The kerfuffle of the moment in the science blogosphere once again relates to Chris Mooney, who is pretty much a kerfuffle looking for a place to happen at this point. This time around it centers around a Washington Post op-ed that is basically the executive summary of a American Academy of Arts and Sciences paper that is itself the executive summary version of a series of four workshops on science and the public. You can get a reasonable sense of the kerfuffle from the links in Chris’s responses to the responses.
I’m currently making one of my intermittent attempts to be a better person– trying to eat less, biking to work, etc– so I did the responsible blogger thing and read the whole AAAS paper (which you can download for free at the link above), and I’m baffled. Not by the paper itself, which is very clearly written and not overly complicated.
I’m baffled by the reaction.
As I said,t he paper is a summary of a set of four workshops discussing different aspects of science communication, relating to specific problems with both technical and policy aspects: Nuclear energy and nuclear waste, the Internet, genetic testing, and new energy technologies. It pulls examples from all four to show how communication breakdowns between scientists and the general public exacerbate problems with the development of these fields, and how this is not just a matter of an ill-informed public, but is partly do to failures on the part of scientists and policy makers, who don’t appreciate the real concerns motivating opposition to scientifically based policies. Public concerns are misunderstood or brushed off, people get upset by this, and by the time anybody understands what’s really wrong, the whole situation has become an intractable mess.
Nothing in the paper struck me as remotely controversial. Everything was backed up by anecdotes or references to prior studies of these communication issues, and the whole thing hangs together. The policy recommendations made in the paper– basically, that scientists and policy makers should get some social scientists to poke around and figure out what the likely trouble spots will be before important and expensive projects get too far along the path to implementation– strike me as perfectly sensible. If anything, it’s just a call for public institutions to do what private corporations have been doing for decades– nobody launches a major new product line without first doing some research into the potential market for it. (They don’t always do a good job of this, leading to some spectacular flops, but they at least make the effort…)
I honestly don’t see what the problem is, here. I didn’t find the argument muddled or confusing, I don’t find the recommendations offensive, I don’t really understand the kerfuffle. Is it just that Chris is blogospherically radioactive? Maybe, but then I’ve never really understood that, either.
The problem may just come down to the fact that none of my oxen are being gored, here– none of the issues talked about are things where I have a huge personal stake in one side or the other. But ultimately, what he says makes sense to me. In fact, it seems almost too obvious to be controversial.
So, what gives?