heart disease epidemic that followed; and from the cries to ban DDT for the sake of the environment to an epidemic-level rise in world malaria.
These are today’s sins of science—as deplorable as mistaken past ideas about advocating racial purity or using lobotomies as a cure for mental illness. These unwitting errors add up to seven lessons both cautionary and profound, narrated by renowned author and speaker Paul A. Offit. Offit uses these lessons to investigate how we can separate good science from bad, using some of today’s most controversial creations—e-cigarettes, GMOs, drug treatments for ADHD—as case studies. For every “Aha!” moment that should have been an “Oh no,” this book is an engrossing account of how science has been misused disastrously—and how we can learn to use its power for good.
The story of opium reminds me of that movie, Very Bad Things. Remember that?
Also, I did a podcast, the guest rather than the interviewer (I go both ways), on Geeks Without God, which will be up on the 16h, here. I think that if you are a subscriber you can get it early, like, now. The interview was about the Heartland Institute‘s recent recent mailing of anti-science materials related to climate change, sent out to a very large number of teachers.
We went to the local library the other day to find books in the range appropriate for Huxley to read. It isn’t sufficient to say he’s in the first grade. Between preschool and second grade, there are (in English, anyway) probably about four or five levels of reading ability, and kids move through them fast. In addition to that, there are who the heck knows how many different scales, developed by various individuals and organizations, to reflect reading levels. It is so complicated that there is actually a company that you can pay to tell you what reading level a book is.
So we asked the librarian to help. I should mention that this is a good library and the librarian seemed generally competent. But she wasn’t able to help much. It turns out that reading level is not part of the Library of Congress system. Or so I surmise.
Personally, I think this confusion stems from the apparent fact I noted above. Kids, when they start reading, go from chimpanzee to NYT reader in a couple/few years. There are many levels of ability in there, and really, of course they are not levels but rather arbitrary stages imposed on a continuum. Or a set of continua. The problem of categorizing early reading books is so difficult because all the different systems that attempt this run aground at the early end of the scale, and thus, so many different appearing systems. This is why, when you put tile on a wall, you don’t start on the bottom. You start a few rows up, and work your way down and up from there. That way you will not be foiled by the lack of level at the base, and your only cost is having to cut every one of the bottom tiles. This may seem like a digression but some day you will thank me for that information.
Anyway, I recently got a good look at a sample of DK Publisher’s “Learn To Read” books, which are have six categories, pr-1, 1, 2, 3, 4, and “Adventures.” OK, that’s a bit clumsy, but the key point here is that the numbered levels, 1 through 4, are consistent and meaningful categories.
Let me give you some examples of the text by reading level, followed by links to a selection of the more science oriented books. There are many books at each level, dealing with LEGO themes, super heroes, and other things.
Level 1: Beginning To Read
A butterfly flits from leaf to leaf.
On each little leaf she lays one or two eggs.
She squeezes the eggs out of her body.
Ride the little train that climbs high into the Alps in Switzerland, and you will be treated to some of the finest mountain scenery in the world. From a small alpine town, the red train makes a steep climb up the Jungfrau mountain and past a famous peak called the Eiger. Many climbers dies on the sheer north face of the Eiger before it was finally scaled in 1938.
You can see changes in vocabulary, sentence structure, tone, topic, etc. Not visible in these samples are change in typeface (larger to smaller) and the overall structure of the books. The lower levels tend to have pictures and words. The higher levels add captions to the pictures, sidebars, etc.
DK books are always good, and they do a pretty good job with science. I won’t quibble with details on little kids books (such as the lack of attention to biogeography and central evolutionary paradigms). These are a far sight better than the science books I had access to when I was a kid!
But do ignore the details of the prehistory because the cartoonist has fallen into the same trap so many others have, well meaning in intention but simply a) not an expert on key things and b) unaware of the real consequences of getting certain things wrong.
When we represent prehistory, we represent humanity both past and present. It is not difficult to do so in a way that leads to serious and meaningful, even impactful, misconceptions.
So, here, I’m going to complain not just about this cartoon, but about the general phenomenon of people who are not paleontologists or archaeologists (or some other appropriate expert) using human prehistory to make a point, but at the same time, throwing accuracy about that prehistory under the bus.
Right way, I want to point out the consequences: Westerners, for sure, but this is more widespread than that, tend to have a view of humans that involve concepts of civilized and primitive, and hierarchical concepts mixed with evolutionary ones. And there are other problems in the conceptualization of prehistory and the diversity of humanity. These problems make it very easy to maintain a racist perspective despite overwhelming evidence against the validity of biological race. These problems make it very easy to lessen the pain and suffering of certain people, which, often, we are busy causing in our own self interest. These problems in conceptualizing the nature of humanity across time and space lead to all sorts of misunderstandings with all sort of consequences including, but not limited to, simply getting it all wrong.
XKCD is a comic written in and fully appreciated by the context of modern skepticism and science cheerleading. Let us please not throw the important social and natural sciences of archaeology, prehistory, paleoanthropology, etc. under the bus in service of making a point in some other area of study. A smart man whom I respect quipped, “but this comic is not about archaeology.” My answer to that: This comic makes one point about climate change and dozens of points about archaeology. It is about archaeology.
Why this is a great cartoon.
Look at the cartoon. Go from top to bottom.
It tells us that over a very long period of time, as humans did all sorts of different things, and conditions on the earth changed dramatically, the global surface temperature a) remained within a fairly narrow range and b) didn’t vary that quickly even when it did vary.
Then, all of the sudden, temperatures shoot way up and are expected to shoot way up even more. Holy crap. Point well made.
The climate change science is not bad but a bit off. The baseline of temperatures (pre industrial) vs. now should be somewhat different in relation to the current temperature. If you take the last few thousand years as basline, which is the proper thing to do, we are closer to 1.5, and not 1.0, degrees C above it. But that may be a nitpick since the time scale of this cartoon is larger. But, once you get past that level of time scale, the question of baseline becomes untethered from pragmatics and you can justify anything.
Also, there are probably times in the past, within the time range of this cartoon, where more abrupt and dramatic climate change did indeed occur. And, at those times, major effects happens with humans.
This is where not getting the archaeology right causes the cartoon to both miss some key points and become inadvertantly somewhat less than straight forward.
Here’s the thing. Climate change can have a very negative effect on humans. How do we know? Because it apparently has happened over and over again. For example (and there are many examples), within the time range of this graphic, climate changed caused a significant increase in aridity in a huge area of southern Africa. The place was pretty well populated by hunter-gatherers before that, and after that, and for thousands of years, no one could live there. Climate change had made the region uninhabitable for humans.
Similarly, climate change probably caused depopulations, evacuations, and migrations in many other parts of the world at several points in time represented here.
Critics from the denier side of things would point out that climate change has always caused problems, so this new change is no big deal, and XKCD ignore this. But the cartoon, had it mentioned more of these earlier changes, would instead represent a different fact: Natural variation in climate can be catastrophic to humans. The level of change happening now, and expected in the near future, still caused by humans, is much larger than what happened during this time period, or faster. So look out!!!
But that’s not the point I want to make.
Simple facts and big concepts
NOTE: Since I wrote this post, at least one change was made in the original carton, pertaining to the flooding of the scablands in Washington State. Perhaps other changes will be made over time!
There are a number of simple facts that the time line either gets wrong or represents in a way that we would not like for a basic intro class in archaeology or paleontology. Some of these facts were pointed out to me by John McKay or Helga Ingeborg Vierich. This is not comprehensive, but gets the point across:
Impressive prehsitoric art appears on the cartoon at 15K. Art and adornmnent appear well before the time line begins, and jot just in Europe. The super impressive cave wall art dates well before the time line, and somewhat less impressive works occur very much earlier. This is a decades old conception overturned many years ago.
The Clovis First model of the peopling of the Americas is on its last legs and should not be used as assumed knowledge.
The Missoula mega-flods affected eastern Washington, not Oregon.
The glaciers weren’t just in New York and Boston, they covered many other places. If the idea is to connect glacial geography to people’s lives, references to other areas might be helpful.
Wrangle Island is not tiny. He may have confused Wrangle Island with Ts. Paul in the Privilovs.
Abu Hureyra is one of several sites with early year round settlement. More important may be the more southerly Natufian, where foraging peoples, for a very long time, took up permanent settlement, and the first commensal organisms (which would become very important to humans, like plague carrying rats and domestic dogs, etc.) came on the scene.
Agriculture has multiple origins, but a single origin is implied here.
The origin of copper metal working happens in multiple places (two with smelting in the old world, plus it was worked in the new world).
Similarly, other metal working has multiple origins.
People will fight about the date for “proto-indo-european” languages or even is fuch a proto-thing existed or could be dates. The majority of historical linguists don’t accept this at all. But if that is right or not, again, Indo-European languages are not particularly important in overall human history. The cartoon centralizes a relatively rare language group and ignores thousands of other language groups, as though the mostly post hoc Western lineage of human civilization is assumed to be the most important.
“Permanent settlement in the fertile crescent” is out of the blue, and contradicted earlier on the time line. Permanent settlements in the region predate this by 6,000 years.
All of the early steps in civilization rising are focused on a very limited area, represent only a small (and very Western oriented) portion of civilization, ignoring most of human prehistory, and privilege “civilization” over what the fast majority of people were doing at the time.
Same problem with writing. Writing was invented many times over many areas, but it looks here like it may have a single origin, the origin that is part of the Western Civilization story.
Missed opportunity: “Invasion of the sea peoples” may very well have been an example of climate change messing up a population and causing a mass migration.
For later civilizations, I appreciate the reference to the New World. But again, it is only part of the story, mentioning a small part of the record. Isn’t it a much more interesting story to note that between 10K and 2K (or so) dozens of independent highly organized hierarchical societies, often referred to as “this or that civilization” arose all over the world, while at the same time, the vast majority of people lived off the land as foragers?
The Industrial Revolution starts in the 18th, not 19th,century, in Europe.
Larger scale things you might learn from this graphic that are wrong.
That agriculture was invented once, as part of Western Civilization, and the same for metal working, marginalizes the new world, many regions of Asia, many regions of Africa. These are misconceptions that those of us who teach intro to world prehistory or similar courses have to spend a large amount of our time refuting.
The idea seems to be represented that humans made the transition from hunter-gatherers at one point in time and thereafter were mostly agriculturalists. The opposite is true. Most humans were living in small groups as hunter gatherers for the entire time represented by this cartoon, except at the end. Half the humans or more at the time of Christ, for example. It is likely that in many regions, at various points in time, an early stab at horticulture was abandoned, and people returned to agriculture.
Is this important?
Well, getting facts right is important. In the case of prehistory, this mainly means not overstating the facts. One might argue that in a simplified version of reality (like in a cartoon) it is ok to overstate things as facts where we really don’t know. No, it isn’t. There are ways to speak briefly, and in an interesting way, of a past that we understand more vaguely than some DK book for five year olds. So let’s do that.
The oversimplification of prehistory contributes to the co-opting of intelligence, innovation, rights over various things like landscapes and cultural phenomena, by the dominant cultures who have condensed the relevant prehistories to centralize and privilege themselves. The prehistory presented here mostly privilages what we sometimes refer to as “Western Civilization” with its middle eastern roots and its simple, linear, one way, always improving, progressive history. A very inaccurate history.
As Helga Vierlich wrote on my Facebook timeline, “In short, this reflects a preoccupation with “progress” whereas what it really shows is a progressive ecosystem and social clusterfuck that brings us to the present situation – characterized by continuing destruction of the last ecologically sustainable (“indigenous”) economies… and also characterized by deforestation, massive climate change, pollution, ecosystem distraction, soil erosion, and species extinction.”
So, in making a point about self destruction by the human species, due to anthropogenic climate change, the oversimplification misses key points in that actual process.
But it is still a good cartoon.
I would like people who pass this cartoon around to make a brief statement, like, “I hear the prehistory is oversimplified a bit, but this makes a great point about climate change” or words to that effect. Many will argue that this statement is not enough. But I’m not a big fan of sacrificing the really cool for the sake of the perfectly pedantical. Usually.
Ever been to a CON? Like, ComiCON, or CONvergence? One of the best parts of a CON is the science, often involving panels with interesting science experts, or perhaps even a film or two.
Well, Twin Cities denizen Ryan Johnson founded and organized a new thing, which is set up as a film festival, to provide these fantastic CONnish features in a very attractive package. Admission is by the day, and thus less expensive than the average convention. Also, you can get a 15% discount if, when you go online to buy your tickets, you use the code “laden”
The Northstar Science Film Festival is a new film festival that celebrates the collision of science and entertainment. The first festival is scheduled for September 15-17, 2016, with events at Twin Cities Public Television, Bedlam Theatre, and Tin Whiskers Brewing in Saint Paul.
Scientists participating include Drs. David Tillman, Marla Spivak, James Kakalios, Chuck Niederriter, Clifford Johnson, and many others.
They have a great line up of films and speakers scheduled for this year’s festival. Here are (most of?) the speakers:
Ann Merchant from the National Academy of Sciences
Information, full schedule and ticketing is all available at www.northstarscience.org. Again, readers of this blog can get a 15% discount on tickets by using the coupon code “laden”.
I hope to see you there!
Northstar’s advisory board includes the following:
*Ann Merchant-Deputy Executive Director of National Academy of Sciences, Science and Entertainment Exchange
*Shawn Otto-filmmaker and co-founder of ScienceDebate
*Michael Halpern-Director at Union of Concerned Scientists
*Richard Hudson-Director at Science Programming at Twin Cities Public Television
*James Kakalios, PhD-physicist, professor at University of Minnesota, author of Physics of Superheroes
*Lawrence Krauss, PhD-theoretical physicist, author (Physics of Star Trek), and director of Arizona State University’s Origins Project
*Matthew Chapman-filmmaker, co-founder of ScienceDebate, and great, great grandson of Charles Darwin
*Christine Walker-filmmaker and Executive Director of Provincetown Film Festival
*Melissa Butts and Kim Rowe, Filmmakers with Melrae Pictures
*Scott Bur, Professor of Chemistry, Gustavus Adolphus College
*Ryan Johnson-attorney and science advocate
*Tad Ware-advertising executive
What I mean by that is that the real guts of the defunct TV show Mythbusters, Kari Byron, Tory Belleci and Grant Imahara, are all over this new thing they are doing for Netflix!
Apparently this is a thing: Network TV shows almost all die a certain kind of death. They get more and more expensive to run every year because the expectation is that contracts become more and more valuable if the show is successful. So, eventually, the producers have to start killing off the staff. For a fictional TV show, this is done by ordering the writers to do in various characters. For a live action non fiction show, you just fire them.
Then, the show falls apart and shuts down.
(One might wonder how the Simpsons stay so good for so many years and not have this happen. I can only assume Bart and his family got one hell of a contract!)
Putting aside the exact details of what happened with Mythbusters, Grant, Tory and Kari did get cut loose, and a short time later the show was cancelled. AND THERE ARE SO MANY AS YET UNBUSTED MYTHS. Jeesh.
Adam and Jamie are great and all, but in my opinion, Tory, Kari and Grant are and were equally as great, and often, just plain better because they were not fettered with lofty production goals that seemed to stifle Adam and Jamie on occasion.
This will be a Netflix Original called “The White Rabbit Project,” referring to that time honored tradition of going down one or another rabbit hole.
There are no details available at this time, but this is great news.
Women and Physics by Laura McCulloch is a concise addition to the IOP Science Concise Physics series.
McCullough is an award winning Professor of Physics at UW Stout, and served for several years as the chair of that university’s Chemistry and Physics Department. Her research focuses on physics education, and gender and science. By both chance and design, I know a lot of people in this area, and I’m pretty sure IOP Science could not have had a better choice in authors for this important book.
How do you make a physicist? Well, you start with a child, and poke at it for 25 year or so until it become something, and maybe it will become a physicist. Meanwhile, the growing and developing individual passes through several stages. If the child is a male, those stages are called opportunities. If the child is a female, they are called filters.
When I walked into my physics graduate school on day one and there were twenty-four men and me, I knew that we had a problem. A problem begging for a solution, and because I am a scientist and what I do is solve problems, that moment was the beginning of what has been twenty years of research on gender issues in science for me. I don’t know all the answers, and I doubt the problem will be solved in my lifetime, but I know more than I knew then, and sharing that is part of the solution. Hence this book.
McCullough surveys and describes the filters, and the stages. She looks at how women are challenged at every stage. She describes what the field of Physics has done so far to remove gender biased barriers to women’s progress, and what needs to be done in the future.
I should probably mention that the sciences in general, the physical sciences in particular, and super-duper-especially physics (in its various forms) have a) not allowed women to progress fairly at any stage, ever, and b) still manage to have been shaped and influenced by the important work of a number of women. I’m sure you already knew that, but just in case, there it is.
This isn’t just about institutions. It is also about how individuals interact, about social and cultural stereotypes and biases, and individual decisions.
Here is how McCullough underscores the filtering process:
A little girl waits patiently at a science exhibit for another child to finish. Her brother butts in when he comes over to see it and she never gets her turn.
A young woman in high school physics is always relegated to be the record keeper and never gets a chance to play with the equipment.
A woman walks into her first day of physics graduate school and sees twenty four men and no other women.
A physics professor is called ‘Mrs’ by her students instead of ‘Dr’.
An assistant professor is placed on every departmental committee in order to
have female representation.
A woman makes a suggestion at her weekly research group meeting. Her idea is ignored. Three minutes later, a man makes the same suggestion and is applauded.
How many physicists are women? What does the process of filtering, which in some ways applies to all would-be physicists of any gender, do differently with women? How are these trends changing?
Two of McCullough’s core chapters are titled “What helps, what hurts: family and education” and “What helps, what hurts: family and career.”
These social and professional spaces are where the rubber meets the road. This is where, to use a physics metaphor for a social problem affecting physics, kinetic energy (desire and motivation) and friction (the status quo, power structures, the patriarchy) come into play.
Is there a “masculinist” and a “feminist” nature of science? This is the sort of question that can cause spit to come flying out of the heads of the most mild mannered seemingly non-sexist male scientists, especially in physics (many biological scientists know there are gendered features of science, at multiple levels). I suspect that in physics, this is mostly surficial gendering, which has profound impacts on women’s careers. In other sciences, human genders interact with other human genders, and non-human genders, in all sorts of ways. My own biological science with respect to humans had to be fully gender bound, as my field studies could only be done with male subjects. My female colleagues could only work with female subjects. I’m not sure if physicists have the same issues. I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky (maybe) that in the naming of quantum-level aspects of matter-energy, male-female gender was never employed (as opposed to color, orientation, strength, etc.) Imagine what cold have been…
But I digress. McCullough writes about this aspect of gendering in the physical sciences as well, as ingress to the topic of covert discrimination.
I regard this book as something of a manual for women in physics, and for men who may be, should be, mentors. It is for teachers of physical science (or, really, all science) in high schools and colleges. These are all people who a) already feel they know what is going on with gender discrimination, but b) often mistakingly ignore that this is a separate subfield of study and no, they don’t. Parents of kids (boys and girls) who are leaning into the sciences would benefit too, but they are probably not that likely to read an academic book like this. Note to self: Suggest to Laura that she write a version of this for the families.
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.
I’m going to publish my full review of The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It by Shawn Otto closer to the publication date, which is June 7th. (I believe you can use the above link to pre-order the book.) But I just wanted to let you know the book exists, and is amazing, you will want to read it. You will definitely, absolutely, not want to not read it. It is a must read.
This isn’t just someone yammering about the lack of respect for science in America, or about the Republican Party’s antiscienceosity, etc. Shawn’s book is actually a history of science, in a sense, exploring the interrelationship between major evolutionary changes in how science works and how it has related to the parallel evolution of politics, and how politics works. It really is one of the more important books on this topic written.
Here’s a way to get a special, signed, copy of the pre-print of Shawn Otto’s book, and donate to a good cause at the same time:
Here’s a great way to support the environment and good environmental policy action while getting ahold of a collectible pre-publication version of my next book, THE WAR ON SCIENCE. I have just a couple collectible uncorrected advance reader copies left, and I’ve donated two of them to the DFL Environmental Caucus, who is auctioning them off on Ebay as a fundraiser. These have gone for over $200 each at other fundraisers. I will sign and personalize them for the winning bidders per your request and mail them to you. If you care about science-related environmental issues like climate change, clean water, clean energy, and a host of others, then policy action is where the rubber hits the road, and electoral politics like the kind the DFL Environmental Caucus engages in helps bring pressure to bear on lawmakers on the campaign trail, giving them reason to do the right thing when it comes to passing evidence-based policy. So bidding massively on this book should be a no-brainer. Help the world, help your kids and grandkids, help the DFL Environmental Caucus, and get a great book at the same time. What’s not to love? Dig deep! And PS: if you’re a lobbyists, ignore this. They don’t solicit donations from lobbyists during the regular legislative session.
You Probably know of DN Lee from her famous blog now at Scientific American but formerly at Scienceblogs, The Urban Scientist.
After earning degrees studying animal behavior, Danielle Lee wanted to share her love of science with young people. Through urban outreach she has brought budding scientists into professional labs. She’s walked them through the steps of the scientific method. And she’s shown them that science doesn’t have to be intimidating. In her popular Urban Scientist blog, Lee shares backyard science and outreach work. She also writes about her own research and other women and people of color. Discover what this influential scientist is doing to encourage the next generation of scientists.
Calling U.S. K-12 Science Education Professionals!
GHF Online science instructor Madeline Goodwin is doing her Master’s thesis research on climate science in the classroom, and she needs your help! She is doing a survey of science education professionals to find the answer to the following question:
What are the most important climate science concepts for students to ProfessionalPictureunderstand by the time they graduate high school?
If you are a K-12 science education professional in the United States, Madeline invites you to take her survey.
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!)