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    Unscientific America -- Denying Science At Our Peril
    By David Brin | March 10th 2012 01:59 PM | 45 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About David

    David Brin is a scientist, public speaker, technical consultant and author of books including The Postman, Startide Rising, The Uplift War and Existence...

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    Increasingly, science is failing to influence public policy. Facts, statistics and data appear insufficient to change highly politicized minds... and science has started scrutinizing why.

    Chris Mooney, author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, has a new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don't Believe in Science, in which he describes how firmly some of our neighbors - even moderately well-educated ones - (and not just Republicans) - now cling to aphorisms, assertions and just-so stories in order to clutch a politically motivated view - or mis-view - of scientific data.  Misinformation persists – and propagates – about the dangers of vaccinations, the hazards of nuclear energy, the credibility of creation vs. evolution, and the preponderance of data supporting global warming. In case after politically-redolent case, we find that evidence has a limited power to persuade on hot button issues where deep emotions are involved.

    I agree with Mooney that this delusion-conviction effect has done grievous harm to our once-scientific and rational nation. Still, I have some interesting quibbles that we'll get to in a bit.

    Mooney describes in detail how bad it is - that millions of our neighbors deem facts to be malleably ignorable. For example, though soundly refuted by scientific studies, angry parents continue to believe their children acquired autism through vaccinations: "Where do they get their 'science' from? From the Internet, celebrities, other frantic-angry parents, and a few non-mainstream researchers and doctors who continue to challenge the scientific consensus, all of which forms a self-reinforcing echo chamber of misinformation," writes Mooney, noting that for every five hours of cable news, just one minute is devoted to science. In 2009, 15 year old U.S. students ranked 17th out of 34 developed countries in science. A firm foundation in science is fundamental to modern citizenship as well as our ability to innovate and succeed in a global economy.

    In fact, the “war on science” has ballooned long past any mere attack upon the credibility of researchers and professors.  It now manifests as a general “war on all knowledge castes” -- including teachers, economists, journalists, civil servants, medical doctors, skilled labor, judges, diplomats... everyone (in other words) who actually knows a lot. All kinds of well-educated smartypants-types are routinely attacked on certain "news"-networks. (Go ahead and name an exception; there are two, but can you think of them?)

    Science itself is turning attention to this problem and things are not looking good.  According to one study (via Mooney): “The result was stunning and alarming. The standard view that knowing more science, or being better at mathematical reasoning, ought to make you more accepting of mainstream climate science simply crashed and burned.” It was found that conservatives who knew more tended to dig in their heels against new facts or budging their views, using what they already knew as bulwarks against changing their minds.

    This did not hold for the other side. Educated liberals who were pre-disposed to be suspicious toward nuclear power nevertheless were adaptable when shown clear scientific data assuaging their fears.

    (While it is true that liberals pas this test re nuclear power and several other issues. Still,I would love to see this experiment done on liberals re: nature-vs-nurture issues!  See below.)

    Mooney concludes that even education fails to serve as “antidote to politically biased reasoning.”

    Take a look at this excerpt of Mooney's latest book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality (due out in April). It shows that our current Culture War is not about left vs right at all.  It is about two very different sets of personalities and worldviews.

    == The tricky Nostrums ==

    Naturally, the War on Science is not something that even Fox admits to be waging. Indeed, the claim has long been made - by among others the late sci fi author Michael Crichton - that it is scientists themselves who are betraying the fundamental ethos and principles of their calling,  For example, Crichton... and later many other apologists of the far right... denounced the very notion of "scientific consensus," claiming that the term represents a foul practice - scientists voting on what is true, or meekly accepting a single paradigm in any field, harrying and persecuting any who question or dissent against the standard theory. This has proved a powerful polemical tool, because modern citizens know that this would be wrong - a travestry-treason against science itself.  That is, if scientists were doing that.

    Indeed, there have been cases where it happened. These examples of group-think compliance or bullying by tenured savants are taught to young scientists - as examples of how it should not be done.

    And that's the point! "Scientific consensus" is used as a convenient button-phrase, a nostrum to attack scientists by proclaiming that they aren't objective, but lemming-like creatures, clustering around chanted litanies while conniving together in search of measly $50,000 grants. How ironic an example of the "mirror effect," in which partisans making an accusation perceive their enemies as having their own primary traits.

    In fact, scientists are the most competitive and creative our species ever produced.  They go at each other like fierce predators and gladiators, constantly sniffing for the slightest weakness.  There are no more "dangerous minds" than recently tenured professors whose main branch of research is going well, with steady funding.  These "young guns" are constantly on the look out for some gap or flaw in the standard model, or some venerable giant to slay, using a corner of their lab to pursue some side matter that could topple the paradigm and make their reputation.

    I have known many of these young guns... and their counterparts, the elderly scientists who consider their proper emeritus role to be that of shit-disturber! No matter where they live and work, they are the "most American" types alive today and that aspect of personality is one that should be emphasized, as we who want a future for our children push back against the War on Science.

    == Then does "scientific consensus" have any meaning? ==

    In fact, it does, though not not in the way the Michael Crichton meant.

    Where "consensus" applies in science is not in the determination of absolute, unassailable truth, but in rank-ordering models of the world. These models compete and destroy each other, a process in which "truth" retains fuzzy boundaries, even while it continually grows. No scientist expects the current model or paradigm in his or her field to last forever... or even beyond the next conference. Ninety-five percent of the time, the next model will be an iteration of the current one...though sometimes the iteration is a big one, as Einsteinian gravity added whole layers to Newton's mechanistic models, without removing a scintilla of their earlier and ongoing usefulness.

    Above all, this kind of "consensus" does not suppress competitive accountability and reasonable dissent.  At least, it doesn't very much.  Most of the time.

    But even this tentative and contingent kind of consensus -- a rank ordering of models -- is viewed as dangerous to the interests of powerful men, when it threatens to influence public policy. As it should. Might I ask - what other source of input should be more directly valid in affecting policy than the recommendations of 95% of the experts who actually know a lot about the topic in question? People who do not have billions riding on the matter?

    Can you see why undermining the credibility of science itself became a paramount matter, in certain quarters?  Why, for example, the GOP under Newt Gingrich dissolved every in-house scientific and technical advisory group when they took over Congress in 1995 and virtually banished expert testimony? Or why there is more than enough blame to heap onto the laps of Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats, for failing to correct this, when they had the chance?

    == Testimony from Seven Planets ==

    Scientific Consensus represents our best stab at modeling what at any given moment appears to be true. It is not some quasi religious cult thing but the best practical advice, gathered by the people who know the most.  Earnest, skilled men and women who have (for example) studied the atmospheres and climates of SEVEN PLANETS and who have transformed the Weather Report from a four hour joke into a mostly reliable ten day forecast that folks at Fox rely upon to plan their own vacations, a miracle, using the same formulae and mathematics that apply to climate change.  Imperfectly! Still, the credibility that they have earned... earned far more thoroughly than any politician, CEO or oligarch... ought to be a major influence on public policy -

    - especially when 99% of the experts in a scientific field warn of great danger. And when the folks agreeing with them include the US Navy and the Russian military, busy planning hard for an ice-free Arctic.

    Climate scientists aren't saying this is god-level truth. They are saying,"let's take prudent measures to prepare in case the best and top models of the world turn out to be right."  Especially since most of the measures are TWODA - Things We Ought to be Doing Anyway.

    That's not dogmatism. The people who claim that it is are viewing us through their own mirror.

    Comments

    vongehr
    Let me point out two minor issues before coming to the big problem with your post. I am sure others here, say Hank, will criticize the misleading way in which this is made a left versus right issue. What they will not point out is the almost patriotic/nationalistic and regarding the past naively romantic standpoint that is unhelpful, e.g.:
    has done grievous harm to our once-scientific and rational nation. ...
     they are the "most American"
    All this are side issues that have no other effect (neglecting here the effect of selling better by pleasing a certain target audience) but misdirecting attention away from the core problem, and thus they effectively are there to protect the status quo.
    The big problem is that you do not analyze the selection process in science as a evolved social structure. Scientists often go "at each other like fierce predators" over pseudo issues, even academic sophistries, but only very few intellectuals (e.g. Chomsky) dare to criticize what scientists are selected to never touch, namely that they are protecting the power structures that support them and do not uphold the scientific method when it comes to whatever would lead in consequence to substantial criticism. It is quite misleading of you to pretend that it is only right wing people who say extremely pertinent stuff like
    that it is scientists themselves who are betraying the fundamental ethos and principles of their calling
    This is indeed the main issue, namely that science is in a crisis, part of it being the highly corrosive publish-or-perish culture and the current system of peer-review. People do not trust science because they do understand science more and more and realize that it has not gotten better from when it was telling us that smoking is no problem and nuclear reactors cannot possibly blow up, but in fact it has gotten much worse and almost all substantial criticism is internally censored; where it bubbles up, it is smeared as anti-scientific, portrayed as right wing pseudo-scientific religious idiocy, etc. It is not so much a credibility crisis as it is a crisis, period.
    As I have supported with many different arguments and examples on this site, with specific posts about the crisis in nanotechnology or the naive scientism and pseudo-skepticism in high energy physics etc, as well as with more general, system theoretical arguments (co-evolution, not the bad republicans one can conveniently blame), this science crisis is deepening and the public trust will further diminish (which is largely justified!) if there is no honest attacking of the core issues.
    Hank
     I am sure others here, say Hank, will criticize the rather misleading way in which this is made a left versus right issue.
    I'm glad someone has reviewed Chris' new book here.  You can't go wrong with a David Brin piece on it, he is going to have insight.  But I will disagree it is just a 'right' issue.  Chris is a political writer first and a science writer second so he frames everything through rationalizing his politics.  He will cite global warming as alarming and make evolution denial sound like a right wing issue. But the right denies evolution 39% while the left denies it 30%.  Why is his magic line for being "pro-science" under one and above the other?  Because he is a political writer for the left. I think vaccine denial is far more of a problem than global warming denial but Chris contends those are false equivalence - because both sides have some anti-vaccine people, just like both sides have global warming deniers. It's just where he happens to draw his line.

    Biologists have been pretty hard on Chris for his attempts to neuroscience up his cultural beliefs so there isn't much to add to that.  He is not writing books for biologists, he is writing them for people who want a science-y reason to dislike Republicans.  I assume it will work. It's a darn good title and he is a gifted writer.
    vongehr
    How swell you asked "a reasonable question" so that the distinguished master feels obliged to care (see below - nothing to do with you being who you are, I am sure). You make indeed an important distinction: Science writer versus political writer. But there is another distinction: Truly insightful scientific political writers like Chomsky versus those who sell their writings in a certain niche market. The latter are not even truly political! Although they pretend otherwise, they could not care less about good science. They clearly, for example with their sheer arrogance of plainly ignoring substantial criticism, work hard at making sure that more and more people realize: Stuff selling under the "science" label cannot be trusted to care about anything but fame and finances anymore. Nobody in their right mind trusts such people on important things like global warming! Lets be honest - with people like Chris and David writing, global warming is in fact well selling alarmism. Honestly - how are laypeople to decide except on their quite correct gut instinct telling them that progressive science writers are arrogant twerps that indeed should not be trusted? Right wing think tanks have oil experts from exon whose opinion is independent of book sales!
    Especially since most of the measures are TWODA - Things We Ought to be Doing Anyway.

    99% of Vatican Cardinals agreed in a consensus that Galileo was wrong. It was a consensus!

    Here's where Chris Mooney gives it away.

    Its a complete coincidence that climate change is the perfect excuse to implement every single liberal program and policy objective.

    Did you know that Chris Mooney served on the same AGU board as disgraced environmentalist Peter Glieck who recently admitted to identity theft and fraud?

    DavidBrin
    Let's answer Hank first, since he asks a reasonable question.  In fact, I have made it clear - in both this blog posting an many other places - that the Left has many anti-science elements. I am from the 1960s, I know the whole bestiary of lefty ways to be anti-modernist, anti-technology or anti-science. Take the film Avatar for example. Indeed, I have criticized Mooney for being uni-directional in his critiques.

    For example, he uses nuclear power as a topic in which Liberals show mental flexibility unseen on the right... and he is correct about that. But then he pretends that this example proves a general universal when it does not:

    1) Liberals are - as it turns out - very different creatures from their radical "leftist" cousins.  The former do have the mental traits Mooney describes, including a willingness to negotiate and to adapt views. And they are the force in charge of the Democratic Party... for now.  But it is foolish to pretend that there is not a loony fringe out beyond them.  One that is every bit as dogmatic and illogical as the mad right.  The key difference between the parties is not WHETHER both of them feature mad fringes, frothing with romantic anti-modernism - both of them do - but the fact that in one of the two parties the mad fringe has utterly taken over.  That is completely untrue about the other party.

    2) Mooney's choice of a test case - nuclear power - could have been better.  I mentioned one far more problematic to both liberals and leftists... "nature vs nurture."  The standard incantation on the left is that "human beings are almost totally self-programmable and not subject to behavioral or attitudinal predisposition by genetics or nature." 

    Now, before we criticize, let's understand. You can see why this became a political matter when you acknowledge that, for 6000 years, assumptions about inherited nature were used as cudgels to excuse repressing most types of human beings, keeping them down below the local lords, whoever they were.

    As overcompensations go, this doctrine is not a horrific one, since it leads us always to err in the direction of giving people (races, girls, other types) every chance to prove themselves as individuals. Those bad old habits have got to be broken.

    Nevertheless, in strictly scientific terms, all-nurture/no-nature is bullshit.  We may be the LEAST pre-programmed macro animal on the planet, but clearly human males (for example) do inherit tendencies from the caves that we are better off studying, instead of just preaching "don't be like that!"

    But the real hypocrisy of this "purely nurture" stance is exposed when juxtaposed against the startlingly opposite politically correct position toward homosexuality.  apparently, we are absolutely uncontrolled by genetic nature... except when nature absolutely controls us.  The roots of this weird juxtaposition I explore elsewhere. But the fact that it is obdurate and dogmatic and illogical... and probably very hard to budge, in the manner Mooney describes... is pretty clear.

    So, hank, are you satisfied that I am truly a flexible guy, capable of looking in all directions?  Then why have I gone along with Mooney's harshly partisan assessment of the War on Science?

    Because in every macroscopic way, Mooney is right.  We are in phase three of the American Civil war and it is (on the first order) nothing less than an attempted putsch against the entire wetsrn-american enlightenment. When both sides contain mad loonies... but one side is RUN by them and when they were in charge ran our nation - and science - off a cliff... then as evenhanded as I try to be, I cannot manage it.

    These aren't normal times. Normal rules of discussion don't apply. Not with the Murdochians pitting us into a death spiral.
    Thor Russell
    Come on, you can't dismiss the Publish or Perish criticism of science as unreasonable!
    You must surely have heard a lot about it, come across it whenever attempting to do science, or discuss with scientists what they would like changed. Whether they accept it like death and taxes, rage against it, sarcastically deride it or shamelessly play the system while maintaining enough disrespect for it to still be a good scientist, it is everywhere you look. It is responsible for a huge amount of inane rubbish that gets published in journals, and of course reported in the media. This definitely hurts the credibility of science. You must address this if you are going to fix the problems you identify.

    Thor Russell
    David, you surely cannot dismiss what Americans call "ultra-left" as "fringe"... Not talking about their relation to particularly science, but from purely political standpoint, they are a viable, healthy force, with a set of policies well-grounded in reality. And they are no less flexible than "centrists", "independents" or "moderates"! Again, I'm not talking about crazy militant commies, I mean social democrats in European/Latin American sence of the word... As for the States, mainstream Democrats and mainstream Republicans look not much different when looked at from across the pond... Because I live in the States, I see that they have rather substantial differences on social issues, but when it comes to economy the differences fade and essentially come down to Civilian Industrial Complex and IT vs. Military Industrial Complex and Banking...

    Scientifically supported facts and technologies are indeed targets of both holders of extreme beliefs on both the left and the right. It has more to do with emotion driven ideology, than whether it is a left or right issue. I think the author may be correct in those on the left tend to have more flexible views when presented with scientific evidence, but would like to see more examples beyond the nuclear power one given above. For example, while my political views tend towards the left, i often find myself trying to present scientific justification for biotechnology / genetic engineering to friends who refuse to let evidence based on science that these technologies are largely safe and productive options for feeding a growing world. The extreme positions of the 'frankenfoods' crowd are as ridiculous scientifically, as the evolution and climate change deniers on the right.

    Stellare
    Thanks for an interesting article!

    From the outside (Norway) this left-right divide seems artificial. To us, both the Republicans and the Democrats are far right wing... :-)

    The problem of not trusting science lies deeper than that. Hank repeats over and over again that the audience is smarter than we think (readers of Science 2.0 being the smartest of all :-)). I believe that is part of the science communication challenge. Scientists both under-estimate and over-estimate the audience though.

    I am just about to finish an article about Climate change rhetoric. I am critical to the so-called science concensus. That term has been very damaging for the societal trust in science. No matter if it can make sense to some of the core-tribe within certain scientific groups.

    New scientific rhetoric is nescessary - and also a revision of the peer-review system. Times are changing. We need to adapt. :-)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    “When both sides contain mad loonies... but one side is RUN by them and when they were in charge ran our nation - and science - off a cliff... then as evenhanded as I try to be, I cannot manage it.”
    I disagree. The Democratic Party IS controlled by loons, and in my opinion they are doing far worse damage with their complete denial of basic economic principles. However, even though I strongly disagree, I think your article is both fair and enlightening.

    Halliday

    David:

    I've actually read the research that Mooney referenced, where you write:

    Science itself is turning attention to this problem and things are not looking good.  According to one study (via Mooney): “The result was stunning and alarming. The standard view that knowing more science, or being better at mathematical reasoning, ought to make you more accepting of mainstream climate science simply crashed and burned.” It was found that conservatives who knew more tended to dig in their heels against new facts or budging their views, using what they already knew as bulwarks against changing their minds.

    This did not hold for the other side. Educated liberals who were pre-disposed to be suspicious toward nuclear power nevertheless were adaptable when shown clear scientific data assuaging their fears.

    (While it is true that liberals pas this test re nuclear power and several other issues. Still,I would love to see this experiment done on liberals re: nature-vs-nurture issues!  See below.)

    The truth of the matter was that for both "the left" and "the right", the more scientifically and mathematically literate the individual the more they moved toward being pro-nuclear/less-anti-nuclear.

    Similarly, for both "the left" and "the right", the more scientifically and mathematically literate the individual the more they moved toward being suspicious of anthropogenic global-warming/climate-change.  (If I remember correctly.  It is also quite possible that the slope for "the left" was statistically indistinguishable from zero, no change.  I do know for certain that there was not a statistically significant trend of "the left" toward more trust in anthropogenic global-warming/climate-change.)

    There were differences in slope, and most especially differences in intercept, but very similar trends.

    I also remember that the study looked at other scientific issues.  Furthermore, if I remember correctly, many of the other scientific issues showed opposite slopes for "the left" and "the right"—some were convergent, but I think I remember others were divergent.

    I'll have to relocate the article.

    David

    Hank
    Yes, surveys showed when the term was global warming the overwhelming majority of the left said it was real.  The right much less.  When the more correct 'climate change' was used a lot more on the right accepted it.  The left, exactly the same as global warming.  Rather than seeming more pro-science, it makes the left look like they will believe anything they think they should believe.  How is that better for science?

    On evolution, the results are even sillier but Chris contends this is a real problem.  30% denial versus 39% is not one side ruining science in America - even if it were just the right, what do most people on the left actually know about adaptive radiation? Nothing, people just accept science without any thought.  Chris has an answer for why it's a problem when Republicans are anti-science but not Democrats; only the 'elites' matter. So if isn't important if the vast majority of anti-vaxxers are left, as long as no Democrats mention it in a campaign.  Yet the ultimate elite overruled his own scientists on his Keystone XL decision and in the BP oil spill and Democrats in Congress block GMO and call them Frankenfood that will ruin natural species despite every study showing no risk.  

    The reason Chris has been hammered by biologists, aside from the obvious flaws in his thinking, is they don't want more scientization of politics. And using science as a veneer for a political agenda hurts science overall because it makes the public feel like science is just another political tool.  Basically, Chris turns people into the right wing version of postmodernists and that hurts science acceptance and responsible policy-making.


    Stellare
    Your conclusion strike me as odd:

    "Rather than seeming more pro-science, it makes the left look like they will believe anything they think they should believe.  How is that better for science?"

    Accepting the observation that the planet is getting warmer is not a matter of belief or being pro-science/ contra-science, it is evidence based.

     The term climate change is the general term for a natural phenomena and encompasses more than a description of the temperature. Global warming addresses specifically the increased global temperature.

    The conlusion of the result from the survey is then that the right wing and left wing both are accepting that there are natural variations in climate.

    We learn about this natural phenomena in school. Just like we learn about the water cycle, the space race and all the other stuff we learn about in school. It is not a question of belief in science, it is more a question about the general basic education you have received. Right and left seem then to have received more or less the same basic education.

    When it comes to global warming, it is a specific development within the phenomena climate change. It definitely doesn't say anything about being pro-science or not. Since global warming is generally accepted (temperature is rising, more or less, but rising), left and right, it must be the interpretation of the term global warming that is the problem or rather what distinguised one side from the other. For many global warming includes the anticipation that warming is caused by humans. My guess is that it is hard to distinguish between those who answered different questions from those who actually disagree.

    Within the science community the cause of global warming is being debated. In other words a normal scientific debate is ongoing. So all science, not political. It is the communication of this debate that is political, not the debate within the science community itself.

    I must say I am more skeptical to the quality of all these surveys than anything else - as should all of us be. Left or right. :-)

    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Hank
    Accepting the observation that the planet is getting warmer is not a matter of belief or being pro-science/ contra-science, it is evidence based.
    Maybe I did not phrase it correctly.  If a newspaper article comes out tomorrow and claims corn is a miracle vegetable and one set of voters believes it without question and one doubts it without reason, which side is more pro-science?  Neither, obviously.  So it goes with other science topics.  The ones claiming they are more pro-science believe scientists must be trusted when it comes to the climate but are out to kill us when it comes to nuclear power, food and vaccines - the only people claiming that mentality is more 'scientific' than the opposition are those who are in the political persuasion business.  To the rest of us, belief without skepticism is as dangerous as denial without reason.   Both sides engage in the paranoid precautionary principle but some people deny it happens for both.
    MikeCrow
    Thinking about this, I'm not sure it's an anti-science thing per say, it's more an anti-corporate thing among the left.
    With the right, there's definitely a pro-religious bent with evolution, with AGW, I'm not sure. Pro-modern society thing maybe?

    Me, my skepticism is with historical data and how GCM climate sensitivity was contrived to force temps go up with CO2.
    As it so happens if you believe the measured data is accurate, the current warming isn't anything special. And a 0.1C/decade trend is swamped by weather, if it's not just made up by cherry picking what years to use as a baseline.
    Never is a long time.
    Hank
    Thinking about this, I'm not sure it's an anti-science thing per say, it's more an anti-corporate thing among the left.
    I have heard this too; anti-science people on the left are instead either anti-corporation (GMOs) or have a moral issue (animal research) but are not anti-science.  Yet when George Bush restricted federal funding for human embryonic stem cells, it was painted that Republicans were anti-science, not that they had a moral position. It also must be asked why, if corporations are the problem, organic food and other mega-corporations promoting a food-based world view get a free pass despite poisoning and killing far more people than GMOs have (GMOs have 0 anyway).

    There is no good answer for that, which is why political writers have to fall back on the same 'false equivalence' rationalizations over and over.  

    At some point we have to consider people in that business are not promoting science, they are simply promoting political persuasion and using science as one tool.
    MikeCrow
    People really have a hard time seeing that they have the same flaws they complain about in others, or maybe they do and it's a form of self-loathing.

    they are simply promoting political persuasion and using science as one tool.

    I think if we were playing atomic bombs, you'd find this at ground zero.
    Never is a long time.
    Stellare
    Ok, I get your point. And I agree with you in that it is equally wrong that

    "...voters believes it without question and one doubts it without reason..."


    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Halliday

    The research paper is "The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change".  (Hank wrote about it in "Increased Science Literacy Correlated To Less Worry About Climate Change".)

    Unfortunately, I was misremembering when I thought I remembered them addressing other science issues.  While they mention other issues and the two (2) dimensional aspect of their polarization, this particular paper only goes into any form of detail with "global warming"/"climate change" (“How much risk do you believe climate change poses to human health, safety, or prosperity?”) and "nuclear power" (“How much risk do you believe nuclear power poses to human health, safety, or prosperity?”).  In fact, it spends far more time on the former than on the latter.

    Anyway, read for yourself.

    David

    David, thanks for summarizing this issue so well. I share your concern and wonder what you think can be done to remedy the situation.

    AlanHos
    For those that may not have seen the NYT Opinion pages today http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/13/why-dont-americans-elect-scientists/
    Cheers,
    Alan Hoshor
    Hank
    Paulos notes that there is only 1 physicist out of 435 members of Congress. 1 out of 435 means physics is overrepresented 4000 %, since only 1 out of every 17,000 Americans are astronomers and physicists. With only 545 federal positions (435 House, 100 Senate, 1 President, 9 Justices) we're not all going to be overrepresented. Science media has no one at all. That's not a hint - I could never get elected to Congress.

    Yes, lawyers are obviously far overrepresented but it isn't like Americans love lawyers and hate scientists, it is simply that scientists have never shown they are more likely to make smarter policy decisions than anyone else and they like doing science instead of bureaucracy. Steven Chu is a terrific physicist but his policy decisions, like wasting billions subsidizing solar panels he knows are not worth the money, are not any smarter than any construction worker off the street could have made. It doesn't take intelligence or science knowledge to spend someone else's money.
     eight out of the nine top government officials in China have scientific backgrounds
    Ummm, it's a communist country. They're not elected.  And engineering is much different than science, as scientists and engineers will readily state. A mathematics guy like Paulos may not realize the difference.
    Stellare
    Aren't you a cutie pie with numbers and statistics, Hank! :-) Of course we need more physicists influencing politics! At least more exact sciences representation than today couldn't harm, to put it mildly.

    You are soo right in the distinction between science and engineering. To different species all together in those groups. And a mathematician is not likely to tell the difference...:-)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    AlanHos
    Assuming we focus on a democratic presidential republic like we have in the USA (avoiding authoritarianism) then having the legislature composed almost exclusively with people trained in our law schools has been a most destructive force decaying our country. Far worse than any external threat. In a democracy legislators have few tools with which to coerce their citizenry. Principally they have laws and taxes. People trained in law have a single tool to deal with every issue—that being law making (or changing). Governments run by lawyers accumulate laws at a frightful pace. Eventually yielding what we have today where the laws are so complex and numerous that no individual approving these laws even reads them. Today every good citizen (you and me) can’t go through the day without breaking numerous laws both intentionally and in ignorance. Once this occurs then corruption, favoritism, and special interests become new tools of governance. This would all still work (as we see in some of our neighboring countries) if we didn’t have an insurmountable problem, and that is we gave our legislators the power to print money. Once the number of wealth generators in a country declines to approximately one third, then they lose their influence impeding government borrowing. The majority is now both living on the producers backs as well as writing the laws that control their options. We are in this condition today. What we need in our legislators are leaders and problem solvers. Legal skills are the worst possible mechanism to deal with the majority of the issues threatening the health of our country and many others in Europe and Asia. Law and taxes are best at dealing with un-priced externalities like clean water and air. The most successful organization, business, or country is not over encumbered with laws and social welfare. Instead it is filled with hard working, motivated members being directed by charismatic leadership.
    Alan Hoshor
    Hank
    Sure, but this is just political philosophy and does not advance the idea that scientists, much less engineers, would do better just because they are not lawyers.  I can argue in favor of clean water too, but it's somewhat meaningless without a plan. 
    AlanHos
    Why is your science philosophy more appropriate. This topic is a political, cultural, sociological issue. To answer your question, if the scientist is a problem solver with leadership skills then they would be a better legislator. If the scientist is dogmatic and narrow, then they will make a legislator almost as poor as a lawyer. The issue is "Peril". I avoided giving answers that would address the issues raised becasue this is after all a science forum. That is why I didn't quote the NYT article that I posted. The one you responded to and quoted from. You can't have it both ways Hank. You suggested more sicentists versus laywers. I merely pointed out which scientists would be helpful.
    Alan Hoshor
    Hank
    You introduced a link to an article and then dismiss its actual content as irrelevant to your point?  I think that says all that needs to be said. Indeed, I cannot have it both ways if I actually read the article you link to, note its flaws in helping fix governance related to your claim that more scientists would do just that, and then expect you will have read it as well.
    Gerhard Adam
    I'm not actually convinced that this is a science issue, as much as the point that science is simply become a recent victim of this trend.  The trend I'm referring to is the overall malleability of facts in the "news" media.

    I am constantly frustrated at the news media's failure to hold people accountable for their statements and how they allow the most ludicruous statements to go unchallenged.  Simple "fact-checking" should be standard, but in an era of increasing access to data, it seems that we've abandoned any attempt to use it.  We listen to the most trivial nonsense as if it were truth, despite the fact that we often have recorded information from a few hours earlier that shows a clear contradiction. 

    This is precisely why shows like The Daily Show are popular [and taken so seriously] because they seem to be the only ones to recognize that this media emperor has no clothes.  In my view, the media have become worse than useless, they have become dangerous.

    In general, it seems that this is a general trend we've witnessed in the cable news channels, and I don't particularly care what their political orientation is, they do a tremendous disservice to all of us by abusing information in this fashion.  As a result, it isn't surprising when people adopt the same position in science or any other topic, because they are being bombarded every day with the notion that "facts" are merely what we claim they are, and if we say it enough times then even the most rancid bullshit will become truth.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Stellare
    It is a general problem now, that we have an overflow of information, to figure out what information we can trust. I am actually building a business because of this situation, sad as it is. :-)

    We make jokes about the US (as I am sure you make jokes about Europeans, that is how it works :-)) when we say that in America anybody is entitled to have an opinion! It is a mean sarcastic joke, of course, implicating that the Americans cannot distinguish between facts and opinions.

    Unfortunately, it is too close to the truth, not only in the US but also elsewhere. And I believe it has been allowed to develop because of this constant flow of information that we are bombarded with.

    I do want the flow of information to be as free as ever possible, but it requires some sort of filtering when we need to make decisions based on this information. Like climate change for instance.

    I agree with you that political orientation is not an issue .
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Gerhard Adam
    We make jokes about the US (as I am sure you make jokes about Europeans...
    No ... we make jokes about the U.S. too :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    mhlongmeyer
    I do want the flow of information to be as free as ever possible, but it requires some sort of filtering when we need to make decisions based on this information.
    That is one of the most frightening sentences I have read in a long time.  Although you have the best of intentions in deciding it is necessary to "filter" the information that reaches the rest of us about certain important topics, such filtering (which could only be accomplished by some powerful central authority) becomes the root from which totalitarinism grows. 
    Hank
    That is one of the most frightening sentences I have read in a long time. 
    Why? Mankind has had this cultural mechanism in place tens of thousands of years.  You are just learning of it?  Science 2.0, for example, is not a free-for-all because conspiratorial cranks are not equal to scientists.  Does that make us totalitarian? No, on the contrary, we are the only media site of any size that actually has freedom and legitimacy but people who get shut down may claim we are being totalitarian because we don't subscribe to their scientific relativism.
    Stellare
    Too much information is ultimately equal no information. Each one of us do not have the time nor the competence to quality check all the information.

    We have to find ways of filtering the information (tailored to our application) that we trust.

    Today, certification and labels are services we trust for instance. In some cultures there is greater trust in governmental institution, in some none at all. We know this very well from natural disaster management (alerting, relief) and there are many other examples too.

    It is not going to be easy, but it is definitely necessary.

    By the way, what makes you think there is no filtering and sensoring today?

    I say we need to develop the filtering, adapt it to the current massive flow of information.
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    mhlongmeyer
    We have to find ways of filtering the information (tailored to our application) that we trust.
    Sure, if you mean that each of us has to find ways of filtering information for ourselves.  My fear is that you mean that someone else--say, a panel of "experts"---gets to decide to block certain information before it gets to me, because it would allegedly be too confusing for my poor undertrained brain and cause me to disagree with the experts.
    By the way, what makes you think there is no filtering and sensoring today?
    I realize that there is plenty of it.  What makes you think we should try to impose more of it?

    As to Hank's comment, I didn't think Bente was referring to an entity like Science 2.0 filtering its own website.  It's your product---if you filter well, you succeed; if you don't, people can look elsewhere.  Nothing totalitarian about any of that.  On the other hand, if you convinced a government agency to kick your competitors off the web because they provided information that you deem false, that would be totalitarian.
    Stellare
    Each and everyone of do not have the capacity nor the competence to do all the filtering that needs to be done. (in order to get access to useful information,)
    Note, that this has nothing to do with your intelligence or general capacity as a person, it is simply too much information for any one person to process. Note, also that it does not mean that any information will be made inaccessible. It is a fit for purpose search.

    We need a third party (not the provider of the information) to filter it for us. There are many ways of doing that - all of which requires that we trust the both the third party AND the filtering process.

    Actually, I'd say it is just as totalitarian to bombard people with too much information. That is actually a technique used by lawyers for instance....



    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    All the while science dismisses subjects such as UFO's Telepathy Etc. Etc. it will never be trusted.
    Dogma and denial by the establishment forcing scientists to toe the line is destroying open-minded, fair investigation, based solely on evidence and facts and not worthless opinion.
    Scientists need to stand up to the dictatorship imposed on them from above and start doing science, which means the investigation of the unknown in the natural World.

    Gerhard Adam
    All the while science dismisses subjects such as UFO's Telepathy Etc. Etc. it will never be trusted.
    Which also demonstrates that you aren't interested in science.  In that one statement you've already defined the conditions that you think must already be true before you will accept science, so any finding to the contrary of your personal fantasies will render it untrustworthy.

    There's no conspiracy.
    Mundus vult decipi
    All the while science dismisses subjects such as UFO's Telepathy Etc. Etc. it will never be trusted.
    Oh hardly! They already receive far too much attention and consume a disproportionate amount of resources.  Science will only be trusted when it takes a firm stance against nonsense.
     
    John Hasenkam
    Is this something of a false problem? In Australia people aren't exactly intellectual but I don't hear my fellow citizens running around denigrating science in general. Do you? They will attack specific concepts arising from science because these concepts clash with their belief system but no-one can be seriously anti-science without returning to a grass hut. If I ever encounter people who question the value of science I ask them to stop driving their car, too no longer live in a house. I have serious doubts that people are anti-science. I think the population is becoming more ignorant and less interested in knowledge but that trend is also very present in the humanities. Maybe there is a much bigger problem: a general loss of interest in knowledge and understanding.  
    Hank
    In America, one side claiming the other is "anti-science" has become a cottage industry. Obviously, politically minded people are going to deny inconvenient science and rationalize doing so.  It happens everywhere.  American left wing people are more nationalistic than those in other countries, though - they insist America has a special case in everything, including their opposition being more anti-science than those in Europe, Australia, etc.
    John Hasenkam
    Hank,
    I do watch the PBS Newshour a few other US programs so I have some idea of what is happening. I find it very strange though and consider it troubling that politicians and social commentators can so loosely throw about accusations and claims that don't stand up to close scrutiny. Australia is a little better but that could represent that old adage that here in Aus we are just a decade behind the USA. I hope not, the level of social discourse has descended into an epistemological shambles that leaves me dumbfounded as to how such highly educated individuals can engage in that behavior without suffering sufficient cognitive dissonance to enter into a state of permanent catatonia. 

    MikeCrow
    Selective blinders.
    Never is a long time.
    Left wing deny evolution? oximoron! The U.S. Democratic Party voters overwhelmingly right wing.European eye on for.

    Hank Campbell :There is no right wing a scientist! It's like a communist banker king.very very oximoron.

    Most non-scientists infrequently engage the scientific community - usually it's the other way around.

    Ordinary people, living out their ordinary lives are occasionally made abreast of scientific advancements or novel research through news media sound bites and short form summaries written for the layman which are often oversimplified and exaggerated, and at times, just plain wrong. Wild claims attributable more to journalists than actual scientists are bandied about, sometimes followed by a more thoughtful piece explaining the nuances and caveats left out of the earlier, more sensational reports, but sometimes not. Where it doesn't affect their lives directly, it's merely shoddy reporting, but when it involves public policy or societal shifts, effectively, respectfully, and fully communicating scientific discovery, and where appropriate, associated risks or cost benefit analysis to inform public discourse and decision making falls largely to the scientific community itself if it wishes to engage the public responsibly.

    Most scientists don't set out from the onset with the notion that they will be engaging and educating the public. Scientific research is invariably published for the consumption of other scientists where research is performed toward the advancement of science itself, not as ready made footnotes and charts to support or for the development of, solid public policy (except when it is). Often research contains assumptions which are quite obvious to others working within a specialized field that are not at all obvious to the rest of us, nor are the implications of those assumptions, in how they may bear on the presentation of results, given in a kind of shorthand, directed to the initiated.

    So on the one hand, you have individuals conducting scientific research, and on the other hand you have ordinary people who are not. But those ordinary people are occasionally called upon by mediators (often the press and government) to, rather superficially, analyze and act on the results. These ordinary people determine, through their representatives in government, the societal response to scientific research.

    Add to the mix a polemic issue with a healthy dose of agitators - not at all surprising in a pluralistic society, nor unwanted - where compelling data or research tends to support one side over the other and you can be sure a scrutinous 'peer review' will result. One hopes truth prevails more often than fallacy as society digests scientific information, but clearly, we are imperfect and this will not always be so. This is the nature of a free society. Science must always do its level best to pursue truth and knowledge objectively, and communicate it effectively. And by staying above the fray professionally, remaining at all times impartial in the exercise of the pursuit of science - science imparts its greatest possible contribution to that free society.

    Clearly, scientists are human and are themselves prone to engage in polemics or even sophistry, and I think it's safe to say every scientist holds his or her own private or even public, personal beliefs. That said, it falls to scientists themselves to establish and maintain that respect and credibility afforded to a strict adherence to scientific objectivity in their work - whatever their views may be. Loss of objectivity is the kink in the armor that reduces scientific research to the level of informed opinion, with qualifications and possibly, skewed, supporting data, at best. At worst, it's reduced to the level of academic dishonesty and fraudulence when presented as science, especially bad if eagerly and knowingly advanced.

    Unfortunately, on several issues of great importance to society, science has, rather publicly, fallen short. For instance, just this week I read an article that the Canadian Medical Association voted that human life begins no sooner than complete birth. And though there are few embryologists among the ranks of the general public, the vast majority, regardless of where they may stand on the issue of abortion, know full well the basic mechanics of human procreation, and perceive the naked political act for what it is. Somewhat of a stretch to lump in medical practitioners with scientists, but the silence from the community of biologists here is deafening, on a matter of some great public importance.

    In much the same vein should be seen the scandal at Norwich with regard to climate data.

    And for the ordinary American who has been around for at least a few decades, it seems as if, particularly in the area of diet and disease, and I freely exaggerate here, every other week a new pronouncement is made on a food that was supposed to be good for you but is now considered bad or vice versa, or that this or that food additive (a product of commercial science) or cell phones, or plastics, inside, outside, cosmetics; cause cancer or some other disease and will kill you, your loved ones, wildlife, the planet, or all of the above.

    When people are not talking directly to one another, in a charged environment, with important issues at stake, and where perceptions range from indebtedness and awe, to a double feature matinee of Chicken Little followed by Peter & the Wolf, disagreement, lack of trust, accusations, and aspersions are not surprising outcomes.

    If science is honestly seeking a better reception from the general public on informing polemic issues, it needs to a better job of 1.) policing clear failures in objectivity, early and often, 2.) communicating directly with the public, 3.) policing third party distortions of research & discoveries, 4.) accepting public opinion may reasonably be skeptical of their research, and not accept it as fact, 5.) fighting hard professionally when, scientifically, (in the work - not on CNN), it really, really matters, and not so much when it doesn't, 6.) not inflating the importance and significance of reached conclusions.

    It may also be helped by a sort of 'modified for science' serenity prayer:

    For the sake of scientific objectivity, and as a scientist I must...
    accept the things I cannot do,
    have the courage to do the things I can,
    and have the wisdom to know the difference.

    Pax et bonum