"Science Under Obama" on the BBC's "Night Waves"

By Chris Mooney | January 22, 2010 8:16 am

I recently appeared on this show, and I wasn’t the only one. Here’s the guest list:

Stewart Brand – author of the newly published Whole Earth Discipline
Dr Janet Rowley – human geneticist at the University of Chicago
Chris Mooney – author of The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America
Reverend Robert Sirico – founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty
Professor Jared Diamond – Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel: How Human Societies Fail
Oliver Morton – Energy and Environment Editor for The Economist
Dr Brent Blackwelder – President Emeritus of Friends of the Earth, United States

All in all, I have to say it made for a crowded, but very interesting, debate about science, politics, and society in the U.S., exactly one year after President Obama promised to restore science to its “rightful place,” & c & c.

I found that I agree with Stewart Brand about a lot. I also found that I agree with Robert Sirco about pretty much zero–and the same goes for Brent Blackwelder, at least based on what I heard on the show.

Oliver Morton’s comments on science and the American frontier were either deep or brilliant, I’m not sure which. But they gave me a little chill.

Based on his comments, I think Jared Diamond would like Unscientific America.

Oh, and Janet Rowley: Loved her comments on Leon Kass assigning an anti-science short story, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Birth-Mark, at the first meeting of the President’s Council on Bioethics under Bush…an episode that should never be forgotten.

Listen to the whole program here.


Comments (9)

  1. Busiturtle

    Anyone counting on President Obama to follow through on a promise might want to consider his track record.

    What’s plan B?

  2. Chris,

    Have you read The Birth-Mark? While I can see why it could be characterized as anti-science, my read is that it speaks more to conceptions of vanity and physical (im)perfection than anything else. Whatever the perception of Kass, his work in ethics would resonate with that theme.

  3. Gaythia

    Chris, have you read Jared Diamond’s books? I highly recommend all of them.

    I think you have the titles blended. The books are (starting with the most recent):

    Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
    Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
    The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution of the Human Animal

    If I had to choose, I’d start with Guns Germs and Steel, which gives an explanation as to why Western Civilization triumphed. Collapse is sort of the flip side of that book, highlighting cultures that did not make it.

    I agree that your thoughts and his are pretty well aligned. The objective being not to have your works end up in the footnotes to a follow-up chapter of “Collapse”.

  4. Jason

    It’s a significant psychic risk to put your perspective out there. Especially speaking after someone like Oliver with such a depth of knowledge and quotes from obscurity.

  5. Gaythia

    On second hearing, I notice that it was actually the BBC’s Philip Dodd who initially merged Jared Diamond’s book titles, and Dr. Diamond did not correct him. I wish Jared Diamond had been given more time.

    I agree that Janet Rowley’s comments were intriguing. I am sorry that the moderator cut her off when she wanted to comment after your “scientists on islands need to build a canoe” comments. I also liked her balanced analysis of GM food crops.

    And, given that you seem to have been granted the last word, paraphrased as “that we need to take all of this on a case by case basis” I hope that some of these sorts of analyses will be forthcoming.

  6. MW

    Chris, I am in agreement of your analysis of the discussion panelists. What I find amazing is how closely the attacks on GM food science are aligned in style and substance to many of the denialist attacks on climate science. What is the problem with science in the public image that sets up the continued attacks?

    Keep up the good work, Chris.

  7. either/or? shucks, I was going for both/and…

  8. Gaythia

    @Oliver: Please keep going for it then! Should us bystanders be left with the impression that you give people “a little chill” or is the glacier photo at your website leaving false impressions?

    Personally, I think that the main problem with the BBC show was that too many interesting people were asked to participate at once given the allocated time. I’d love to see some more in depth discussions between the major contributors.

  9. Gaythia

    Further exploration of Oliver Morton’s website has left me enchanted with the writing style and clarity of the excerpt from the introduction to his book “Eating the Sun” given here:
    http://heliophage.wordpress.com/eating-the-sun-excerpts-etc/. I think that his nearly poetic paragraphs on photosynthesis and how anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions outstrip the uptake capacity of plants ought to be read by everyone.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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