Pharyngula

My YearlyKos talk

Here’s more or less what I said at the YearlyKos panel today, assembled from my notes and with all the “ummms” removed. It’s very general, but hey, what can you do in ten minutes? Next time they should give me 30 minutes and I’ll flash up some genes and copulating squid and splutter out more blasphemy.

Two hundred and thirty years ago, when our country was founded, we faced a number of crises: we were a small weak country, threatened by great world powers, and at war. We persevered and succeeded, and I think we won out because of two fortunate endowments or opportunities. The founding fathers were the inheritors of the Enlightenment, and built this country on a foundation of reason and respect for education. We had a reputation as a practical people, with Yankee ingenuity and a can-do spirit. We also found ourselves on the edge of the Industrial revolution with a wealth of natural resources, and we took advantage of that opportunity to grow.

Some like to say America is a Christian nation. I think that misses the point: we have been and are a science and engineering nation. The riches we enjoy right now arose from invention and discovery and industry.

Now in the 21st century, we are the most powerful country in the world. The richest. The country with the greatest military might. As in the 18th century, though, we’re still facing crises, new problems that threaten us.

What are those crises?

#1: Peak oil. We’ve built our strength on the breakneck exploitation of rich energy sources. Those sources are finite, and we’re seeing them in decline right now. We need to plan ahead for alternative sources.

#2: Global warming. We’ve changed our world, and we’re seeing unexpected consequences. We have to start thinking about a carbon economy, and how we’re going to deal with climate change.

#3: Declining biodiversity. We’ve demolished habitat—for instance, the vast prairies present at the founding of the nation have been reduced to a fraction of a percent of their original extent, replaced by fields of corn and wheat and soybeans—and species worldwide are going extinct at a rate at least a hundred fold greater than any other time in human history. We are squandering irreplaceable diversity, and once extinct, it’s never coming back.

#4: Pandemics. In the last few decades, we’ve heard about HIV, Ebola, avian flu. We’re coping so far, but humanity is a vast and delicious petri plate to the microorganisms of the world, and evolution is constantly churning up new diseases. We can’t sit still, but need to continue advancing biomedical research to keep ahead of new threat.

#5: International competition. We may be king of the hill right now, but if you remember that game, even in a spirit of friendly competition no one stays up there forever. Are we going to take advantage of our position to strengthen ourselves, or are we going to complacently idle away our time until it’s too late? Will we let Asia and Europe pass us by?

There are other problems, of course, but these are the five that worry me most right now. How will we address these problems? What are our assets?

Remember that we are a science and engineering nation. Our answers are here in our heads, in innovation and technology and planning and being smart.

I said that early America had two valuable assets, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The 21st century world is looking at two new opportunities: the Information Age and Biotechnology. Computers have revolutionized industry, design, how we think, how we teach, and how we communicate. Biology has just begun an exponential rise in power, and the public is only beginning to see a few early innovations percolate into relevance. Think about the impact that just the nascent reproductive technologies are beginning to have on society, and know this: much, much more is on the way. Be afraid, or anticipate some unexpected new wonders.

Notice that I said the world is looking at these opportunities. Not just us. Are we ready to compete?

No.

We have deep structural weaknesses that impede our ability to take advantage of the opportunities. At this moment when we most need a generation with skills in math and science, we see our country turning inwards. We have an administration that likes to close its eyes and hope problems will go away…or at least not become unavoidable until a Democratic administration is in office. We are seeing a growing religiosity in our government, a departure from our tradition of secularism—”can do” is being replaced with “let’s pray”. Piety will not save us from a climate crisis or the next pandemic.

As an educator, what concerns me most is the weakness of our commitment to good public school education and the compromises that are being made to satisfy a reactionary religious element in our country. A subject near and dear to my heart is evolution, as evolution is the keystone concept for all of biology. It is the central idea that informs our research, and it is an essential tool for advancement in biotechnology. It certainly isn’t the totality of biology, but if you want a reliable leading indicator of the state of biological knowledge in our country, evolution is a good one to choose.

So how well informed are Americans on this central subject in science?

A recent review in PLoS Biology summarized the state of the nation on evolution. One third of Americans reject it outright, saying it is definitely false. In another survey, 43% agreed with the statement that god created humans as they are, and we did not evolve from other forms of life. In yet another survey comparing attitudes towards evolution in America, Japan, and Europe, the US ranked 33rd out of 34—we beat Turkey. Go, USA.

Imagine being an electrical engineer and hearing that a third of the country doesn’t believe all that stuff about electricity and radio waves, but thinks there actually are little people moving about inside their televisions. That’s how biologists feel about the state of knowledge about biology here; we’ve got a lot of people with medieval attitudes about the subject. This is the pool from which we have to draw our students, and that worries us.

It gets worse.

I’m from the progressive state of Minnesota, a place that has long held an excellent reputation for its educational system. A thorough survey by Randy Moore discovered an interesting fact, though: 20% of our public school biology teachers are teaching creationism. 20%! Additionally, almost half are pressured to avoid teaching evolution at all in their classes, despite the fact that our state standards require instruction in the subject.

Think about that. While we’ve built this world class scientific establishment and created a strong science elite, we’re having our foundation cut out from under us by a seductive, anti-intellectual grassroots effort by creationists. Are you worried yet? I’m worried. Just when we’re challenged with new crises that require a sophisticated workforce, that requires our science and engineering nation to buckle down and find solutions, we discover that the coming generation is being undermined from within, stripped of the skills that we need.

What can we do? Electing the right person to the presidency is a good start. Even more important, I think, is aiming a little lower and taking over school boards and getting good local representatives elected. I attended a school board meeting in my town last year where one of the members openly admitted that his function on the board was to represent those community people who wanted public education shut down. That’s the kind of thing we can’t afford to let happen, and all I could think was that we needed one pro-education, pro-science person to stand up and run for that position and boot that bozo off the board. It doesn’t take much to turn a school away from an anti-science course towards one much more supportive of good education.

Earlier this year, I was privileged to participate when a pro-education group in the Minnetonka school district marched in a train of scientists and concerned community members to make a case for preserving their International Baccalaureate program and blocking an attempt to inject intelligent design into their curriculum. They effectively isolated the two creationists on the board there–that is exactly how activists can make a big difference.

I shouldn’t need to tell this audience another kind of counter-strategy we can apply. We need to mobilize scientists and get them out of the ivory towers and talking to citizens; we need to build our own science netroots that get scientists communicating ideas and sharing their knowledge with the average person on the street. Instead of talking to their preacher, or their bartender, or their dog-groomer to get answers to complex questions about the real world, people ought to be able to ask scientists and engineers what the best answers are.

For example, Sean Carroll is here—he participates in a blog called Cosmic Variance. He’s a physicist and a cosmologist, and he does stuff I have a hard time comprehending. But, you know, I can read about it on the web, and I can even ask questions…and he might even answer them. How empowering is that? Any of us can chat with a cosmologist. Seed Media has been working hard to build a nice home for scientists on the web, at scienceblogs.com, and right now you can visit that site and find everything from mathematicians to cognitive psychologists, all willing to talk with you. It’s a free education on the web!

Another advantage of this kind of communication is that we are organizing a pro-science tribe—I’m looking over this room and seeing all these people who want our country to do a better job supporting science, and I have to say that this is an important step: we are building a community passionate for a cause, and that cause is science and technology applied to the betterment of humankind.

This is how we democratize science. Not by dumbing it down and getting it wrong, as the creationists do, but opening up access to real scientists doing real work with real knowledge, and aggressively making a positive case for the benefits of reality-based research.

Comments

  1. #1 Abel PharmBoy
    June 9, 2006

    PZ, you hit the nail on the head about creating an environment where the culture embraces science and technology and actually consults scientists about scientific issues. That’s the reason I accepted the opportunity to join you at Seed’s ScienceBlogs – to raise public awareness about the crap being propagated by an administration who recognizes that the only way to undermine scientific fact is to appoint idealogues and cronies to scientific posts.

    Thanks for the great job you do to raise the level of this dialogue – hope you had a chance to chat with Gen Clark afterwards.

  2. #2 BigDumbChimp
    June 9, 2006

    Imagine being an electrical engineer and hearing that a third of the country doesn’t believe all that stuff about electricity and radio waves, but thinks there actually are little people moving about inside their televisions. That’s how biologists feel about the state of knowledge about biology here; we’ve got a lot of people with medieval attitudes about the subject. This is the pool from which we have to draw our students, and that worries us.

    That pretty much nailed it for me PZ. Very nice.

  3. #3 paul
    June 9, 2006

    As I just drooled over at my own site, evolution is a lightning rod issue, attracting more attention than it should: the underlying issue is whether the scientific method, the idea of formulating and testing hypotheses, the correct approach to understanding and solving problems. I would like to see the scientific method put forward with some examples that even the people who believe in Pat Robertson prophecies can understand. Evolution is too big a leap for some.

    While I agree it’s essential to a scientific or secular education, I think it may be too much for many to take: people still think that the existence of monkeys disproves evolution, so something seems be escaping their understanding.

    What other iron-clad demonstrations of the scientific method, the idea of formulating and testing hypotheses to answer empirical questions, can be used as baby steps?

  4. #4 skblllzzzz
    June 10, 2006

    The essence of your argument equally applies to Europe, and (I live there) Holland. Education is rapidly going down the drain here, due to endless budget cutting under the guise of efficiency improvement, buisness-like mamagement approach, and other bla-blah. Newsweek has an article on it:
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13124097/site/newsweek/

  5. #5 marcbuhler
    June 10, 2006

    All that in 10 minutes? And there were Ummm’s, too? How did
    you not fit in a swipe at Ann Coulter I’ll never know, but…
    it certainly would have pushed you way over time, wouldn’t it?

    Well spoken.

    (signed) marc

  6. #6 suezboo
    June 10, 2006

    I am by no means a scientist but I always read this site and learn something every time.For the person who wanted a ‘baby steps’ experiment : I used this one with preschoolers : I have a theory that hot air rises. How can we test it? Involves a candle and fingers.Worked for them.
    Thanks for the speech, PZ, it needed to be said.

  7. #7 SEF
    June 10, 2006

    It’s pretty bad news for the US (and anyone it can touch) that the only country worse than it is Turkey. Turkey has had trouble getting into the EU because of its foul (not fowl!) attitude. So presumably the US would also be subject to scrutiny and conditions being placed on its membership were it ever to want to re-join Europe.

  8. #8 David Harmon
    June 10, 2006

    Excellent! Sure, you didn’t “call out” any asshats, but even so, you weren’t pulling any punches about the American situation.

  9. #9 ebohlman
    June 10, 2006

    suezboo: I hope that your candle demonstration doesn’t just emphasize that the air over the candle is hotter (as predicted by the theory), but also that you can’t find any of the hot air under the candle (if you could, then the theory would be wrong). One of the hardest points about the scientific method to get across is that it’s not enough to have some observations that are consistent with your hypothesis; you also need the absence of any observations that are inconsistent with it. Otherwise you fall into the trap of confirmation bias.

  10. #10 Pierce R. Butler
    June 10, 2006

    Back in high school in southern California, decades ago, I tried to follow the doings of local school boards and came to the conclusion that, out of five members, there was always –
    one whose top priority was to ensure we learned nothing about evolution;
    one whose top priority was that we learned nothing about socialism; and
    one whose top priority was that we learned nothing about sex.
    Thus, there was a guaranteed majority supporting a pro-ignorance agenda.

    Since then, I have seen little to make me change my mind, except perhaps that now, in northern Florida, the local board majority’s priorities include building new schools in locations most profitable to certain real estate developers.

  11. #11 suezboo
    June 10, 2006

    Good point, ebohlman. Gotcha.

  12. #12 suezboo
    June 10, 2006

    Damn. Pressed Post too quickly. They did have to feel all round the candle to see where it was hottest.

  13. #13 LBBP
    June 11, 2006

    PZ, it was a pleasure to meet you in person at the panel. Thanks for the presentation. The panel was pretty good overall, but I thought that you and Chris Mooney were really the most targeted to the stated purpose. Wesley Clark said many of the right things, but was I the only one that was kind of annoyed that he still felt it necessary to bring his comments back around to a “I believe God wants us to blah, blah, blah…” rhetoric. I mean I know he’s running for President, and you can’t get elected these days without stating a belief in the invisible friend in the sky, but really for that group, speaking about Championing Science, it seemed out of place.

  14. #14 GuLi
    June 12, 2006

    I don’t know much about your views, the US “left wing”, Kos…
    about much, actually :) . I intend to improve a little, as my
    curiosity’s piqued.
    There’s an instance here – Crises item #5. I assume it didn’t
    earn you very odd looks from the audience, did it ? …but
    it’s a real shocker to me (i.e., painted with a thick brush, a
    socialist, godless French). I cannot be sure, but I’d say
    don’t try the same to a European left-wing crowd (mutatis
    mutandis, say, Western countries vs. Eastern, or North/South …)

    Maybe it’s the trotskyist heritage in Old Europe that made us
    so averse to that kind of boldly stated nationalism.

    I hope you’re not offended by that comment, as I don’t even
    write it as a criticism myself. However, it _is_ a fascinating
    cultural difference.

    Thanks for one of my favourite blogs – please keep it up!

  15. #15 rabel
    June 12, 2006

    Myself and a couple of the other people I spoke with afterwards also felt like Clark’s comments re: “God made this..” were out of place. I was also irked that Wes took up so much time which left hardly any time for the others.

    I was trying to see cringing from PZ whenever Clark made God comments, but I must say that Dr Myers was strictly professional and even clapped at the right moments. No fireworks at all. Darn.

    Had the line to ask questions (*not* to comment, damnit) not been so long, I was going to ask about “fighting religion.” It seems to me that it’s not good enough to simply promote science, but that religion must also be fought from the other direction. I understand that these are two separate fights and that people like Wesley Clark are pro-science theists. I just think that it’s only one half of the battle against ignorance to just try to promote science.

    So, my question would have been “wouldn’t it also be appropriate to take on religious beliefs in a similar manner as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins in order to promote rational thinking? This would seem to me to be an important other side of the same coin that would be promoting science.”

    As an added bonus, not only would I have gotten to see Wesley Clark attempt to salvage his rational thinking in light of his religious beliefs while also running for national office in a country that is rapidly becoming a theocracy, perhaps there could have been some familiar PZ comments that we all appreciate so much around here.

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