“Literary” $10,000 science writing award to be backed by Edward O. Wilson
    By Hank Campbell | October 15th 2010 01:39 PM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Actor Harrison Ford, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (and Science 2.0 favorite) Dr. Edward O. Wilson are holding a press conference today at 3:30 in Palo Alto, California, to announce the newly created PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.    I won't be there because the award has nothing at all to do with actual science outreach but I am mentioning it just the same.

    PEN American Center (PEN is poets, playwrights, essayists, editors and novelists) is the U.S. branch of the world’s oldest international literary and human rights(?) organization.   International PEN was founded in to protest the conditions that led to World War I while PEN American Center was founded in 1922 and is the largest of the 144 PEN centers in 101 countries.

    The new award is "designed to acknowledge new and compelling non-academic writing that contributes to the public’s understanding of science and changes how science is approached".

    Not sure what that means but presumably journalism and journal articles are excluded and books are their focus, given both the PEN organization and their examples - they list Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and Dr. James Watson’s "The Double Helix" as outreach 'which contribute 'to the public’s understanding of scientific principles at work in the world today. '    Watson's book was obviously science but Carson's was instead an advocacy book that used pseudo-science so the grouping is confusing.

    And columnists who do this stuff every day ... errr, sorry, you don't count, though there are other awards - yesterday we mentioned blogger Ed Yong at Discover got an award from the National Academies for his daily contributions to science.

    Winners will be chosen by PEN American Center beginning in 2011 with a prize of $10,000.  Ford and Prof. Wilson have provided initial funding for the award, though why a multi-millionaire and a lowly-paid scientist are splitting the bill is as unclear as what 'writing' means to PEN. 

    Edward O. Wilson
    Edward O. Wilson on his 80th birthday with Bloggy, our mascot.  Really, the only thing cooler than myrmecology is Bloggy.


    Hank, you're starting to lose me buddy. What part, exactly, of Carson's work qualifies as "pseudoscience"? Was it the scare story she told in the introduction? Because a lot of what she said in that book has certainly been verified. If you're going to go and call "pseudo-science" about what one of the better known popular science magazines has named as one of the top twenty-five science books of all're going to need more evidence, or at least an explanation.

    See, that's how we work in science. Evidence. Backing up our assertions.

    Do logical fallacies count as evidence?  Because that's what citing a magazine's favorite list is.    On the other hand, the quite astute Richard Tierney of The New York Times also called "Silent Spring" a "hodgepodge of science and junk science" so if citing people who agree with a position is how 'you' work in science, then I guess we are even.
    Just wondering if you are able to distinguish the difference between "a hodgepodge of science and junk science" and "an advocacy book that used pseudo-science". You do see that one phrase acknowledges the existence of science in the book and one does not, yes?

    The journal Science disagrees with your assertion that there was science in her book.  I get that it is popular with younger scientists today, because the political demographic has skewed from the mainstream toward the activist, but that doesn't change what it is or was.   

    It was pseudo-science because it attributed causes to facts without justification.   Carson's kind of 'science' is the exact same method opponents of vaccines use to claim they cause autism - they map the data they want to the cultural agenda they have.   The damage she did in the third world with renewed malaria deaths because believers in her book stopped using DDT is more of a war crime than anything positive.
    Amateur Astronomer
    Leaving out journalist defeats the purpose of a literary award. I guess Benjamin Franklin is excluded for his work on Lead Poisoning, Electricity, and Conservation of Energy. Hank is right about a lot of the environmental writing. The standards of proof were not good. That’s what we are struggling with now. Who bears the burden of proof when the data is fake? We don’t debate the issues. We just argue about the facts. I always thought that a person who makes a claim should be required to show at least a 50% chance of being right, even if the bulk of the burden is on the opponents. No one else ever supported that opinion. I don’t believe Rachel Carson intended her book to be a work of science. It was more of a political action initiative. Political science might describe it. Pseudoscience is a word I avoid. It’s something senior scientists have hurled at each other during a life time career. Part of that time I was working for a person who received more complaints of that type than average. His programs tended to be more successful than average too. A lot of his critics ended up working for him in later years. Their programs were closed down for failure to deliver.
    If it feels vaguely scientific to laypeople, like Carson's misguided work, yet isn't, that is pseudo- to me, anyway.  I suppose we could say faux-science.   I am baffled anyone still endorses that book as anything other than a product of the '60s, but I suppose someone might still endorse Freud and drinking radiated water too.    The next generation after Carson invented the alar scam and that fooled people as well, which goes to show that caring people in society can be exploited by activists if their claims have a feeling of truthiness.   Hopefully the Internet has made it more difficult.
    Christina Znidarsic
    Oh come on Hank. You know the real reason why you're not going. You actually ARE Harrison Ford (and vice versa). Working where I do as a watershed coordinator, I face the challenge of educating the public on sound science every day. You'd be amazed how many people I encounter who don't even know what a watershed is, let alone why they should take interest in theirs. The Ground Zero folks though, are far far easier than the people who feel they Know What They're Talking About and have been woefully misinformed in the process. Digging their brains out of that type of mental entrenchment can be frustrating and difficult.