Science Escape 2008

Chris Mooney visited Union on Wednesday, talking to two classes (one Environmental Studies class, and one class on presidential politics), and giving an evening lecture titled “Science Escape 2008.” He’s an excellent speaker, so if you’re looking for someone to give a talk about science and politics, you could do a whole lot worse.

I enjoyed the evening talk quite a bit, in part because it echoed a lot of things I said in my talk at the Science21 meeting last month (video, live-blogging), thus reassuring me that I’m not a lone crank on these issues. He talked about his experience with ScienceDebate 2008, noting that while it managed some good things, it was ultimately a failure, because they didn’t manage to penetrate the mass media, and get the debate idea picked up. He went on to examine the reasons for this failure, which he attributed to a larger disconnect between science and mass culture in four areas: politics, media, entertainment, and religion. He closed with a few thoughts about what we can hope to do to close these gaps.

On the political front, he noted that there’s a bad mismatch between most scientific problems and the way that politics is done. Scientists make lousy politicians, and scientific research isn’t done in ways that map well onto political timescales and processes.

This bleeds over into the problems with the media, in that responsible science always involves slow processes and lots of uncertainty, which don’t provide the sort of narrative that modern media organizations need. Add to that the fragmentation of the modern media landscape into a myriad of cable channels and programming niches, and it’s really difficult for science to get any penetration of the attention marketplace.

In the entertainment world, science continues to be plagued by image problems. Scientists continue to be portrayed as either hopeless geeks or megalomaniacs, and when science figures in the plots of movies and tv shows, there’s no effort to make the science remotely plausible.

And, of course, the disconnects between science and religion have been documented at excruciating length.

The consequence of these disconnects are plain to everyone– science is largely disregarded in making policy decisions, even when scientific analysis would be crucial for good policymaking. In order to fix this, we need to close some of those gaps in understanding, and better science outreach is a key to this. We need to do a better job of communicating science to the public.

In order for this to happen, Mooney argued, we need to see some cultural changes in science, where public communication has long been devalued. (This is where his talk and mine overlap quite a bit…) He illustrated this with the example of Carl Sagan‘s exclusion from the National Academy of Sciences. Though he was a successful researcher and arguably the most effective popularizer of science in the last several decades, Sagan’s nomination for the Academy was actively opposed by some members, and he fell short of the supermajority needed for election in a vote of the full membership. This is indicative, Mooney argued, of the low esteem scientists have for popularizers, and that’s something that will need to change in order to improve the standing of science in our culture.

However, the change we need doesn’t have to be traumatic. In a weird way, the dismal job situation for science grads– only 7% of Ph.D.’s get a tenure-track faculty position before age 35, something like 65% of science graduates end up working in other fields, etc. He argued that we ought to look at the large numbers of un- and under-employed science majors as a resource of sorts– that with some training in effective communication, many of these people could become “science ambassadors,” and help to communicate science to the public in a way that would benefit science as a whole. To say nothing of giving some of these people better jobs than they might otherwise have.

He had two concrete suggestions that struck me as interesting, and worthy of mention. One was to create programs and opportunities for science students to learn more about communication and politics. Legislation requiring something along these lines from the NSF was introduced in Congress at some point, but it got absorbed into the America COMPETES act, and watered down to the point of meaninglessness, but something along these lines might be a good first step.

His other suggestion was even simpler: that scientists and wealthy supporters of science ought to organize a PAC, like every other lobby. They should collect a large sum of money, and use it to influence politics directly– he suggested identifying something like ten Congressional races where science issues were potentially important, and making campaign contributions to pro-science candidates. There could be five “Friends of Science,” for example, who would get money directly, and five “Foes of Science,” whose opponents would get contributions.

While this is in some ways depressingly conventional, it’s also probably the most realistic suggestion I’ve heard about how to approach the issue. Money talks, after all, and it wouldn’t actually require that much money to tip some close races. In which case, candidates might start to pay a little more attention to science issues. There’s no reason why scientists can’t play the game in the same way as everybody else.

(This idea interacts oddly with Garrett Lisi’s utopian idea of getting rich fans of science to let scientists live and work in their vacation homes…)

This was a new talk for Chris, at least in this form, though you wouldn’t’ve known from his delivery. It’s also apparently a good preview of the forthcoming book that he and Sheril Kirshenbaum are working on. It’s going to be called Unscientific America (at least that’s the plan), and should be out next year. Look for it in fine bookstores everywhere.

Comments

  1. #1 yogi-one
    October 24, 2008

    Good points.

    The process of making science more integrated onto public policy and public awareness is fraught with potential downfalls.

    Politicizing science, even if, as you argue, that’s necessary, is risky business. The greedy instincts of cronyism are lurking around every corner. Money bags will want their pet project funded. Industries will want their products pushed onto the public (a-la fast-tacking dug approval and other such nefarious practices).

    I would point to the spectacular failure of politicizing religion. Politicizing religion reduces the Church to a PAC, and brings out the worst in politically ambitious preachers. You end up with candidates having to “defend their faith,” and religious slurs being used as campaign propaganda. Yuck.

    In short, human nature is going to be the toughest challenge when it comes to politicizing science.

    I think the key is teaching more science to schoolkids. If people grow up respecting and becoming (somewhat) knowledgeable about science, then that would eliminate the need for a large amount of thew “popularizing” because science would already have a strong presence in the public awareness.

    Nevertheless I like the idea of “science advocates” in the community doing stuff like giving basic science classes and presentations to the general public.

    But science, if highly popularized, can run into the same phenomenon we see in the arts. What becomes massively accepted and popular will probably never be the same as what is palatable to very experienced scientists engaged in pure research, much in the same way that a lot of aficionados and highly skilled musicians and artists scoff at what has become popular art and music.

    But if science becomes more popular, at least you won’t have to convince people of the validity of science, and hopefully won’t have to continue fending off ideas that science is a belief system, or that the Biblical literalism is right and science is wrong, as is the case today.

  2. #2 Comrade PhysioProf
    October 26, 2008

    In order to fix this, we need to close some of those gaps in understanding, and better science outreach is a key to this. We need to do a better job of communicating science to the public.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the premise of this post: that science and scientists are misrepresented in our society and are misunderstood by most Americans. However, I disagree that the solution is to do a better job of communicating science to the public.

    The public doesn’t give a shit about the content or methodology of science, any more than they do about the content and methodology of civil engineering. They just know that it’s important for the bridges they drive over to not fucking collapse.

    What we need to do is not a better job of communicating science per se to the public. We need to do a better job of communicating the importance of science to the public.

  3. #3 Ian Paul Freeley
    October 26, 2008

    That 7% figure has me depressed–where did it come from?

  4. #4 Philip H.
    October 28, 2008

    @ yogi-one “Politicizing science, even if, as you argue, that’s necessary, is risky business. The greedy instincts of cronyism are lurking around every corner. Money bags will want their pet project funded. Industries will want their products pushed onto the public (a-la fast-tacking dug approval and other such nefarious practices).”

    Sadly, this is all to often the norm these days, and the scientific community has not yet responded within the political sphere. Like it or not, Science as we know, love, and practice it, is used every day in politically driven policy decisions. Lack of an effective umbrella organization to lobby for science is why the IPCC consensus opinions on global warming (which are almost unheard of in science incidentally) can be so easily turned aside by the likes of Chevron and BP so that real energy reform stalls in Congress. Teaching more science to school kids is a great thing, and I’m all for it – but then again I am all for the benefits of recess, and we seem to be stripping that away too.

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