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.