The Intersection

There is still a lot of chatter about my Science Friday debate with Tom Bethell last week. Apparently it made some waves, so I’d like to make sure that anyone who hasn’t heard it yet gets a chance to. If you’d like to listen with Real Audio, click here; for Windows Media Player, click here; and for the Podcast, click here.

Meanwhile, I’m psyched that BoingBoing has plugged the debate; click here for their take. They cite my “radio-show ninjitsu”….

Comments

  1. #1 Jess
    June 19, 2006

    I had avoided listening until Boing Boing posted it, because PZ was ranting about how much he wanted to punch Ira Flatow, and I didn’t want to listen if it was going to be depressing. If PZ holds Flatow down I’ll certainly get a whack in — it’s one thing to allow your crackpot guest to hang himself, it’s quite another to actively cut off the reasonable guest in order to do so — but you decimated even against interruptions from the host. I particularly liked the fact that you didn’t get bogged down in objecting to Bethell’s myriad nonsensical statements — I know I would have, because I was yelling at the computer the whole time — but just kept explaining how science works. Nice job.

  2. #2 PZ Myers
    June 19, 2006

    Well, yeah. You didn’t play doormat and let babbling Bethell stammer away the whole interview — you charged in and slapped him about a bit with the facts. One of the things our side has got to learn is that deference doesn’t help, assertiveness does.

  3. #3 Laurence Jewett
    June 19, 2006

    I really hesitate to call the program a “debate”. It was more of a rambling diatribe by Bethell on what might be called the “evils of government science”, with a few well placed jabs by Mooney at opportune moments. Bethell seemed reluctant to even discuss some of his most controversial claims (surprise, surprise).

    It’s undoubtedly difficult (if not impossible) to debate the facts about politicization of science when your opponent keeps changing the subject, but I think Mooney probably did the best he could under trying circumstances .

    The effective lack of a debate “moderator” certainly did not help things any. It’s not clear what role Flatow was actually playing but I am quite sure he was NOT playing the role of a debate moderator. Had he been doing so, he never would have allowed Bethell to monopolize the time as he did.

  4. #4 Tom O'Brien
    June 19, 2006

    Text of email sent to Ira Flatow at Science Friday …

    1. Your most recent program (16 June 06) was beyond fabulous. More Chris Mooney, please. Thoughtful, articulate, well-informed, intelligent, passionate–all this on issues of the greatest importance.

    More of the other guy too, please. It was interesting and important to see how shockingly ill-informed the extremists are.

    2. But your main page < <<http://www.sciencefriday.com/>>> doesn’t list the Mooney session at all. Pls fix?

  5. #5 Laurence Jewett
    June 19, 2006

    While it is not particularly surprising that Bethell would rather talk about what he clearly perceives to be the “problem with government science” than about “political interference with science”, it IS telling.

    After listening to Bethell, does anyone really believe that he would shed a single tear if most (or even all) government science (IPCC, NIH, FDA, EPA, NOAA, possibly even NASA and USGS) suddenly disappeared tomorrow?

    Does anyone believe that he (or others with similar philosophy) would lift a single finger to “preserve” these government scientific agencies in their present form? (Or any form?)

    If there is one thing that libertarians, many members of the religious right and many of those in the Bush administration have in common, it is their firm belief (faith, really) that, with the exception of defense, anything done by the government could (and would) be better done by the private sector.

    Some of the latter seem to believe that government organizations like EPA have NO legitimacy whatsoever and it would therefore NOT be surprising if they considered such organizations “fair game” for weakening or elimination. In fact, what would be most surprising of all is if they did not.

  6. #6 Allen Passalaqua
    June 19, 2006

    Hi Chris, I’m a long time listener of Science Friday and I have to say you where the best guest on there in a long time. I would love to hear you do a podcast or a show to rebut the partisan sudo science that’s getting reported with the same credit that actual scince is.

    Keep up the good work and and I’m looking forward to an audio version of your book.

    Allen

  7. #7 Jon Winsor
    June 19, 2006

    I think Flatow couldn’t figure out what was going on. Just what was Bethell getting at? Bethell was just way too long winded with no incentive to stay concise.

    Unfortunately, I think this meant that people not naturally sympathetic to Chris got to hear lots of Bethell, and didn’t get much chance to hear Chris. Natually, people sympathetic to Chris liked what he had to say, but I bet the same was true of Bethell.

    What would have been nice is if we heard more of Chris’s prepared remarks, like the kind he made in his debate with Bailey:

    http://www.desmogblog.com/distorting-science-left-vs-right

    But then again, this might not have made much difference. Bethell was determined to fillibuster and Flatow was not keeping his eye on the clock or keeping the format organized.

    I disagree with David Appel’s point about neither Chris nor Bethell having science degrees. Sometimes lack of specialized training can actually make for better reporting. Nina Totenburg doesn’t have a law degree, and she’s probably a better Supreme Court reporter because of it.

  8. #8 Chris Mooney
    June 19, 2006

    Jon,
    Thanks for the defense against Appell. I was surprised by his comments.

    Perhaps the most hilarious commentary on the debate (that’s partial to me, anyway) came from our former science blogging friends at FrinkTank; I encourage you to check it out:
    http://www.frinktank.com/blog/?p=286

  9. #9 Gingi
    June 20, 2006

    The SciFri segment jumped around too many issues, and should have stayed focused on what entails consensus, which, according to you, Chris, is the final word.

    Our global scientific knowledge has only advanced because of centuries of work by marginalized thinkers like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Faraday, and even Einstein, scientists who were determined enough to challenge the establishment and the contemporary scientific consensus.

    Furthermore, if you thoroughly read today’s leading scientific journals, like Nature and Science, you’d find a vast diversity of scientific opinions on such politicized issues as global warming and the theory of evolution.

    It’s too bad that Ira Flatow couldn’t find someone more articulate to represent valid points from the other side.

  10. #10 John Farrell
    June 20, 2006

    Great job, Chris. I was hoping Bethell would respond when you tweaked him about his anti-relativity articles. But he was obviously already off balance enough….

  11. #11 Ryan
    June 20, 2006

    I really don’t think a science degree is important in the context. Fact is what’s important. Unfortunately, I don’t think enough systematic dismantling of the nonsense people like Bethell sprout is being done.

    The rebuttles often feel like the speaker is laughing with an already familier and knowing audience.

    We need someone systematically destroying these ignorant or deceiptful fools with clear simple scientific fact, in a time slot and format that people who don’t generally know about these issues will see and understand.

  12. #12 drake milton
    June 20, 2006

    Chris,

    It was great to hear the confidence in your voice as you responded to Bethell. Even the unbiased ear could hear Bethell grasping (“well. . . ahh. . . perhaps. . .”) for straws.

    Just out of curiosity, what happens after the show? Do you take off your headsets and exit through separate doors (haha) or does the discussion continue?

  13. #13 Jon Winsor
    June 20, 2006

    Our global scientific knowledge has only advanced because of centuries of work by marginalized thinkers… if you thoroughly read today’s leading scientific journals, like Nature and Science, you’d find a vast diversity of scientific opinions on such politicized issues as global warming and the theory of evolution.

    There’s a “vast diversity” of opinion about some things but not others. For instance, there’s not much diversity on the fact that CO2 causes climate change, although there are some vested interests who want it to appear that way.

    As for science advancing because of “marginalized thinkers”, there’s been a lot of parties creating buzz about this sort of thing, but I thought the Onion did a good job of putting it in perspective:

    http://www.theonion.com/content/node/49180

    When the Onion picks up on it, chances are there’s something going on in the zeitgeist.

  14. #14 skippy
    June 20, 2006

    hi chris!

    way off topic here, but i was so impressed with your presentation at the science panel at ykos, that i am happy to include the intersection on my permanent blogroll over at skippy!

  15. #15 Laurence jewett
    June 20, 2006

    Drake Milton asked “Do you take off your headsets and exit through separate doors (haha) or does the discussion continue?”

    Is this a reference to “Monster’s, Inc” by any chance?

    If his comments are any indication, I bet Chris exited through the door labeled “Reality.”

  16. #16 Chris Mooney
    June 20, 2006

    Thanks, Lawrence. Bethell and I did that show in the same room together at the NPR building in DC. Ira Flatow was in New York. And yes, we chatted a bit before and after, but not very much.

  17. #17 Laurence jewett
    June 20, 2006

    “Consensus”

    Consenus-schmensus,
    Contrarians say,
    It’s not the Sun,
    That makes the day,
    Nor is it the moon,
    That drives the tides,
    Nor gravity the coaster rides.
    Green plants ain’t green,
    From what I’ve seen,
    And all mankind,
    Won’t change my mind.
    The world is flat,
    And that’s just that.

  18. #18 Jess
    June 20, 2006

    Our global scientific knowledge has only advanced because of centuries of work by marginalized thinkers like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Faraday, and even Einstein, scientists who were determined enough to challenge the establishment and the contemporary scientific consensus.

    Yes, this is actually built into the definition of science — because of the scientific method, science is that which can accommodate challenges. In fact, constant and rigorous testing is how we achieve any kind of scientific consensus — which, as I believe Chris pointed out, does not mean “anything we all decided sounded good to us,” but which actually comes from what he described as “institutionalized skepticism.” However, saying that science is definitionally able to accommodate challenges is by NO means the same as saying that any challenge to science is automatically valid. There are responsibilities incumbent upon anyone who wants to alter the conventional wisdom (and by the way, everybody you mention started from a strong platform of long-standing scientific consensus). One of those responsibilities is to provide evidence that their alternate theory is preferable to the current theory — not that it’s just as good especially if you ignore some stuff, but that it’s better. This is where ID, for instance, falls on its face. At the absolute maximum, ID proponents can only show that their version explains as much as natural selection. Changing “normal science” requires a theory that explains all available evidence, including evidence that was seriously problematic for the preceding theory. IDers have not yet managed to find a point that is actually problematic for natural selection to explain, though they’ve found many where they don’t understand the explanation.

    I recommend reading Thomas Kuhn, for starters.

    It’s too bad that Ira Flatow couldn’t find someone more articulate to represent valid points from the other side.

    Pretty much everyone on that side of the debate tends to sound pretty muddle-headed when cross-examined. Unless of course you mean someone who could argue for a non-parodic definition of what scientific consensus means? Like Chris?

  19. #19 Laurence Jewett
    June 20, 2006

    “Hubris”

    Poets should stick with Shakespeare,
    Ne’er venture beyond their sphere.
    Leave “science debates” to the scientists,
    And write poems to Abbey Dear.

  20. #20 Jess
    June 21, 2006

    That had better not have been directed at me, buddy, or you’re going to feel pretty silly in a minute.

  21. #21 Laurence Jewett
    June 21, 2006

    The title is key.

    “Hubris” (Part II)

    Scientists should stick with Einstein,
    And they will be just fine,
    Leave writing to the poets,
    And never EVER cross the line.

  22. #22 Laurence Jewett
    June 21, 2006

    In case there is some (quite unintended) ambiguity about the above poem “Hubris”, here’s the inspiration:

    http://davidappell.blogspot.com/2006/06/bethell-vs-mooney.html

    The idea that scientists are the only ones knowledgeable enough to discuss/debate science issues is nonsense — just as it is nonsense when someone in the humanities thinks that english and journalism majors are the only ones who are capable of writing (a claim that I have also encountered, and which “Hubris, Part II” addresses).

  23. #23 Jess
    June 21, 2006

    Oh, I see… “Hubris” is a quality of the speaker, not the referent! Well I feel better about that now.

    Sorry for being so reactionary; the internet appears to be so chock-full of jerks lately that I’ve become oversensitive. Especially to the “you are fundamentally unqualified to have an opinion” tactic that the poem is in fact lampooning, rather than participating in.

  24. #24 megan
    June 21, 2006

    The one thing that most frustrated me about the debate had more to do with Flatow than anyone else (I know, we’ve talked about him already). But the purpose of the show, according to the website, was supposed to be answering the question of ‘who’s hijacking science?’- the GOP or the Dems, and instead it turned into a show of why Bethell’s book was full of junk. While that was GREAT to hear, and Chris made some clear points there, it ended up diverting from the topic, especially when Ira kept coming in with comments about different sections of Bethell’s book, focusing on his views of science, rather than the political climate. Bethell standing down on the left-wing right-wing thing right at the beginning certainly didn’t help that. Maybe it’s because no one else has published much that’s trying to argue against the dems and science? I don’t know. But they need to find someone who’s going to argue against Chris on the politics if we really want to get a good ‘debate’ going.

  25. #25 Laurence jewett
    June 22, 2006

    Jess:

    No problem. I did not initially see the alternate interpetation or I would probably have linked to the Appell comment to begin with to make my intent clear.

    That’s one problem with poetry — and also what makes it so effective, of course. It can be often be interpreted in multiple ways, even in ways that are diametric opposites!

    Perhaps the best example of this is the oft-quoted line from the Robert Frost poem, Mending Wall: “Good fences make good neighbors”. Most people don’t realize that Frost was actually mocking the statement.

  26. #26 Laurence jewett
    June 22, 2006

    Chris noted: “But they need to find someone who’s going to argue against Chris on the politics if we really want to get a good ‘debate’ going.”

    Actually, while I certainly agree that its hard to debate someone like Bethell on the “politicization of science issue”, I believe the “who’s worse, right or left?” question that seems to be central to many of these “debates” is off point.

    It merely diverts the focus from where it should be: squarely on the Bush administration, who, after all is the one making policy RIGHT NOW.

    The primary focus should rightfully be on what they are doing now, not on what someone else might have done in the past.

    IF members of the current adminstration are engaging in inappropriate activities (eg, censorship of scientists, cherry picking of scientific data, etc) then they should be called on it.

    And when (if) a Democratic administration gets back in power, they should be subjected to the very same level of scrutiny — and the same performance standard with regard to science policy.

  27. #27 Jon Winsor
    June 22, 2006

    (eg, censorship of scientists…)

    Yes, it’s still happening right now. From yesterday’s New York Times:

    James Titus, an Environmental Protection Agency project manager for sea level rise who is leading an agency mapping effort, wrote an essay for a law review a few years ago in which he argued that the nation needed to make decisions on whether or how wetlands and beaches should be allowed to migrate inland. Otherwise, he wrote, government policy is saying, in effect, that “wetlands and beaches are important resources that must be preserved for the duration of this generation, but whether they survive for the next 50 to 100 years is not our problem.”

    Mr. Titus titled his essay, published in the Golden Gate Law Review in 2000, “Does the U.S. Government Realize That the Sea Is Rising?” It was accompanied by a disclaimer noting that it did not represent the views of the E.P.A.

    Reached by telephone, Mr. Titus said he was no longer allowed to discuss such issues publicly and referred questions to the agency’s press office, which would not allow him to speak about it on the record.

  28. #28 Ira Flatow
    June 27, 2006

    For those of you who couldn’t get enough of Chris on this program, you can check our SciFri archives for a segment with him, where he appeared by himself. So this was his second appearance on the show, and I thought he did just fine.

    As for my part, I received some very good advice many years ago, about interviewing. And it went something like this: let someone talk long enough and the truth will become self evident. I think that’s what happened on this program.

  29. #29 Lance harting
    July 4, 2006

    The fact that so many of you are irate with Ira Flatow shows your considerable bias. Indeed Mr. Flatow’s post indicates his sympathies with Chris’ opinions.

    I have long noted Mr. Flatow’s impatience with anyone that doesn’t toe the climate change as disaster, orthodox line. I find it amusing that he isn’t biased ENOUGH for most of your sensibilities.

  30. #30 Jon Winsor
    July 5, 2006

    Mr. Harting– If you listen to the interview, it wasn’t particularly about climate change. Climate change only took up about 3 minutes of the 30 in the interview. And those of us complaining here just wanted Chris to get equal time.

    If you listened to the interview, I’m surprised you didn’t pick these things up. If you didn’t listen to the interview, it seems like listening would be the very basic research needed before accusing the commenters of bias.

    Rereading Flatow’s comments: “Let someone talk long enough and the truth will become self evident.” Indeed.

  31. #31 Lance Harting
    July 6, 2006

    OK Winsor, you got me. I didn’t get a chance to listen to the broadcast. I was just remarking on Flatow’s past history on the subject of climate change.

    I plan on downloading it from my office. My home computer is dial up.

    I consider myself dressed down. Do you feel better now?

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