Slow Blogging Day--For a Good Cause

I am currently in Phoenix, Arizona, and Sheril is in the air over the United States on her way here. We're gathering at Arizona State University for an intense 24 hour meeting with Lawrence Krauss, Matthew Chapman, Shawn Otto, Darlene Cavalier, and others involved organizing in the ScienceDebate2008 push. Now's the time to take the incredible momentum that this initiative generated and figure out how to channel it towards further endeavors in 2009 and beyond.

To that end, we'd very much like to hear your suggestions about what ScienceDebate2008 should grow into, how it should evolve. Unfortunately, due to the meeting I don't think we'll get to blog much today and tomorrow, but we'll be reading comments. Thanks for tuning in, and we'll have more as soon as possible.

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You are a group of erudite stimulus in a very positive way, and I think that all of you might closly listen, monitor, guide, and sometimes even prod all the good people. Unfortunately, our economy is very sick, and patience may be in order for a while..

Intersection and the entire SciBlogs community are doing a great service in using the Internet to foster a conversation with the community. However, the community seems to be losing the war in the minds of many... or at least the image of science on the internet is being manipulated by such mechanisms as having Watts Up With That voted the best scientific blog for the WebLog awards.

Science Debate 2008 needs to reach the public and not just be a conversation with scientists.

Then, in watching the confirmation hearings for Dr. Chu this morning, two things became very evident. Dr. Chu will be confirmed and the prospects for making a dent in global warming are grim. When Sen Bayh (IN) said that he did not believe any global warming bill would pass this Congress unless we had a comprehensive, enforceable treaty with China first, it was clear that geopolitical concerns and economic growth will curtail any efforts that we make.

If there is anything that can be done to make clear the fact that sound ecological policy is not necessarily purely an economic cost, then we will have taken a major step. Unfortunately, we have to convince most Senators that they can do this and still get re-elected.

One other idea has been getting my attention recently. It is the power of systems thinking rather than the easy simplistic approaches to problems that we currently see. My best example is the Carbon Capture and Sequestration pilot project at Moss Landing, CA. The idea is to create a synergy by locating a cement manufacturing facility between a 1,000 megawatt gas-fired power plant and a desalination water plant. The flue gases from the power plant will be bubbled through sea water, allowing calcium and magnesium carbonated to be precipitated out...dried by excess heat from the flue gases... and the resulting water passed to the desalination facility where the cost of purification should be lessened. Best of all, the cement needs no additional heat nor does it make additional CO2 as you get from cement plants that heat limestone. The pilot operation can produce up to 10 tons of cement per day.

I offer this as just one example of the idea that good science can produce economic results that are also good for the environment. Ecological awareness leads to systems thinking and needs to be required of all policy decisions.

At the risk of exposing my inside the Beltway Mentality - I think Science Debate needs to keep doing what it did best - advocating for the use of good sound science as a prime driver in policy decisions at the national level. How do you do that? Well, I'll leave that up to the group.

No grandiose suggestions but two points that have always been on my mind:
1. Better postdoc salaries to partially encourage students to get into grad school
2. As Einstein said. "All of science is nothing but a refinement of everyday thinking". I think one of the most important things that we scientists can do is to convince laymen that science is nothing but a more rigorous and careful extension of the critical thinking which they use in everyday life to make mundane and important decisions. This will help to blur the boundary that many lay people see in science being something "different" that always needs specialized education and knowledge to comprehend. That's one of the most important ways in which I think lay people can be encouraged to integrate science into their national dialogue

I would like to see more discussion about how science actually gets used in crafting policy. Just having an ostensibly science-based process doesn't mean that the best science is actually getting used.

For example, the "no net loss" policy in wetland management is ostensibly science-based - if you destroy wetland, you have to make new wetland. But there's lots of science showing that created wetlands do not provide the same habitat or ecosystem services as the original wetlands.

OK, FWIW. On an obvious level, you should to try to figure out what kind of vacuum you filled with the science debate idea, and how you might keep filling it. What got everyone energized? Maybe you could come up with a mission statement that would put things succinctly, and use that to found a non-profit, one that would fill a need not presently served.

Here's my shot in the dark as to what that might be: You could form a "Better Business Bureau" for science. Scientists could call you up when their work is being misrepresented in a public forum (newspaper article, speech, etc.) You could then issue an opinion backed up by the experts. Shoddy reporting happens to scientists all the time. This would give scientists recourse when bad reporting happens. You could then do a running tally of your opinions, showing that CNN reported bad science X number of times. Fox misrepresented things Y number of times. One reporter has had these mistakes, for a total of Z over the past N years. Then organizations and reporters would have to compete in order not to screw up.

You might do the same for political campaigns. Perhaps come up with questions for future debates, etc., arbitrate public statements, etc.

Crucially, you should join forces with a conservative who cares about science. You could find one who could argue conservative "first principles," as well as science. They've read their Russell Kirk. So they would have some cred with political types. And they'd also have to be willing and able to stand up to movement conservatives when attacked. On some things they might actually dissent from you. And that would be fine, kind of like a panel of judges issuing opinions.

Anyway, these are my ideas off the top of my head. Maybe it's been tried before, and there are problems I'm not seeing, etc...

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 13 Jan 2009 #permalink

I said: "You could form a "Better Business Bureau" for science."

Science journalism, that should be. But you get the idea...

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 14 Jan 2009 #permalink

Another thing that could possibly be done would be to arrange annual or bi-annual science workshops for senators and congressmen to educate them about the most pressing scientific issues of our time. At these workshops you could have top scientists giving talks about stem cells, climate change and biodiversity as well as about science education. I suspect more than a few officials would be ready to sign up.

You could call the politician workshops "No Politician Left Behind" I kidd, I kidd, as always.

I think a way to keep making announcements and influencing the news would be a good plan. I like Jon's suggestion of a "Better Science Journalism" approach, which could be very useful when the research of scientists is misrepresented. Kind of like a Union of Concerned Scientists but less politically motivated. Responses can be crafted to objections to the Lenski paper, global warming research, and even anti-genetic engineering misrepresentations that come out too. (A British news agency called The Independent turned one study inside out and got it way wrong.)…

The science workshops wound good, perhaps in order to get the congresspersons to show up, it might be good to enlist some scientists that the politicians would be thrilled to meet in the first place. (You've got some already in your membership)

My suggestion is to make the function of the organization something more than just in the election cycle. That will help keep the membership and attention, which will help when it comes to the election cycles themselves.

I'm very late to comment, but if you continue with Science Debate in 2009, I strongly encourage you to stay focus on the "science-must-be-a-part-of-the-political-life" idea. It is why you succeeded in many ways in 2008, and it is what makes you unique.

Here in Quebec, we created a similar initiative, inspired by Science Debate: a petition, and a podcast, and some efforts to "infiltrate" the political debate. But we've also tried something that I think you should try too: regional debates. In other words, why not have science debates between regional candidates, on regional topics?

With a group of students, a first "Je vote pour la science" debate has been organized December 3rd, in a 50 000 people city, a few days before the Quebec provincial elections. I think in the U.S., you would have far more opportunities to emulate this. Good luck.