The Intersection

I have a new piece on Slate exploring precisely this question. Here’s the core of it:

If the war on science is over, we’re now entering the postwar phase of reconstruction–the scientific equivalent of nation-building. The Bush science controversies were just one manifestation of a deeper and long-standing gulf between the science community and the broader American public, one with roots stretching back to our indigenous tradition of anti-intellectualism (as so famously described by historian Richard Hofstadter in his classic work from 1963) and Yankee distrust of expertise and authority. So this is certainly no time for complacency. Scientists, with the support of the administration, should now be setting out to win over the hearts and minds of the American public, creating a stronger edifice of trust and understanding to help ensure that conflict doesn’t come raging back again.

You can read the full piece here. Very interested in reactions….


  1. #1 bigTom
    January 15, 2009

    I think it is too optimistic to say the “war on science” is over. It is going underground (i.e. no longer supported by the power of government).

    I think the Obama tenure is an opportunity to show the public that intellectualism works. If his presidency is seen of successful, it will be a lot easier to make the case that reliance on expertise works a lot better than reliance on Joe the plummer’s gut. Of course, if because of the unprecedentedly tough challenges, his presidency is seen as failing, then we cause of intellectualism will be set back. Our fates are intertwined.

  2. #2 David Bruggeman
    January 15, 2009

    While the content is fine, the framing doesn’t work for me. That may have been an editorial decision, so my comments may be misdirected.

    If the “War on Science” was about the actions of an administration, I would expect the piece to speak about the “nation-building” that needs to happen within the processes of government and policymaking. Your project (collective – you and Sheril) about the public – that is, the next book and any associated activity is more in line with this piece than anything to do with the “War on Science”

    I guess it comes to this, I don’t necessarily see the issues under the Bush administration as connected, or deeply linked, to the strand of public disengagement with science. You’ve made the argument that the Bush administration’s actions were special, but I don’t see that same argument (or I don’t see it as similarly persuasive) that the public disengagement during this time was similarly out of the ordinary. If the need for public engagement now is more important than ever, how is it connected to what the Bush Administration did?

  3. #3 Ashutosh
    January 15, 2009

    Good piece. You might be interested in an editorial in the latest issue of Nature echoing some similar sentiments:
    “Science is not a spectator sport”

  4. #4 Jon Winsor
    January 15, 2009

    Chris, you might find it useful to look into Alex Carey’s distinction between the “grassroots” and the “treetops” levels at which public opinion is influenced. When you’re talking about efforts to improve the popular image of scientists, I think you’re thinking about grassroots opinion. If you’re talking about influencing institutions and public figures, so that they’re not passing on bad information about science and/or scientists, I think you’re talking about the “treetops.”

    Personally, I’m more worried about the treetops than the grassroots level. If you have people in authority saying something from a trustworthy source, people across the board tend to believe the trustworthy source. I think Naomi Oreskes has written about the role of the manipulation of “prestige media” in giving people the idea that there’s still debate about global warming. Maybe this is due to the lack of a check on the ability to just go to print with information that gives people the wrong impression. Sometimes, perhaps, there’s a tendency to go with the path of least resistance. But if theres’s an institution that does a kind of publicly displayed quality control, then distortions are less likely to happen.

    The grassroots, it seems to me, is much harder to influence. Just because you get people to think scientists are “cool,” how reliable is it that you’re going to get good science-based policy? I think you can have much more impact at the “treetops” level…

  5. #5 Norman Doering
    January 15, 2009

    bigTom wrote:

    I think it is too optimistic to say the “war on science” is over. It is going underground (i.e. no longer supported by the power of government).

    I agree. There are still going to be school boards fighting over creationism, high school teachers trying to pass creationism off as science, Obama will be fighting fundagelical senators, lots of people will be trying to sell pseudoscience, bad science in Hollywood movies (but I’ll be watching Battlestar Galactica tomorrow)… etc.

  6. #6 bigTom
    January 15, 2009

    I think the thing we are missing is that the fundamentalist Christians, have concluded, that given enough time science will destroy their faith. As they conclude happened in Europe. So they are out to destroy science. It is either that, or eventually their faith will die out. So we have a no holds barrred struggle. They no longer have a fellow traveler running the government. But they aren’t going to roll over and play dead.

  7. #7 Eric the Leaf
    January 15, 2009

    Fundamentalist Christians are the least of the problem. Moreover, it is the height of arrogance even to believe that science is the key to the solutions of our problems. The current human condition is a behavioral problem, even more broadly an anthropological problem. Rationality itself is not the solution (depending on your definition of solution), because people are not rational beings, despite what some of us may think of ourselves or how we might believe we behave.

  8. #8 Eric the Leaf
    January 16, 2009

    PS. If you want to know about the origins, and therefore some of the solutions, to the converging crises of the 21st Century, it is not sufficient to frame the problem as science vs. its antithesis or science-based policy vs. its antithesis. In this regard, the great majority of science bloggers and most interested parties who respond and comment are neither expert and often not even familiar with the strands of culture process and evolution that have lead us to this moment. Therefore, they tend to champion with great fervor any number of techno-fixes, which, in this regard, are largely inadequate or irrelevant to the central issues.

    It is a rare breed indeed that have a more comprehensive perspective. The great, and unfortunately deceased, anthropologist, Marvin Harris, was one. The ecologist Richard Heinberg, fortunately still with us, is another.

  9. #9 Erroneous use of data and faulty logic
    January 16, 2009

    “A seemingly immovable core of Americans don’t believe in evolution and think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, nearly half of us, according to polling data.”
    The poll linked actually asks whether or not people believed that God created HUMANS within the last 10,000 years. It says nothing about the age of the earth.

    Moreover, the linked data indicates that in the population as a whole, 14% believe that god created humans (and reject evolution); 14% is nowhere near “nearly half” (and only 36% believe that evolution was guided by god).

    “Indeed, the public has become polarized about the nature of reality itself: College-educated Democrats are now more than twice as likely as college-educated Republicans to believe that global warming is real and human-caused.”

    Non sequitur.

    Please pay attention to both the data you use and the logic you try to employ. You would lambast your opponents for such sloppy work. Don’t commit the same errors.

  10. #10 Ashutosh
    January 16, 2009

    How about a word more friendly than “framing”?

  11. #11 Jon Winsor
    January 16, 2009

    I think the power of fundamentalist Christians is overrated. They have “get out the vote” clout, so they’re pandered to, but as soon as they try to set the agenda, then the people with the real power put their foot down. I think George Bush will be the high water mark of fundamentalist political power. Most of the Republican establishment now knows that it’s playing with fire and they’ve already gotten burned very badly (haven’t we all). E. J. Dionne wrote about the development of “Country and Western Marxism” among the intellectual establishment that moved in with Reagan in 1980. But now they’ve flattered the “heartland” for so many years, to the point where it now fields its own candidates like Sarah Palin, and they’re scared about that.

    OK, if you find this stuff interesting and have a little bit of time, check out this talk by conservative New York Times editor Sam Tanenhaus (the audio link is in the upper right hand corner). This is a *conservative* trying to explain to his party its intellectual mistakes. Also helpful (but somewhat dense and breathless) is this post by Jim Sleeper, who interprets Tanenhaus’s talk for a liberal audience. I think Sam Tanenhaus basically predicts the rise of Sarah Palin before she even comes on the scene (not her particularly, but the way he predicts the rise of her kind of politics is scary).

    Listen closely when Tanenhaus talks about the “New Class” as defined by James Burnham and Irving Kristol. Originally, this term was a way to disparage New Deal technocrats, but Irving Kristol expanded it to include scientists, and other professionals. In my opinion (and Paul Krugman once wrote about this), Irving Kristol and the American Enterprise institute are more to blame for the polarized politics we now have on evolution than a bunch of fundamentalists living in Mayberry RFD.

    As Thomas Frank has pointed out, the GOP *uses* the evolution issue to provoke the “New Class,” divide the electorate, mobilize its base, and get elected.

  12. #12 Ashutosh
    January 16, 2009

    I think rationality conforms well to what Einstein said about science itself: “All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most precious thing we have”. Rationality won’t save the world, and yet it’s the best bad system that we have, just like democracy.

  13. #13 Sean McCorkle
    January 19, 2009

    I like the piece. I like the war metaphor, although I’m skeptical that its really over. Characters like Inhofe and Brownback are still in office, so maybe an “undead” metaphor is more appropriate- its not over until every last vampire has been staked.

    Its very important to raise the issue of scientific outreach. I believe this is a real underlying cause of the sad state of public interest in science. I work at a national laboratory which has drawn a lot of anti-science sentiment from the surrounding community, none of which is due to religious fundamentalism. I will never get used to the kind of anti-intellectualism I routinely encounter nowadays. When I was growing up, science was fun – all my friends and family members thought so. I’m haunted by the questions of “What happened? What went wrong?” We were landing people on the moon and inventing transistors and things when I was a kid, and now it sometimes feels like we’re on the precipice of a new dark age.

  14. #14 Christopher Mims
    January 19, 2009

    Naturally I gravitated toward your comments in the piece that relate to science media.

    If you want to scare yourself silly contemplating the potential future of a science journalist-lite news media, look no further than CNN after they fired their science and environment team:

    I think the commenters here are right: the war on science isn’t over: it’s only just beginning. Maybe it no longer has allies in the White House, but Americans’ fundamental mistrust of the poindexters with their atheism and their computer models remains strong and, ultimately, a drag on this country’s ability to get anything done w/r/t climate change and, I suspect, other issues.

    Now imagine this: if the war on science is over, what’s next? How can we *improve* the status and effectiveness of science in this country? There’s the battle for hearts and minds, which is tied up with education (much more than media, I’d argue, which at this point is beholden to market realities — i.e. if we don’t have an educated public in the first place then there is no market for science media) but there’s also the issue of funding priorities. Have you seen the graphs of where all the money goes? NIH gets a disproportionate share, that’s for sure. Hopefully Obama will re-focus on energy and all the varieties of research that increase competitiveness (vs. just coming up with new ever more expensive cures to burden an already death-spiralling healthcare system).

  15. #15 Jon Winsor
    January 19, 2009

    …which at this point is beholden to market realities…

    Again, what you could do is make them compete to issue the best science information. Issue reports on how the news orgs do, kind of like the League of Conservation Voters’ ratings system.

    For example, “America’s Most Trusted Name in News?” Yeah right! They botched 30% of their science news stories, earned 25 turkeys and only 3 gold stars, while PBS got only 2% wrong, no turkeys, and 19 gold stars, etc. etc.

  16. #16 Jon Winsor
    January 19, 2009

    And if you could get prominent scientists on your board, overseeing the project, it would have clout too. News orgs are concerned about their *credibility*–that’s their bread and butter.

  17. #17 Mark G
    January 22, 2009

    I am all for good science, and have no use for the government interfering with scientists freely pursuing their research and publishing their results.

    I would, though, suggest that if the President’s new head science guru, John Holdren, wants to “win over the hearts and minds of the American public,” he should avoid making predictions under the guise of “science” that turn to be wrong. I’m thinking of Holdren’s decision to side with the often-wrong Paul Ehrlich in his bet against Julian Simon.

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