Science Is Interested in You

A few days ago, I complained again about the relative lack of science books in the New York Times “Notable Books of 2008″ list. Yesterday, one of the big stories was CNN axing its entire science unit, such as it was, which drew comments from lots of blogs (and more whose links I can’t be bothered to track down).

I’m probably the only one who thinks this, but in my opinion, these two are related. I’m not saying one caused the other, but that they’re both symptoms of the same thing: the broad lack of respect for science among educated people. (Which I’ve ranted about before.)

One of the comments to the “Notable Books” post captures it nicely:

Also, I’m assuming that most people who end up at newspapers are going to be coming from literary or political backgrounds, which of course suggests they are going to find those kinds of works more compelling.

This is the problem in a nutshell. If I were to say to one of these people “You know, I’m just not interested in politics,” they would be horrified, and rightly so. I should be interested in politics, because politics is interested in me. No matter what I think, politics will have a major effect on my life, through the decisions made by my government and others.

But if somebody says “I’m just not interested in science,” that’s met with a shrug or, worse yet, a nod. The general lack of interest in science is just One Of Those Things.

But an interest in science is just as important as an interest in politics, for exactly the same reasons. Whether you’re interested in science or not, science is interested in you.

Many of the largest dangers facing us require some knowledge of science to understand and confront.

Are you worried about global warming? Should you be worried about global warming? Understanding the dangers posed by climate change and evaluating policies toward it require some understanding of science. How do we know the Earth is warming? What will happen when the temperature increases? What can be done to mitigate or avoid the problems? These are essentially scientific questions.

What about bird flu? MRSA? AIDS? Pandemic disease is something that can only be understood and combatted through science. Are we all going to get wiped out by some disease? What steps should we take to avoid being wiped out by disease? These are essentially scientific questions.

Science even turns up in places you might not expect, like terrorism policy. Should we really fear a “dirty bomb?” What about nuclear terrorism? Chemical or biological weapons? Evaluating these dangers requires scientific information and a scientific mindset. The question of how big a risk these things are properly involves not just “can Scary People get these weapons,” but also questions like “how much damage can these weapons do?” which are essentially scientific.

I’m upset about the lack of science book coverage in the Times for the same reason that I’m upset with CNN shutting down its science division: these are symptoms of, and aggravating factors for the general societal disinterest in science. And this is every bit as damaging to our society as the oft-denounced apathy regarding politics.

Many of our biggest political fuck-ups can be directly traced to a lack of respect for science. Energy policy, public health policy, security policy: all of these things have been bungled badly in large part because they have been approached in an unscientific manner.

Turning that around will require not only replacing the bunglers and con men at the top of the administration, but also instilling a respect for science in the broader society. And both the CNN shutdown and the lack of respect for science in the Times book reviews move in exactly the wrong direction. The message is the same for both: politics and literature are things that smart people find interesting and important, while science is disposable– if you’re into it, great, but it’s really not that important.

Comments

  1. #1 Markk
    December 5, 2008

    Hey you hit one of my sore points so a rant!

    I think it is actually even a little worse than you say because it isn’t science that is going to touch you back in a lot of those fields its technology. One step removed. You can understand a device and how to use it or program it, or even build it, but if you do not understand the natural principles which govern its use then it is “magic”. Even many people who think they are scientifically literate are to me technologically literate but don’t look beyond the knobs and dials.

    That is not a bad thing most of the time. We only have so many minutes in our lives so we have to just use things. But not understanding the science means we are in a made up world where we don’t make decisions based on real relationships, but rather how we see engineered items behave. That means generally bad decisions and decisions that we see later as bad because we understand the little knobs, so we can predict the immediate effects, but we don’t see the big levers behind the scene that come back and hit us later.

    This understanding is hard, it is NOT like a bicycle, let it go and it will degenerate quickly. Everyone has to work at it for every issue they look at over and over. That is why understanding the process of science is key, and why constant exposure is important. I think anyway. And so these newspaper decisions are really bad and just another point showing that many mass media outlets are not up to snuff.

  2. #2 a little night musing
    December 5, 2008

    I’m probably the only one who thinks this, but in my opinion, these two are related.

    You’re not the only one. I’ve been wanting to write a post like this, but you’ve said it so much better than I would have. Thanks.

  3. #3 John Novak
    December 5, 2008

    Enh.

    I may be quibbling, here, but I find myself ambivalent here, in the classic sense of almost literally being of two minds on the subject.

    On the one hand, yes, I agree that there is a broad and profound disrespect for science, engineering, and mathematics in popular culture. I agree that this is a problem. I agree that if something can be done about this, we’d all be better off.

    On the other hand, there are a lot of worthy subjects that I’m just not interested in, either, and I know the same is true for you; this makes it very hard for me to start placing an obligation on other people to be interested in what interests me. Further, implicitly calling someone a lout because they’re not interested in science strikes me as being about as useful, overall, as calling someone a lout because they believe in Creationism. True, perhaps, but unlikely to have persuasive power.

    On the third hand, there is a self-labelled class of people who call themselves “intellectual,” on the notion that they’re interested in everything interesting and can use everything useful. And the number of self-appointed intellectuals who cop the same attitude is shockingly high, too. Those people have earned my proper scorn. If I can read history and philosophy, those guys can damn well educate themselves on basic math and science.

    To the degree that the newspaper and journalism class consider themselves part of the intellectual class, I think my meandering response just moved me to a position of greater agreement than I started out with.

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    December 5, 2008

    On the third hand, there is a self-labelled class of people who call themselves “intellectual,” on the notion that they’re interested in everything interesting and can use everything useful. And the number of self-appointed intellectuals who cop the same attitude is shockingly high, too. Those people have earned my proper scorn. If I can read history and philosophy, those guys can damn well educate themselves on basic math and science.

    That’s exactly the group I’m talking about. I don’t think it’s too far off to associate them with the Times book section, either– that’s their audience, and they play to it. I wouldn’t make the same complaint about a lack of science book reviews in, say, People, because they’re not pretending to be an intellectual forum.

    I should also note that this is not wholly a media problem. Scientists are, sadly, complicit in this, being far too accepting of the widespread ignorance of and distate for science. We as a community don’t do a good job of conveying the interest and importance of what we do to the general public, largely because all the incentives of the scientific community push people in the opposite direction.

    That needs to change, as well as the media attitude.

  5. #5 bcooper
    December 5, 2008

    On the other hand, there are a lot of worthy subjects that I’m just not interested in, either, and I know the same is true for you; this makes it very hard for me to start placing an obligation on other people to be interested in what interests me. Further, implicitly calling someone a lout because they’re not interested in science strikes me as being about as useful, overall, as calling someone a lout because they believe in Creationism. True, perhaps, but unlikely to have persuasive power.

    I think this is a pretty good view of things.

    A few comments:

    Your general argument that not caring about science is “one of those things” is true, but I’d say politics is pretty similar. The Bush years have polarized a lot of people, but I’d say I still have a decent number of friends who seem pretty apolitical and I’m not sure that it’s shocking anyone.

    This argument that the average person should know more science because there are lots of important problems that demand scientific analysis seems like a red herring to me. I certainly agree that there are lots of those problems. But, having a scientific background doesn’t make me more qualified to hold forth on pandemics or climate change in and of itself. To have an informed opinion on either of those subjects is going to demand a lot of work tracking down sources and reading them and thinking about them. At the end of the day, there are just a humongous number of things that need our attention and there’s no substitute for specialization. Once people are specialized enough knowing “science” is probably not going to be that big of a help.

    I think the one thing that a broad feel for science has to offer in these spots is the concept of arguing from evidence. But I think it’s very possible to have people who are fairly ignorant of much of the specifics of science that accept that evidentiary support is a good thing to have. Once you’ve crossed that line, having time and interest to tackle issues like climate change is the real problem; I think that anybody genuinely interested enough in these problems to do that is also going to spend enough time to get some familiarity with the scientific claims being made. (If we want to talk about the problem where people in government are more interested in hewing to a political ideology than following good science, that is a separate discussion, but yeah, that’s obviously bad.)

  6. #6 Taffe
    December 5, 2008

    Ok then, what should scientists be doing, individually or as a community? Maybe the masses just plain find political info more interesting. I mean hell, you had to use dog fans as a hook for your popular book, right?

  7. #7 Coriolis
    December 5, 2008

    The current consensus is apparently that we have a failure of marketing – we’re doing great science but we’re not letting people know. I don’t know that that’s really the case.

    While this is far from a popular opinion in most modern circles, I think the fundamental problem with physics at least (can’t speak about the others), is that we’re just not doing such impressive science these days.

    The Manhattan project, resulting in nuclear bombs and nuclear power was pretty damn impressive, despite (or because) of being scary. Going to the moon was also a big and interesting project that alot of people who wouldn’t know F=ma from random graffiti could care about. We just don’t have that type of large, but understandable projects that random people can know and care about anymore.

    And it’s not as if one cannot imagine such projects – a large scale effort to make an efficient source of renewable energy seems like the most obvious one, but I’m sure there are more.

  8. #8 kent
    December 5, 2008

    They are so short-sighted. Hmmm, maybe they feel they are not earning from it. Everything is just a money matter… I guess.

  9. #9 APP
    December 5, 2008

    @Coriolis:

    You may be right that physics isn’t that impressive these days (both in terms of fundamental discoveries, and in new physics with practical applications). Surely there is a lot of new technology that depends on “old” physics, though, and that should be relevant. LHC grabbed some attention when it ramped up the first time, but mostly because someone claimed it would destroy the world. Impressive and scary! (though wrong.)

    Fundamental new stuff is going on in other fields, especially biology. Unfortunately, biology news in popular media is heavily weighted towards “This will someday cure cancer!” or “Today, broccoli is bad for you!” type stories.

    (I say this as a physicist.)

  10. #10 APP
    December 5, 2008

    But, having a scientific background doesn’t make me more qualified to hold forth on pandemics or climate change in and of itself. To have an informed opinion on either of those subjects is going to demand a lot of work tracking down sources and reading them and thinking about them. At the end of the day, there are just a humongous number of things that need our attention and there’s no substitute for specialization. Once people are specialized enough knowing “science” is probably not going to be that big of a help.

    You really believe that a background in any science doesn’t make you more qualified to follow an argument based on a different science? I don’t feel like I need a research background in a particular field to have some feel for which arguments are seriously contended among experts, and which are just challenged from outside (e.g. climate doubters, creation science). Nonscientists tend to hear two sides of an issue and say, “someone says X, someone else says Y, I guess its 50-50 who’s right.”

    I think the one thing that a broad feel for science has to offer in these spots is the concept of arguing from evidence.

    I agree that’s important. Perhaps even more important is to have some feel for what is even conceivably possible. I often have students ask me about how the world is going to end in 2012, or that Mars is going to be closer to us than the Moon next week. Quantitative skills that give me a feel for exponential growth and numbers larger than experienced in daily life enable me to understand the current financial crisis in ways that people not trained in science (or economics) can (though I won’t claim my understanding is deep, but I’ve seen people in the media trying to simplify the story miss something by 3 orders of magnitude).

  11. #11 Peter List
    December 6, 2008

    Some questions: Are these people really “educated” if they do not appreciate the value of science for society and have little interest in understanding what this is? What kind of education have they really had anyway if this is their orientation?

    I think it is disgusting that reputable science has been ignored, distorted, squashed, and pushed aside by the Bush administration in the past eight years. There has been a blatant disregard for scientific opinion and truth on many issues that are critical to our future well-being. Let’s hope that there is a full restoration of science and scientific consultation in all matters important to our society, during President Obama’s years as our leader.

  12. #12 Charles Daney
    December 6, 2008

    Some things to think about:

    What if literature, politics, or philosophy (say) were written about in media read by the elite in the same dumbed down, gussied up way in which science is ofter written about in similar places (e. g. N. Y. Times and glossy popular science magazines)?

    Would not readers start to draw the conclusion that science is not serious intellectual fare, and that the “technical” details which are left out are probably of interest only to nerdy technicians?

    If intelligent people are never confronted and challenged with the real red meat of scientific topics, is it surprising if they conclude there isn’t any important substance?

    There was a time when philosophers actually contributed to science and mathematics. Sometimes they did it well (Leibniz), sometimes poorly (Hobbes), but at least they considered it worth their time.

    But today, how often do philosophers or other “humanists” attempt to actually get their hands dirty in science, except for people like Dennett or folks attracted to the mysteries of QM? Or else people who want to do superficial critiques in a sociological mode.

    Cue C. P. Snow….

  13. #13 bcooper
    December 6, 2008

    What if literature, politics, or philosophy (say) were written about in media read by the elite in the same dumbed down, gussied up way in which science is ofter written about in similar places (e. g. N. Y. Times and glossy popular science magazines)?

    Generally, they are. Do you think that the NYT is the apex of political and philosophical discussion?

    You really believe that a background in any science doesn’t make you more qualified to follow an argument based on a different science?

    It probably makes it easier for me to follow aspects of the argument if I spend the time to study the matter deeply, but it’s not really a substitute for that study. My point was that people without the science background coming at the subject might be inclined to learn what they need for that subject, provided they are interested in learning and not grinding a particular axe. (I guess you could argue that these people are temperamentally like scientists already, though I think a lot of scientists turn that part of their brain off when it gets political, too.) You raise good points in that having some sense for what is generally possible would be helpful; we don’t need people looking for a perpetuum mobile to solve the energy crisis. But good literature on the subject at hand should address this kind of stuff anyway.

    This sorta ties in to what some other people are saying about the relevance of science. I think people are going to be a lot more inclined to learn scientific facts in particular cases if you can make it relevant to something they care about. This suggests to me that the main problem isn’t scientific ignorance, it’s that enough people just don’t care enough.

  14. #14 John Novak
    December 6, 2008

    Here is something else that bothers me about the reflexive comparison between science and politics: for most people, there is an important– a fundamental– divide between politics and science in their lives.

    Politics, in reasonable places, is not only something that people should be engaged in, it’s something that people can be engaged with. Even if the only level of political engagement most people have is voting, that is still a real and measureable level of activity. The liklihood that an election (national, state, local, or even IEEE chapter) hinging on my vote is small, but I still have a say in the matter, and I am still meshed in a system that is wired to splash cash around trying to get my attention, inform me (or deceive me), and get me to make and record decisions. The state is then forced to actually listen to me and my aggregate fellows.

    You don’t have to be a politician to “do” politics in this sense.

    Science, though, isn’t like that at all. In the main, lay people don’t “do” science because they can’t “do” science to any meaningful degree. Science does not (and should not!) seek the opinions of lay people, because if we did that, we’d end up with biology books that have torturous explanations of why God killed the dinosaurs in the Great Flood. So even though you titled your entry, “Science Is Interested In You,” I think it’s actually just the opposite. And most people, not being completely stupid, know this on some level, and disengage. (Or at least, never fully engage.)

    I can’t help but feel that the comparison between political engagement and scientific engagement is an unhelpful one, unless it recognizes this basic fact, and uses it to craft a strategy that might actually work.

  15. #15 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 6, 2008

    “You don’t have to be a politician to ‘do’ politics.”
    [#14, John Novak]

    You don’t have to be a scientists to “do” science, either. Once in a while an amateur gets published in a peer-reviewed Math or Science journal. The housewife who found a new way to tessellate pentagons. The housewife who made a brilliant hypothesis about the evolution of menstruation. Once in an even longer while an amateur upsets the paradigmatic applecart.

    Once a century or so it does happen. Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Mendel, Darwin, Einstein (a patent clerk is an amateur in Science), Crick & Watson (who did not know Chemistry going in). But almost always, it leads to papers being rejected by referees and editors, frustration, and failure.

    But you can still try, against the odds, with courage and hope.

    “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
    Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘This Is My Story,’ 1937

  16. #16 sara
    December 7, 2008

    Actually, I think that “science” has been on the rise for a while. Just stay up a while and any colon cleanse and penile enlargement product is “scientifically formulated.” What is not much better is press-whore science, on the other side. Nano-futbol and nano-ramen is hopefully not the best we can do, but that is what gets press or maybe a feature in SNL Weekend Update. So scientists have an image problem, as usual.

  17. #17 John Novak
    December 7, 2008

    JVP, you’re missing the point entirely.

    First, on a practical basis: what is the ratio of published amateur scientists to members of the voting public? Despite low voter turnout, that ratio is nearly zero. On a related note, what is the difference in level of effort between getting yourself published, and keeping yourself generally informed and voting every other year?

    Second, on a perceptual basis: what does the general public think about this? I claim that the barrier is high but not insurmountable, but that the public believes it is simply insurmountable, period.

    I claim further that telling the public, “Hey, you should be interested in science– you might make a discovery and get published!” is as counter-productive as selling sports with the notion of, “You could be the next Michael Jordan!” That only works on kids, and doesn’t even have the advantage of leading to fame and fortune.

    This is an actual difference between science and politics as they are practiced and applied to life. Ignoring it seems foolish.

  18. #18 Chad Orzel
    December 7, 2008

    First, on a practical basis: what is the ratio of published amateur scientists to members of the voting public? Despite low voter turnout, that ratio is nearly zero. On a related note, what is the difference in level of effort between getting yourself published, and keeping yourself generally informed and voting every other year?

    I don’t think it’s reasonable to equate voting with producing publishable scientific results. You might be able to make a case for equating holding elective office with publishing a scientific paper, but not voting.

    The scientific activity equivalent to voting is, well, voting. Which is to say, supporting policies that have a solid scientific basis, and the politicians who support them.

    The phrase “science is interested in you” is largely a rhetorical flourish. The point is not that science wants or needs every citizen to run out and try to discover something, but that scientific issues will have a major impact on everybody, scientists and non-scientists alike, and as a result, it’s in the interest of every citizen to know enough about science and the scientific method to be able to make informed decisions.

    I’ll risk attempting another analogy, here: Economic issues will undoubtedly affect everybody. Does this mean that everybody should try to be a professional economist? No, but it does mean that a responsible citizen should know enough about the principles of economics to identify and support policies that make sense in economic terms. They don’t need to know all the fiddly details of monetary policy and international trade rules, but they need to know the broad outlines. Basically, any responsible voter should know slightly more about economics than John McCain.

    I don’t think we need everybody to “do” science in the sense of producing publishable scientific results, any more than we need everybody to do economics in the sense of producing publishable papers on economics issues. We do need people to understand science, though, in the same way that we need people to understand economics, so that they can make reasonable decisions about scientific and economic issues.

    (I would like to see people “do” science in the broadest and most inclusive sense of science as a process. I think if more people were in the habit of asking questions about the world around them, thinking up models that might explain the world, and testing those models by comparing them to observations and evidence, then the world would be a much better place than it is now. Sadly, that’s not even a widely used definition of “science,” let alone a common public practice.)

  19. #19 John Novak
    December 7, 2008

    No, voting is voting. Voting is part of the machinery of setting policy, which puts it in the realm of politics. To say that the science equivalent of voting is voting is just weird.

    And my point is that because politics and science are different animals, it is entirely reasonable that people react to and engage with politics in a different way than for science. If people did react and engage with them in the same ways, that’s what I would think would be baffling and absurd.

    Now, the journalist/intellectual class may be falling down here entirely. In fact, I’m pretty sure they are, and I’m not really disputing that. But in looking for a way to get more people interested in science, it helps to not confuse the issues, motivations and uses. That’s the basic problem with, “People should…” arguments. Yes, people should be more interested in science. Great. So what? You tell people that, and they will react exactly the same as you or I would when they say we should be more interested in religion– shrug, and go back to what they’re (or we’re) doing.

    Saying that people “should” be as interested in science as they are in politics– and in the same way– is likewise a recipe for failure because these are different activities. That, and the resulting differences in perception actually matter.

    You can either try to convince the journalism-intellectual-complex, or you can try to convince the masses directly, but “You should be interested in different things than you are,” is probably not a winning strategy, is all I’m saying. And part of it is that basic and real difference between politics and science.

  20. #20 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 7, 2008

    John Novak (#17) and Chad Orzel (#18) both make good points, and are not as far apart as it may seem. What little argument there is may be a matter of calibration. There is clearly a spectrum on “doing science” and a spectrum in “doing politics” and we are just quibbling about what spectral line matters most.

    Lines in Politics include:
    (1) Reading newspaper and magazine articles about political concerns and candidates;
    (2) Registering to vote;
    (3) Attending live political events (town council, city council, neighborhood watch, tour of state capitol; candidate’s speech or debate);
    (4) Participating in registering voters, or getting people to the polls, or being a poll volunteer, or the like;
    (5) Working on a candidate’s team (phonecalls, shoeleather, putting up posters, i.e. when I wrote speeches for Governor Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign);
    (6) Serving on a politician’s staff;
    (7) Running for office yourself;
    (8) serving in political office as I was elected Town Councilman in Amherst Massachusetts and Altadena, California).

    I think I posted a list on some other thread of the hierarchy of scientific publication, from xeroxed rants handed out in grocery store parking lots through one’s Nobel Prize or Field Medal acceptance speech.

    The key is to participate at SOME level. Harlan Ellison corrects people who say: “I’m entitled to my opinion.”

    “No you are not,” he says. “You are entitled to an INFORMED opinion.”

    So the obligation of citizenship is to have an INFORMED opinion on matters of Science and matters of Politics. Science is too important to be left to scientists alone. Politics is too important to be left to those in civil service.

  21. #21 Chad Orzel
    December 7, 2008

    You can either try to convince the journalism-intellectual-complex, or you can try to convince the masses directly, but “You should be interested in different things than you are,” is probably not a winning strategy, is all I’m saying.

    You’re right, I should totally do something else.

    Maybe I could set up some sort of a web page where people could post regular updates about cool topics in science, written for a general audience…

  22. #22 Larry Hotchkiss
    December 8, 2008

    Many interesting comments, but I failed to see one of the two more relevant items.
    Students in general are basically lazy, and peer pressure allows anyone who is prepared to work harder than average to be called a swat or other derogative term.
    The other item is of course money, which has been mentioned in passing. A school friend of mine who was undoubtedly a genius – He was a big guy and no-one would dare to call him a swat – went straight from college into research, but the financial rewards were so poor that he gave it up after a few years and became a dentist.
    So the answer is simple; better pay and a more sexy image.

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