The Island of Doubt

Who can save science?

We bloggers tend to assume, or at least hope, that blogging is intrisincally a Good Thing. But at this past weekend’s North Carolina Science Blogging Conference, some even dared ask if we can save science. If that’s not a tall order, I don’t know what is.

The conference drew a couple of hundred veteran bloggers, students and scientists from across the continent and abroad — including a healthy representation from our own ScienceBlogs.com gang — to the Sigma Xi headquarters in Research Triangle Park for a day of debate over what blogging can and cannot do, its relationship to journalism, its role in education, the ethics of the practice, and so forth. Among the most common themes (or memes) to arise was the lack of respect enjoyed by science among the general public, and what to do about it.

Science journalist Jennifer “Cocktail Physics” Oullette’s summary touches on some of the attempts to grapple with the problem. Marine biologist Jennifer “Shifting Baselines” Jacquet helped wrap up the day’s ruminations and arguments with a pessimistic presentation on the way in which the non-scientific community obsesses on trivia at the expense of the most critical issues of the day. Demand for information about Britney Spears’ custody battles, for example, far outweighs interest in the rapidly disappearing summer ice cap around the North Pole.

Many of us are asking ourselves, “How can we help change this absurd culture of celebrity worship, and replace it with one that values the contributions of science?” Unfortunately, there was much disagreement about the fundamental facts of the history of science in society. Some argued that science was feared in 1950s America, while others pointed out that the 1950s was actually a high point for science, what with the beginning of the Apollo program. Yet others suggested that while scientists did enjoy enhanced respect during the post-war period, it was driven by fear — anti-communist paranoia — not pride.

Maybe, it has been argued, what we need is not more and better science blogging, but a celebrity scientist to blog about. Albert Einstein used to be hero, not just to his adopted America, but to his native Europeans, and his fellow Jews. Is is possible to elevate a scientist to a similar stature, or was Einstein’s popularity a product of unique historical contingencies? MIT’s Tom Levenson, who has an intriguing new blog, Inverse Square, focusing on the history of science, argues the latter, pointing out that when Einstein’s new theory of general relativity was confirmed by Arthur Eddington thanks to measurements taken during a 1919 solar eclipse (when light from stars could be seen to be bent by the sun’s gravity), a war-weary world was eager to embrace the idea of a German scientist overturning the dogma of a British scientist (Newton) in the spirit of peace.

That may or may not explain all of Einstein’s subsequent popularity. But both Einstein’s rise to fame and the Apollo program were the product of a war. As I ponder whether the time is right for a scientist hero — or science as a heroic effort in general — it occurs to me that a renewed respect for what science can do for humanity might require science to be seen as antidote for what ails us, rather than a bearer of the bad news, which seems to be its primary role today.

More than a few climatologists are doing a valiant job exposing the perils of the continued combustion of fossil fuels. Al Gore shared a Nobel Prize with them for his efforts as a science communicator. They are heroes, and not just to many a science blogger. But as Matt “Framing Science” Nisbet repeatedly reminds us, public attitudes and concerns about climate change remain mired at the bottom of priority lists.

There are scientists out there trying hard to develop cheap replacements for oil, coal and gas. But the inconvenient truth about energy supplies is that there is no silver bullet. We’re going to have to do a little of this and little of that, decentralizing and customizing our technologies to biogeographical needs. Those kind of answers won’t involve big revolutionary breakthroughs that put people on the cover of Time and Newsweek. In addition, much of science today tends to the collaborative and cooperative, with some papers topped by an authors list that exceeds the length of the science being described and precludes the notion of individual celebrity.

If we do need a modern analog of an Einstein to bring science back to the point where it can attract the kind of media attention now reserved for pop tarts, if we need someone to find a magically clean, cheap and renewable energy source that can be developed and introduced fast enough to forestall catastrophic climate change ;;;;; in the manner of what cold fusion would have been if it was real ;;;;; if science’s salvation relies on science saving the world, then we’re living a fantasy.

I’d like to believe science blogging isn’t an exercise in fantasy, but one that can make a contribution to the real world. The science bloggers I spent the weekend with are a wonderful and fascinating bunch, among the best I’ve ever had the honor to be associated with, and each one them is trying to make a difference in a world that has marginalized what we care about. But by the end of the last session (or, more accurately, the last beer), I found myself wondering it what we really need is a whole lot of luck.

Comments

  1. #1 Dunc
    January 21, 2008

    How can we help change this absurd culture of celebrity worship, and replace it with one that values the contributions of science?

    For that, you’ll need to fundamentally alter the rules governing the media. As long as it’s primarily (heck, solely) about conning people into buying more worthless rubbish that they neither need nor can afford, then it’s going to be positively inimical to anything resembling rational thought. The whole point of our current media system is to discourage rational thought and encourage mindless, Pavlovian consumerism. That is its sole raison d’entre – even the idea that it isn’t is just another layer of marketing. With those fundamental premises, you’re never going to make much headway. There’s a reason why the only people making really decent (English-language) science programmes are the BBC and the Open University.

    If Einstein were working today, he wouldn’t be a hero unless he agreed to endorse something or go on some hideous “reality TV” show.

  2. #2 Luna_the_cat
    January 21, 2008

    I hate to say it, but I think that Dunc has a point. Consumerism — of more than we need, of endlessly created wants — is the basis of the economy as well as the culture, and there are many people who profit from keeping it that way.

    Nevermind that it keeps people focused on trivia; that probably makes life a lot easier for politicians anyway, so why would they want to change it either?

    But it keeps people focused away from the real in more ways than one. Winning status in online gaming is both easier and more immediately rewarding than a career of real achievement. And nevermind that the consumerism is beggaring the planet of resources, in the rich countries people are still insulated from that and life is good. You are going to be fighting a culture of easy “achievement” and comfortable living, and all those little reward systems embedded in our brains that go “ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!” when we get an object that we desire, as well as an entire popular and economic culture built around all this.

    In order for people to want to change, they need to be uncomfortable, if nothing else. We haven’t got that going for us yet.

  3. #3 big
    January 21, 2008

    It’s more than just the media existing to serve consumerism. The entertainment industry looks to serve itself. Witness the shameless self-promoting Hollywood awards business. The other problem is what seems most real to kids growing up. If you are a tenth grader, what is more important for your social acceptance, knowing the latest scientific developments, or having an informed opinion about American Idol contestants?

    The role models for getting ahead being shown to Americas youth, are primarily through media entertainment or sports. We have to find a way to make learning about the real world more appealing than learning about the artificial entertainment world, which is becoming our primary interface with culture.

  4. #4 Dave Briggs
    January 24, 2008

    I’d like to believe science blogging isn’t an exercise in fantasy, but one that can make a contribution to the real world. The science bloggers I spent the weekend with are a wonderful and fascinating bunch, among the best I’ve ever had the honor to be associated with, and each one them is trying to make a difference in a world

    I don’t think it is fantasy. The sincerity of the bloogers at SB shows, and I have seen and heard that a number of them count their numbers of hits in the millions. Literally!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  5. #5 Caledonian
    January 25, 2008

    in the manner of what cold fusion would have been if it was real

    Be grateful it wasn’t. Cold fusion would have been the most powerful weapon humanity had ever developed if it had been real.

    “Give me a lever long enough, and a suitable place to stand, and I will move the world.”

    Why do you ask if you can change the world without first asking what is required to do so?

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