Once again, apologies must be made for slacking off on the posting front because of travel — who knew physics-minded science writers could be such a jet-setting bunch? We are blogging today from the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, where I am attending the YearlyKos bloggers convention, taking in lots of earnest, thought-provoking sessions on the sad state of the nation, while Jen-Luc Piquant plays Cyberhooky and indulges in the many temptations this city has to offer… even, apparently, to a pixelated avatar. ("What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas!" Jen-Luc admonishes me, so accounts of her (mis)adventures will be suitably censored.)
Obviously, we here at Cocktail Party Physics were especially intrigued by the science blogging sessions organized by Stephen Darksyde, who blogs over at DailyKos. Last night I attended a special "caucus" for science bloggers. I was unsure of what this would entail. Frankly, we were hoping for a cocktail party/mixer type atmosphere, if only because we collect specialty science-themed drinks for our own amusement and edification (see sidebar). When Jen-Luc realized alcohol would be lacking, she waltzed off on the arm of a hotel pool boy — who clearly likes his women animated — not to be seen again ’til morning. ("What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas…")
I stayed to listen to all the fine folks in attendance, even though from a distance the gathered caucus looked suspiciously like an AA meeting or a church bible study group. At times it seemed more like a bitch session to vent (admittedly well-founded) frustration at things like the anti-global warming/anti-science coalition, Intelligent Design — which keeps cropping up between the cracks of the educational system’s pavement no matter how much weed killer one seems to dump on it — and the age-old tension between science and religion. But ultimately I found it very thought-provoking, and will be mulling over some of the deeper implications of the points raised over the next few days, while the ever-frivolous Jen-Luc Piquant fleeces tourists at the poker tables and cavorts with
male strippers Esteemed Members of the Adult Service Profession (EMASP).
These are all valid, very pressing concerns for anyone who cares in the least about scientific truth; I have blogged about them myself on occasion. In the current environment, science necessarily has a political component, and it is definitely under attack by those who would really prefer that all those arrogant PhD killjoys would just keep their inconvenient truths to themselves, rather than challenging cherished beliefs. It’s cathartic to complain in unison among a gathering of like-minded folk, yes indeed, but what comes after one has vented one’s spleen about the latest anti-science outrage?
Fortunately, DarkSyde (as moderator) steered things into a more proactive discussion about how the blogging medium might be a useful tool for science education and outreach — not just to counter the pernicious spread of what can only be described as a lack of critical thinking, but also to share the joy and excitement of scientific discovery (which is, ultimately, how you’re going to draw people in). Clearly, we need to foster a desire to think and reason and explore the unknown, to challenge their own preconceived assumptions, even if it means ultimately abandoning outmoded beliefs. That is the foundation for the scientific method. As one caucus participant rightly pointed out, science is less about being a collection of known facts, and more about fostering a rigorous way of thinking. The problem is that people want to believe; they don’t necessarily want to think, and they
tend to flock towards like-minded folks to ensure their beliefs aren’t
challenged very much. That’s a tough nut to crack. How do you counter
that kind of willful resistance?
Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, pointed out that a big part of the problem is how much easier it is to cast doubt and spread misinformation about, say, global warming, in a sound bite — he called it "the Swift-boating of science" — than it is to counter such an attack. It certainly takes more than a one-word sound bite to do so, which is why propaganda and smear tactics are so effective when it comes to election campaigns. I said in an earlier post that perhaps we need to be a bit more ruthless and really go on the offensive when it comes to such things, perhaps make use of some of those same propagandistic tools. Up till now, we’ve mainly been playing defense, which is good for holding steady, but rarely leads to decisive victories. We’re treading water on a sea of willful scientific ignorance, and making very little headway.
Maybe it’s time to take the gloves off. Bloggers in particular have a potentially powerful weapon at their disposal. The blogosphere provides an effective communication mechanism for
combatting disinformation and "Swift-Boat Science," in part by giving working scientists from every field
imaginable a highly accessible, broad public forum in which to speak
their truth — using a format that, by its very nature, encourages comments and interaction between scientists and the public.
This morning even Jen-Luc managed to wake up in time to sit in on the communicating science session, featuring a keynote address by General Wesley Clark, as well as talks by Mooney and Pharyngula’s P.Z. Myers, plus a brief humorous look at the Darwin awards by Wendy Northcutt. (Jen-Luc admired her fetching blue flowered hat.) Many similar themes were sounded from the caucus the night before, but Mooney in particular made an impassioned call to action, not just in terms of legislative changes to protect the integrity of scientists working in and for government agencies. He and Myers both advocated increased local involvement by scientists and the scientifically literate civilians, especially on school boards, to ensure rigorous science curriculum standards remain in place. (Myers pointed out that many teachers are nonetheless too intimidated to teach much in the way of evolution, but more vocal public support could help.)
The YearlyKos event was organized, in part, to mobilize some of those scattered forces for The Cause. This particularly gathering is overtly political, and of the liberal Democrat ilk, and not necessarily concerned only with science. But for the sake of science, I hope we can also reach across political barriers. The cliche "There’s strength in numbers" is a mainstay because it’s true; we need all the soldiers we can muster to fight off the attacks on science. Science may have a political component, but that doesn’t mean it has to be bitterly partisan. I was pleased to read (courtesy of 3 Quarks Daily) of a new group, Conservatives Against Intelligent Design, that demonstrates that champions of science are not limited to liberal Democrats. Nor are all Christians marching to the relentless drumming of the right-wing conservatives, evidenced by the growing number of liberal-leaning born-again advocates for protecting the environment from global warming. The naysayers on both sides are becoming a bit more vocal — an encouraging trend.
Ultimately, the specifics of how one chooses to go about combatting anti-science and fostering critical thinking is best left to individual preference. If we’re all working together, then each of us an approach, or message (even an overt political stance), that will appeal to any given subgroup. Everyone will have their own target audience, big or small.
What’s important is that we speak out strong and often, and start holding politicians (from all parties), CEOs, public figures, teachers, or whomever accountable when they twist science for political gain or to advance an ideological agenda — whether it be pressuring NASA climatologists to squelch evidence for
global warming, strong-arming the FDA into withholding approval of an
over-the-counter version of the Plan B contraceptive, or intimidating school teachers into never uttering the dreaded "E" word ("E-volution!"). In fact, any attempt by a political figure to mislead the public about scientific evidence should be grounds for dismissal. Vote them out, and pronto. It’s a small step, but it’s a start, and hopefully the first of many in what will no doubt be a very long struggle. Jen-Luc Piquant, for one, was inspired by this morning’s speakers to henceforth forego the temptations of the great city of Vegas and officially go on the warpath.