The Intersection

Well, my last post triggered a lot of comments that raised some very serious issues about science, skepticism, and the upcoming Skeptics Society conference. Some fair points were made (about whether “skeptics” ought to be embracing Michael Crichton), others less fair (slamming Ronald Bailey, who I respect, and who has come around on global warming to a significant extent). I’m in New York at the moment speaking to a class at Columbia, but once I get back and settle down, I just wanted to let you all know that I plan on getting into all of this further….


  1. #1 M1EK
    May 9, 2006

    I beg to differ that Bailey has ‘come around’. He’s clearly fighting a rear-guard action against the science since he doesn’t like the implications for his ideology.

    He as much as admitted in his earlier piece that he didn’t trust the climate science because he doesn’t like environmentalists.

  2. #2 writerdd
    May 9, 2006

    The purpose of the Skeptics Society, with which I have no affiliation, is to promote science to the general public and to teach critical thinking. I am quite certain that the reasons they’ve invited Michael Chrichton to the conference are threefold: 1) For fun, 2) because he’s been in the news for giving stupid advice to the president, and 3) because it will bring more people in the general public to the conference to be exposed to real science.

    I have noticed a disturbing trend where scientists put down science writers and other non-scientists who try to promote science to the general public. They slam their books and documentaries, and are quite hostile toward anyone who seems to be able to make the general public excited about science, while at the same time whining that the general public is not excited about science. I don’t know where this hostility comes from, but it is counter productive to the extreme.

  3. #3 hank
    May 9, 2006

    Well, I have enough friends (and in-laws) who are libertarians (small-l) and a few who capitalize it, so I watch for news, and I think well of Ron Bailey for what he’s been saying in public lately.

    People have a tough time with science — as David Brin points out quite well, people have been about the same for somewhere between ten and a hundred thousand years, quite a few sophisticated cultures have come and gone, many before writing so we know only their hardware artifacts.

    None of them achieved a scientific view of the world well enough to last — until a few hundred years ago when various threads came together from several cultures.

    This is not easy. Most people don’t get it, yet. Intellectual honesty was hard enough when theology was the prevailing way of understanding the universe (wry grin).

    Now with science turning up inconvenient and disconcerting information and statistics giving us the dope slap required to evaluate what’s observed, the old human intellect is challenged as never before.

    Sure, we have our biases and ideologies — of all stripes, plaids, paisleys and whatever other patterns.

    It’s worth honoring people — including Ron Bailey — who have the courage to challenge their own well-published convictions, in the light of new scientific information. Whether they like us or not.

    Some time back in the 1960s, one of my college housemates who was probably connected to the SDS told me that he thought I had a great sense of humor, but because I made fun of ideologies, it was sad but they’d have to shoot me after the revolution. I’ve had confrontations with night-shooting deer hunters who claimed to be true wise use patriots on public land (on private property where they were trespassing, destroying a botany restoration project); I’ve faced down snake-squashing dirtbikers who claimed I was interfering with their freedom to mush nature. I’ve had long constitutional discussions driving across the US in 1972, with hair down to my ass and a beard down to my collarbone, in a Peugeot car with a Gitane 10-speed on the back, about whether or not the President was doing his job properly.

    It doesn’t _matter_ what people used to think of you or people like you, if they can budge. What matters is that they think — contemporaneously — with new information as it comes along.

  4. #4 laurence jewett
    May 9, 2006

    “I have noticed a disturbing trend where scientists put down science writers and other non-scientists who try to promote science to the general public.”

    As a rule, I certainly don’t think scientists put down non-scientists who are promoting science. On the contrary, from my experience most scientists are very happy to have people promoting science, whomever they may be (workers at science museums, elementary school teachers, parents, etc)

    I WOULD agree, however, that scientists DO sometimes take writers and others to task for innaccurately portraying the science (or even misrepresenting it sometimes).

    You may want to read what Gavin Scmidt of Real Climate says at the end of his critique of Chrichton’s “State of Fear”:
    “I am a little disappointed, not least because while researching this book, Crichton actually visited our lab and discussed some of these issues with me and a few of my colleagues. I guess we didn’t do a very good job.”

    Personally, I think Schmidt is accepting TOO much of the blame here for Chrichton’s “State of Confusion”, as Schmidt terms it. The primary responsibility for accuracy SHOULD fall on the “science writer”.

    If people are going to write about science they should AT least take the time and make the effort to ensure that what they write is as scientificaly accurate as possible. They are certainly doing the public NO favors when they get the science wrong. If a science writer WILL NOT make the effort to be accurate, they should simply find some other subject to write about.

    When a journalist gets something completely wrong about almost ANY other subject, they are taken to task. Why should it be different with science journalism?

  5. #5 Deech56
    May 9, 2006

    Re: writerdd. Do you have any examples of these “put-downs” (besides Dr. Crichton)? I am not challenging you, but just wondering if, being a scientist, I might be missing something that is apparent to the general public. Two writers not named Chris Mooney who do an excellent job of conveying scientific information to the general public, and are respected in the scientific community, are Elizabeth Kolbert, whose book Field Notes from a Catastrophe received a very positive review from, and Carl Zimmer who has written a number of excellent books. Now I can imagine that scientists may be critical of writers who misstate, but after all, scientists are a pretty critical bunch.

    Back to the matter under discussion, I am sure that Dr. Crichton will bring up eugenics, Club of Rome, and all the other times that the scientific consensus was wrong (whether or not that is true).

  6. #6 Walter
    May 9, 2006

    writerdd… I’m not a scientist, and while I think your arguments about the snobby attitudes of some scientists toward non-scientists have merit, that’s not the issue here.

    The hostility here is toward two non-scientists using their public platforms to discredit legitimate science. What’s worse, they do this under the pretense of promoting good science, when they are the abusers. I don’t think Michael Crichton was chosen because he is fun, or even because he is well-known (although the latter definitely had much to do with it.) I think it’s because his recent attacks on global warming and other environmental issues promote a libertarian mindset seeking to discredit science poking holes in that philosophy’s unquestioning faith in free markets. The same with Stossel.

    Promoting good science doesn’t stop with debunking faith healing, UFOs or creationism. Let’s face it — that’s the easy stuff. And that’s how libertarians get their foot in the door with these skeptic’s groups, by starting with the easy stuff then trying to pass off their own beliefs as simply an extension of skeptical thinking to areas like global warming. (Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! series is a great example of this.) But their tactics are the same as fundamentalist Christians attacking evolution — ignore evidence, mischaracterize how science is conducted, overplay the importance of gaps in knowledge, etc.

    Having Stossel and Crichton at this conference makes no more sense than having two creationists headline a paleontology conference. The Skeptic’s Society is simply giving legitimacy to two men who haven’t earned it, and worse, represent the very thing the society is supposed to be working against.

  7. #7 M1EK
    May 10, 2006

    You guys, again, are giving Bailey way too much credit. Read his contributions at reason’s Hit And Run blog site for a while.

    Admitting you were wrong about a piece of science which had basically been settled 5-10 years ago because it has finally now become untenable even politically isn’t courage, unless you show a radical change in your thinking from there on out. And he hasn’t – his comments since then have effectively been more of the typical rear-guard action of the shill brigade – things like “well, now we don’t know how much is human-caused”; “now, we don’t know whether it’ll be beneficial or not”; etc.

  8. #8 laurence jewett
    May 11, 2006

    I’m not sure who is responsible for the “Environmental Wars” add at the right of this page, but whoever it was, they were sloppy in the extreme.

    They mangled the names of two of the scientists:

    Brian Fagan and Tapio Schneider.

    They called the former “Brain” (which, though undoubtedly true, is incorrect in this context) and the latter “Tapop” (which is not right in ANY sense).

    These scientists are just taking time out of their busy schedule to attend a conference that is for the public (purportedly, at least), so who cares whether Seed Magazine or anyone else gets the names (or any other facts that they print) correct, right?

    (Note: the add may have been corrected since I made this post, but that does not change the fact that it was sloppy to begin with. I saved the add if anyone does not believe me.)

  9. #9 Emrys Miller
    May 11, 2006

    Thanks for calling this out, Laurence. This is Emrys, the graphic designer / webmaster who built the ad. We’ve immediately fixed this web banner and it should be updated live shortly. You’ll notice if you look at our other material, that more than 99% of the time, we spell things correctly. My apologies to any of the readers or speakers who were upset by these typos. Best regards.

  10. #10 laurence jewett
    May 11, 2006

    A note to the person who ATTEMPTED to fix the “Environmental Wars” ad:

    Nice try, but it’s STILL not completely correct.

    It’s “TAPIO” (Schneider) — NOT “TAPOI”.

    I guess I (and most of the scientists on the list) should be thankful for small favors: you DID, after all, correct the name to “Brian Fagan” — from “Brain”.

    But I’m beginning to wonder whether YOU have one.

  11. #11 Emrys Miller
    May 12, 2006

    Thanks again for your keen eye, Laurence. This was actually fixed about an hour before your post; it’s just taking time to update through the server.

  12. #12 laurence jewett
    May 12, 2006

    “Thanks again for your keen eye, Laurence.”

    My bill’s in the mail. That’s time I could have spent doing important blogging, you know. I figure $3000 is probably fair (and balanced, too, when it gets into my checking account)

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