The Right Slams Unscientific America

By Chris Mooney | June 14, 2010 10:38 am

We were initially surprised that our co-authored book, Unscientific America, was so strongly attacked for observing that scientists should strive to improve their skills at public communication–and that this probably includes not alienating potential religious allies or mainstream America. But in a sense, the attacks made a kind of sense. Mostly, they came from those for whom this advice ran contrary to their particular project of denouncing much of America and the world for alleged ignorance and superstition–the New Atheists.

However, with a recent review in The New Atlantis, it appears that we also touched a nerve on the political right. As this is a more interesting phenomenon, I want to explore it in this post.

First, The New Atlantis introduces me as the author of The Republican War on Science, a book whose argument runs directly contrary to the publication’s own project of articulating and defending conservative approaches to science, and pinning anti-science sentiment on liberals.

So, there’s that.

It is more surprising, though, to find that the critique (from Ari N. Schulman) echoes the perspective of those traditionalists–apparently over-represented in the science blogosphere–who instinctively distrust calls for improved scientific communication. These critics tend to argue that any hint of message framing is equivalent to dishonesty (even though framing is inevitable and unavoidable in all communication), that any simplification is equivalent to “dumbing down” (even though different communication contexts obviously require different degrees of complexity), and so forth. They also seem to take the stance that the job of a scientist is merely to do research–even though there is an obvious science communication gap and few around today (as science journalists dwindle) to fill it.

Here’s Schulman:

Laudable though it seems at first, this plea for public responsibility is lost under layers of jargon from the world of public relations. Mooney and Kirshenbaum write of making “source-oriented communicators” become “receiver-oriented,” of attaining “ideal synergy,” and of creating “a new caste of savvy scientists who can act as ‛framers’ of policy issues.”

The book’s practical advice for scientists is in the same P.R. vein. The authors encourage scientists to adopt a conciliatory pose, to take courses in writing and communication, to learn how to explain their issues with “media communicability,” and to accept that their advice will be judged not on substance but on “the utility of its packaging.” Scientists should befriend politicians, form political action committees, and even run for political office themselves.

Yes, we do discuss these things (though some are slightly mis-characterized). But we do so not to advise dishonesty or manipulation (of course not!), but rather because we’re trying to counter a naive mindset which suggests that scientific information speaks for itself, that truth just rises above the nonsense without any external aid.

That’s just painfully wrong.

So while they should never be dishonest or misstate the facts, scientists must certainly stand up for their knowledge and try to disseminate it more broadly. And in this project, yes, they will be aided if they know something about communication, and take in some of the advice that seasoned communications professionals have to give.

But the New Atlantis has a second beef. It is that we’re too unabashedly pro-science, not attentive enough to the standard conservative critiques of scientific arrogance, hubris, technocracy, and so on. The type of arguments, in short, that regularly appear in The New Atlantis.

Pursuing this line takes Schulman in an interesting direction–e.g., requiring him to misread the book. He ends by saying that

The authors instruct scientists to study communication when they should instead be advising scientists to study the disciplines of their interlocutors — ethics, religion, and the humanities — so they can truly engage with rather than merely market themselves to the public.

But of course, we very much want scientists to study other disciplines, far beyond the academic field of science communication. Indeed, one of the central themes of the book is to extol interdisciplinarity, and to call for more people who can bridge the “two cultures.”

For indeed, in order to communicate on contested issues, one needs a sense of why they often disturb members of the public–and that walks you right into the sphere of ethics. Another broad discipline, social science, is similarly critical to science communication efforts. Finally, we spend an entire chapter of the book directly calling for greater engagement with the religious community.

Granted, we don’t endorse a Leon Kass-type view, according to which we need to be wary of researchers creating a “brave new world” and engaging in the “unnatural,” “playing God,” behaving like Frankensteins, etc. This isn’t because we find ethical concerns irrelevant, but because we find these sorts of fear-oriented and yuck-reflex oriented ethical arguments unhelpful (and they’ve been largely dismissed by bioethicists).

So no, we didn’t write the book about science communication that the New Atlantis would like to see. Rather, we wrote one that would serve as a needed call to arms to members of the scientific community who are growing increasingly frustrated as the issues break against them, the public ignores them, the media misrepresents them, the politicians attack them, and so forth.

And given the dramatic response that Unscientific America received, that seems to have been a resonant message.

Comments (111)

  1. It is unfortunate that some scientists place the destruction of religion as a higher priority than improving science literacy and relations. (Else, how do you explain how the majority of their rhetoric goes toward the former rather than the latter?) This is a sign that they have become akin to the fundamentalists they oppose. They come across as if convincing people there is no God is more important than convincing people to embrace and love science.

    They should be ignored as much as the “Right” should be ignored. Thank you for being willing to first and foremost promote science literacy and for seeing beyond fundamentalist distractions whether coming from “new atheists”, “the Right” or anyone else who tries to use science to fuel their pet crusades.

  2. It is more surprising, though, to find that the critique (from Ari N. Schuman) echoes the perspective of those traditionalists–apparently over-represented in the science blogosphere–who instinctively distrust calls for improved scientific communication.

    I don’t know why you find this surprising. The basis of the right wing attack on science is that scientists are already using propaganda to push a left-wing agenda. You see this in the comment section of this blog every time you write a post on global warming.

    Now, you’re suggesting that scientists should become better at communicating their ideas and engage directly with the public and with government leaders. So of course the right hates your book.

  3. John Kwok

    Chris,

    I think Schuman is overstating his case, and, regrettably, doesn’t note that there are important voices on the Right (e. g. John Derbyshire, Paul Gross, Judge John Jones, Michael Shermer) who have been stressing the importance of what is – and what isn’t – valid science. But he does make an excellent point in the final sentence of his review, which I am posting here:

    “The authors instruct scientists to study communication when they should instead be advising scientists to study the disciplines of their interlocutors — ethics, religion, and the humanities — so they can truly engage with rather than merely market themselves to the public.”

    I might note that at many elite colleges and universities, such as, for example, Brown University (my undergraduate alma mater), there is an emphasis on better communication via effective writing in scientific courses, as well as those in the arts and the humanities.

    As for Schuman’s implicit accusation that, somehow, science was responsible for anthropogenic global warming, unfortunately, for him, the ample data supporting it doesn’t support his contention. Ironically, it merely demonstrates how he himself is scientifically illiterate with respect to this issue.

    In closing, I wouldn’t say that the “Right” is objecting to yours and Sheril’s book, if Schuman has been the only one critical of it (Unless of course you want to include me, since I have raised many substantial objections here and elsewhere, especially in my Amazon.com review.).

  4. Thanks for this great post, Chris. And for the book itself, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I agree that scientists need to be better at communicating the science, not only so that the word gets out, but in defense of science against those who choose to misrepresent it. Your book and that of Cornelia Dean helped inspire me to start the series of posts on climate change at http://climatetruth.gather.com/

    Keep up the good work. I’m looking forward to the next book

  5. Dave

    Scientists should always try to communicate to the public, but the public should also engage itself in learning about science. It’s intellectually and culturally lazy to place the responsibility solely on scientists, who are busying doing, you know, science.

    Overall, Glenn Seaborg said it pretty well: “The education of young people in science is at least as important, maybe more so, than the research itself.”

    And the only real education is self-education.

  6. Ugh. The way they write “The authors encourage scientists to adopt a conciliatory pose, to take courses in writing and communication, to learn how to explain their issues with ‘media communicability’…” somehow they make thees things sound distasteful, as if they should be avoided at all costs. It’s freakin’ communications! When did the idea that a scientist should be able to explain their extremely significant research to the general public become so horrible!?! In many cases, the taxpayers are paying for the research! Scientists should be able to explain to in a way people can understand.

  7. Nice post. I’m really kind of intrigued by the reaction to your book. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen someone take a shot at it. It’s been a little while since I read it, but as I recall I kinda thought that you were saying something like “let’s all get along” and we need to understand other people better. It was a little short on specifics but I didn’t think you intended to write a detailed blueprint. I thought it would be hard to disagree with the general points I drew from the book – things like “don’t demonize people of faith,” or “learn how to write better.” I had little idea at the time you were walking into such a minefield. I might have subtle differences of opinion on some of the particulars, but I don’t think that devalues the book.

  8. Nullius in Verba

    “When did the idea that a scientist should be able to explain their extremely significant research to the general public become so horrible!?!”

    There’s nothing horrible about being able to explain their research to the general public. The problem is when they don’t explain their research, but instead assert the conclusions of their research, and rely on media tricks to avoid awkward questions, enhance their air of authority, and be believed. When belief rather than understanding is the goal, science has been corrupted.

    Learning how to simplify, clarify, and explain complex technical ideas would be an excellent idea. But that’s not what is involved in “framing”, as I understand it. The problem is perceived to be that the general public would be unable to understand the real argument, so you have to give them a ‘fake’ one. Not a lie, as such, but one phrased to avoid the difficulties and uncertainties that might lead one to immediately doubt. And it is largely because scientists never explain the technicalities that the public don’t understand them.

    The media don’t like doubt and uncertainty, in shades of grey. They like a nice, clean story – with the good guys and the bad clearly identified.

    The problem with the use of semi-political techniques like framing is that, unlike the scientific method, they are vulnerable to political countermeasures. If you rely on arguments from scientific authority, you become vulnerable to arguments from more impressive-looking authority.

    It is no use, at that point, bemoaning the public’s inability to distinguish between your genuine authorities and their false ones. They have no rational means to tell, because you have carefully avoided teaching them the only reliable method – the scientific method. And using tricks from postmodern politics and advertising to bolster that impression of authority is moving in precisely the opposite direction.

    You need to study somebody like Richard Feynman. Somebody who emphasised the uncertainties and areas of ignorance, the avoidance of undefined and half-understood jargon, the importance of scepticism and not taking his word for it, and yet at the same time was able to get to the actual essence of a piece of complicated technical science and demonstrate its true simplicity, when looked at from the right perspective. It’s a hard thing to do – don’t underestimate the difficulty. A lot of scientists are unable to do it. But there’s no substitute.

  9. SLC

    Unfortunately, not all scientific ideas can be explained in simple laymens’ language or in terms that a non-expert can understand. For instance, take string theory. When a Phd physicist like David Heddle can confess that he finds string theory intractable, what hope does the average educated layman have? How does one explain quantum mechanics to the average educated layman when even an elementary particle physicist like Lawrence Krauss confesses that nobody understands quantum mechanics?

  10. GM

    Can someone tell me what exactly is there to study in ” ethics, religion, and the humanities”??

    The first two are totally made up and have little to no relevance to the real world, and the primary role the third one is playing is to keep those two in the focus of our attention and thus forming and maintaining a completely wrong view of the world in our collective consciousness.

    It is useful to remember that while religion takes a lot of the blame for the problem of the world today, the so called “classics” have not done much good either.

  11. GM

    It is unfortunate that some scientists place the destruction of religion as a higher priority than improving science literacy and relations. (Else, how do you explain how the majority of their rhetoric goes toward the former rather than the latter?) This is a sign that they have become akin to the fundamentalists they oppose. They come across as if convincing people there is no God is more important than convincing people to embrace and love science.
    They should be ignored as much as the “Right” should be ignored. Thank you for being willing to first and foremost promote science literacy and for seeing beyond fundamentalist distractions whether coming from “new atheists”, “the Right” or anyone else who tries to use science to fuel their pet crusades.

    Failing to see further than 5cm from one’s nose, as usual. Combined with complete misunderstanding of the nature of science.

    Science illiteracy is not being able to recite a laundry list of scientific facts. Science literacy is the ability to think as a scientist and apply the methodology of science. Even the most moderate form of religion is incompatible with that. Which means that the first requirement for scientific literacy to be established is for religion to be eradicated. It’s not so complicated

  12. GM

    When did the idea that a scientist should be able to explain their extremely significant research to the general public become so horrible!?! In many cases, the taxpayers are paying for the research! Scientists should be able to explain to in a way people can understand.

    Ah yes, we should bow down and be thankful to the people for the crumbs they’re giving us in research money. While in the same time all other money that are being spent in this society are spent on extremely useful and totally indispensable things

    Also, it is just plain stupid to claim that “you gotta be able to explain it to Joe the Plumber”. I am a scientist. I do not understand what my mathematician friends’ research in algebraic geometry and topology. I do get some of the very general concepts from causal conversation, but I do not expect to be able to understand it even on a superficial level before putting in the many years of hard work needed to get into the matter. Why? Because it’s some damn complicated and very abstract stuff, and there is nothing wrong with that, that’s the way it is. In the same way, they have trouble understanding molecular biology, which is what I do. It is not that conceptually complicated, but there is just so much things to learn and integrate before you start putting it together. So if very educated people do not fully understand what the other is doing, because it is so complicated and requires years of study to understand, how do you expect someone to be able to explain these things to Joe the Plumber, who hardly possesses basic literacy and numeracy skills? And not only that, but is most likely not very eager to listen to those pesky scientists and their theories, while he can go watch NASCAR.

    There has to a minimal level of information and intelligence the public has to have for scientists to be able to explain what they do, and it doesn’t matter how good communicators they are. And this level increases with the complexity of science. You can’t explain any science to cavemen.

  13. GM

    9. SLC Says:
    June 14th, 2010 at 4:37 pm
    Unfortunately, not all scientific ideas can be explained in simple laymens’ language or in terms that a non-expert can understand. For instance, take string theory. When a Phd physicist like David Heddle can confess that he finds string theory intractable, what hope does the average educated layman have? How does one explain quantum mechanics to the average educated layman when even an elementary particle physicist like Lawrence Krauss confesses that nobody understands quantum mechanics?

    Precisely

  14. For instance, take string theory.

    Why? Is there a political or religious debate about string theory? Laymen don’t need to have in depth knowledge of every area of science. They do need to have a basic understanding of the science that affects their lives. Those things aren’t so hard to communicate.

  15. Nullius in Verba

    SLC,

    Actually, an awful lot of string theory and quantum mechanics can be explained. (Feynman wrote a book for the layman on quantum electrodynamics that was perfectly understandable, for example.) But where it can’t, then all that is required is that you make clear that it can’t, and tell the public that you’re leaving part of the story out. At that point, you’re only telling them the extended bits for their entertainment, you’re not expecting them to accept any of it without question.

    People need to know the limits of their knowledge – they need to know what’s reliable, and in what circumstances. If you take them on a sightseeing tour beyond the boundaries of what is safe, then you need to put up the warning notices to say that none of this should be trusted.

    The same goes for the physicists themselves. There are aspects to physics (sometimes in surprisingly basic parts) that are poorly understood. But it is amazing how many young undergraduates emerge from university with the firm impression that the foundations of their knowledge are solid, blithely unaware of just which stones are a bit wobbly.

    (And by the way, quantum mechanics is another example of the conclusions of science rather than its method. It’s a different sort of thing.)

    I’m not arguing that the general public should be able to understand the “why?” of everything they are told. I’m arguing that where there is a way to explain the real reason, it should be used, and where there isn’t and they’re not getting the full story, they should be well aware of that fact. The way things are today, they’re often not.

    Where you’re not getting the full story, scientific belief is neither justified nor should be required. You may choose to believe it for other, non-scientific reasons, but that isn’t science and everyone should know the difference.

  16. You can’t explain any science to cavemen.

    I think we can all agree that we don’t want GM serving as the scientific ambassador to the general public.

  17. Matt T

    “Science literacy is the ability to think as a scientist and apply the methodology of science. Even the most moderate form of religion is incompatible with that. Which means that the first requirement for scientific literacy to be established is for religion to be eradicated. It’s not so complicated”

  18. Matt T

    (Sorry…I thought I would have time to edit)
    Wow GM. You went from “scientists need to be able to think” to “scientists need to kill religion”. You’re a scientist, right? Tell me: what proof do you have that God doesn’t exist? What objectively verifiable fact do you have at your hands that tells you exactly how this world came about and why everything is the way it is?
    Claiming that religion needs to be eradicated is paramount to declaring that all people need to be Catholics. But since you’re so smart, I’m assuming you already have a response to this classic argument.

  19. Brian Too

    I don’t know. Scientists can get better at communicating, and that’s probably a good thing. However you can’t really ask them to go far outside of their area of expertise. And there will always be those brilliant but focused individuals who will never really be very good at talking to nonspecialists.

    The problem as I see it is that communication is itself a discipline. It’s a career path all of it’s own, just like teaching is. A scientific education is often taught by the technophiles who are not great communicators and that leads, all too often, to the idea that teaching and communication are at best optional, and at worst, distractions or even the province of the enemy (politicos, PR and marketing types, the suits in Accounting).

    Just look at the real effective communicators of science. They hardly ever say things like “… the metabolic pathways of the ATP molecular precursors…” yet that is stock-in-trade for many scientists. People who are acclaimed at connecting with the public are peerless at simplifying, and starting out with the most basic things imaginable.

    They say things like “This is Jimmy. Jimmy suffers from a disease that will likely kill him before he turns 25. Even now he is unable to do the things normal for a boy his age, and he has few close friends. Why? Jimmy’s body cannot process a nutrient vital to life…”

    Maybe science research projects need a communications and outreach component, as a regular part of their funding model. At least for the larger projects. Bring in specialists who are skilled at dealing with the public and take some of the load off the scientists. Otherwise you are expecting the scientists to be modern renaissance men and women, and you’ll lose a big chunk of the talent pool due to the communications needs.

  20. Deepak Shetty

    @Jinchi

    I think we can all agree that we don’t want GM serving as the scientific ambassador to the general public.

    Here’s an experiment that Mooney and the posters here who believe that the problem is scientists dont communicate effectively should conduct. I assume that some of you are effective communicators and arent rude like the new atheists right?
    Choose a creationist/Intelligent Design(er). Convince him/her that evolution is good science and Intelligent design is not. If thats too religious for you then choose a climate change denier and convince him/her that Global warming is good science . Nothing makes a point like a good demonstration , it will show the rest of us hows it done right?

  21. John Kwok

    @ GM -

    If we adhere to your inane logic, then why not discard mathematics too, since that’s made up? After all, we know that Zero is an artificial construct foisted upon Western Civilization from barbarians lurking somewhere in the Middle and Near East (If my memory is correct, it was Indian civilization which first came up with it.). There are indeed important lessons, at least from the perspective of ways of knowing, that should encourage people to study, ethics, religion and the humanities, as well as mathematics and the sciences, the least of which is tolerance toward those of different cultures and religious traditions (Incidentally, this is what was implied by physicist Brian Greene when he waxed at some length about his own family’s religious traditions, when he introduced this year’s Science Faith session at the World Science Festival recently. Am reasonably certain that you would have found that as objectionable as my own observations as to why I understand and appreciate the necessity of religious tolerance, having a large extended family which includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, Confucianists and Pagans, among others.).

    May I also observe that, in your enthusiastic willingness to deny that religion has any validity, you run the risk of ignoring what transpired in the relatively recent history of science in modern Western Civilization (since the Renaissance). Our understanding of a linear direction of time, or what, those of us trained in Geology have referred to as “Deep Time”, is derived from Judeo-Christian religious tradition.

  22. gillt

    I think it’s obvious that there simply aren’t enough scientists willing to take time away from their research, or even put it on hold, to communicate with the pubic. Unscientific America seemed to me to be faulting the science community for not producing more Sagans, Goulds or Feynmans, scientists willing to do just that. The irony, of course, is that two scientists who do an amazing job of communicating science were mainly, if not only, criticized in the book.

    Mooney: [Traditionalists] also seem to take the stance that the job of a scientist is merely to do research–even though there is an obvious science communication gap and few around today (as science journalists dwindle) to fill it.”

    Yes, that is the only job for the vast majority of scientists, what’s left are teaching professors!

    Dwindling in numbers though they may be, there are highly trained and experienced communicators already in positions to reach the public. They oftentimes, however, suck at communicating science, so instead of training scientists to do their job for them, lets help those whose calling in life it is to communicate to communicate better science.

  23. GM

    14. Jinchi Says:
    June 14th, 2010 at 5:26 pm
    For instance, take string theory.
    Why? Is there a political or religious debate about string theory? Laymen don’t need to have in depth knowledge of every area of science. They do need to have a basic understanding of the science that affects their lives. Those things aren’t so hard to communicate

    No true. There are plenty of things that require relatively deep understanding of the science (by that I mean even more advanced than the educated layman level of today) and that it is extremely important for everyone to understand and appreciate their implications.

    One example:

    Many people have this very misunderstood idea of evolution as ladder (you will see it all the time even from professional scientists who are not experts in evolutionary biology), when it is not, evolution is a tree. That’s very basic. An even deeper misunderstanding, however, even among those who still have working understanding of evolutionary theory, is the assumption that all all traits are adaptive, which is completely false. Because of the way population genetics and mutations work, species with small population size will accumulate a number of non-adaptive and even maladaptive traits. We are such a species and we are full of such traits. Not only are we full of such traits, a lot of the way the convoluted things that an eukaryotic cell does are the result of this effect. Which has very deep implications about the way we see ourselves and as such should be well understood by absolutely everyone. However, even if you don’t want to go into the math behind it (which is really simple) it requires a good understanding of genetics, evolutionary theory and basic molecular biology, which the vast majority of people don’t have. But here is no way to explain it well without that.

  24. GM

    People need to know the limits of their knowledge – they need to know what’s reliable, and in what circumstances. If you take them on a sightseeing tour beyond the boundaries of what is safe, then you need to put up the warning notices to say that none of this should be trusted.

    True. But if the people have this huge misconception about the way science works that it should all be true and set in stone, how do you do that without fixing that misconception first?

  25. GM

    16. Jinchi Says:
    June 14th, 2010 at 5:55 pm
    You can’t explain any science to cavemen.
    I think we can all agree that we don’t want GM serving as the scientific ambassador to the general public.

    I actually meant that literally. I didn’t call the public “cavemen”.

    Or perhaps you also understood it literally and have away to explain quantum mechanics to people who can’t read and write?

  26. GM

    8. Matt T Says:
    June 14th, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    Wow GM. You went from “scientists need to be able to think” to “scientists need to kill religion”. You’re a scientist, right? Tell me: what proof do you have that God doesn’t exist? What objectively verifiable fact do you have at your hands that tells you exactly how this world came about and why everything is the way it is?

    Precisely because I am a working scientists I don’t need a proof that God doesn’t exist. First, I can’t provide absolute proof about anything in the real world, so you will always come to me with that “argument”, and second, it is on you to show me that there is a reason to believe in God. Unless you can, he is a useless hypothesis.

    Claiming that religion needs to be eradicated is paramount to declaring that all people need to be Catholics. But since you’re so smart, I’m assuming you already have a response to this classic argument

    Where exactly is the argument? Catholicism is one of the many ways to be wrong about almost everything. Objective truth about the world is only one. How are the two things equivalent?

  27. GM

    19. Brian Too Says:
    Just look at the real effective communicators of science. They hardly ever say things like “… the metabolic pathways of the ATP molecular precursors…” yet that is stock-in-trade for many scientists. People who are acclaimed at connecting with the public are peerless at simplifying, and starting out with the most basic things imaginable.
    They say things like “This is Jimmy. Jimmy suffers from a disease that will likely kill him before he turns 25. Even now he is unable to do the things normal for a boy his age, and he has few close friends. Why? Jimmy’s body cannot process a nutrient vital to life…”

    Nice example, but you fail to see the problem with it. Which is that if you say “Jimmy’s body cannot process a nutrient vital to life…” you have not communicated any science to anyone.

  28. GM

    20. Deepak Shetty Says:
    June 14th, 2010 at 8:27 pm
    Here’s an experiment that Mooney and the posters here who believe that the problem is scientists dont communicate effectively should conduct. I assume that some of you are effective communicators and arent rude like the new atheists right?
    Choose a creationist/Intelligent Design(er). Convince him/her that evolution is good science and Intelligent design is not. If thats too religious for you then choose a climate change denier and convince him/her that Global warming is good science . Nothing makes a point like a good demonstration , it will show the rest of us hows it done right?

    Very good point, I have never thought about it before but I will use it from now on :)

  29. Deepak Shetty

    @gillt

    Unscientific America seemed to me to be faulting the science community for not producing more Sagans, Goulds or Feynmans, scientists willing to do just that.

    Where is the evidence that Sagan or Gould or Feynman made America more scientific? They only appealed to people with open minds.

    Saying scientists need to communicate better more effectively is as good as saying we need world peace. And you can see that this would barely change anything. Is there not a single effective simple scientific book on Global Warming? And if there is why are there still so many climate change deniers?

  30. Deepak Shetty

    @GM
    Sure , The argument isnt copyrighted :) . It frustrates me that people get hung up on essentially a second order problem. For communication to be effective someone has to be listening.
    How many current republicans could these effective communicators get to endorse evolution/global warming as good science in public?
    Till we can educate children better , I don’t see much hope for change.

  31. gillt

    Shetty: “Where is the evidence that Sagan or Gould or Feynman made America more scientific? They only appealed to people with open minds. ”

    What are you talking about? That has nothing to do with my comment and I never said they did. Whether these superstars make an impact is another question altogether. But that is the argument made in the book–that we need more good science communicators like Sagan.

  32. gillt

    @GM and Shetty:

    To be fair, Mooney never said he would or could convince die-hard AGW deniers or creationists. He said many times before that his audience are those on the fence over these controversial topics.

  33. Deepak Shetty

    @gillt
    Sorry I dont think it came across , I was questioning the assumption in the book , not refuting your point.

    He said many times before that his audience are those on the fence over these controversial topics.

    Perhaps(However I’d love to see Mooney acknowledge the cause behind die-hard creationists and how they should be tackled) . But I still don’t see any proof that the fence sitters can be convinced. Like I said the information is out there (atleast for the highly controversial topics) , so a fence sitter is probably one of the “teach the controversy” types. Again it should be a simple matter for Mooney to prove it right, convince some fence sitters?

    The other problem is that people who can influence decisions (especially negatively) aren’t fence sitters. The question isn’t just convincing die-hard fundamentalists, we would not be able to convince even otherwise reasonable people. People aren’t climate change deniers because no one has convincingly shown them the evidence. Whatever biases they have prevents them from seeing it.

  34. GM

    But convincing “those on the fence” on one of these subjects will hardly increase the total scientific literacy of society

  35. Nullius in Verba

    “You’re a scientist, right? Tell me: what proof do you have that God doesn’t exist?”

    Which God?

    “Choose a creationist/Intelligent Design(er). Convince him/her that evolution is good science and Intelligent design is not. If thats too religious for you then choose a climate change denier and convince him/her that Global warming is good science .”

    That would be an excellent idea! There are so few people who know what the evidence actually is (although many are utterly convinced that they do) and so many fallacious arguments used to try to prove them (as a result of poor science education in the past) that the result is sure to be educational.

    Although I would say that the aim should be understanding, not belief – a Creationist should at least know what the argument for evolution actually is – and I would say that trapping them into an obvious contradiction would be an acceptable alternative success criterion.

  36. Choose a creationist/Intelligent Design(er). Convince him/her that evolution is good science and Intelligent design is not. If thats too religious for you then choose a climate change denier and convince him/her that Global warming is good science.

    Why would that be a reasonable standard for a successful campaign?

    If you’re referring to widely recognized creationists/climate change denialists, then the challenge is completely pointless. William Dembski and Pat Robertson are never going to become public advocates for the theory of Evolution. Likewise, James Inhofe and his friends at the Heritage Foundation are not going to come around on the science behind climate change. These people are well compensated to believe the things that they do and they won’t let a little thing like their lying eyes convince them differently.

    If on the other hand, you’re referring to people who simply “don’t believe in evolution”, then science education has a very good track record of changing people’s minds (which is why conservatives want it banned from public schools). Likewise, doubt about global warming is fed by extremely wealthy interests who have no doubt that getting their message out pays dividends.

  37. GM

    34. Jinchi Says:
    June 15th, 2010 at 2:57 am
    Choose a creationist/Intelligent Design(er). Convince him/her that evolution is good science and Intelligent design is not. If thats too religious for you then choose a climate change denier and convince him/her that Global warming is good science.
    Why would that be a reasonable standard for a successful campaign?
    If you’re referring to widely recognized creationists/climate change denialists, then the challenge is completely pointless. William Dembski and Pat Robertson are never going to become public advocates for the theory of Evolution. Likewise, James Inhofe and his friends at the Heritage Foundation are not going to come around on the science behind climate change. These people are well compensated to believe the things that they do and they won’t let a little thing like their lying eyes convince them differently.

    I don’t think he was referring to Dembski and Pat Robertson. It was about your average evangelical Christian in some small town in Kentucky. But I don’t think “effective science communication” stands a chance there either

    If on the other hand, you’re referring to people who simply “don’t believe in evolution”, then science education has a very good track record of changing people’s minds (which is why conservatives want it banned from public schools).

    But the thesis of Nisbet, Mooney and co. is that “better science communication” and “proper framing” will solve the problem, not more science education. Why are you referring to science education?

  38. Anthony McCarthy

    If scientists are unwilling to take an interest in public affairs to the extent that they don’t bother to explain themselves, they shouldn’t be surprised when people don’t understand them.

    This imperious attitude that some scientists and those who think they’re the voice of science have, that taking some time to explain what they want that funding and support for and why science is an important part of the public school curriculum is extremely stupid. If it becomes wide spread among scientists they will pay a price and the country that could benefit from their work will pay one too. Not to mention the world.

    You don’t have the built in advantage of being able to buy politicians and pay for expensive PR like BP does, you want influence with the government you’ve got to get it the way the rest of us plebs do, you work hard for it. I’m talking to those of you who aren’t directly patronized by the money guys already. Welcome to the underclass, fellows.

  39. Anthony McCarthy

    People don’t tend to take to or learn much from “You’re ignorant and stupid and I’m not”. Especially since saying that proves you are.

  40. GM

    38. Anthony McCarthy Says:
    June 15th, 2010 at 4:58 am
    If scientists are unwilling to take an interest in public affairs to the extent that they don’t bother to explain themselves, they shouldn’t be surprised when people don’t understand them.

    Scientists are more than willing to engage with the public. It is the public that doesn’t want to listen.

    This imperious attitude that some scientists and those who think they’re the voice of science have, that taking some time to explain what they want that funding and support for and why science is an important part of the public school curriculum is extremely stupid. If it becomes wide spread among scientists they will pay a price and the country that could benefit from their work will pay one too. Not to mention the world.

    Science is not done for the specific benefit of anyone. Science is a method for understanding the world, which we have because it is better to understand the world than not to understand it. Although there will some die-hard philosophers who may dispute even that, but I am not going to bother with them, it is an “baseless assumption” I am willing to live with. Better understanding of the world may actually hurt some people who have a stake in other people getting it wrong. It may have no benefit to anyone. But for the human species as a whole, it is always good.

    The attitude that science should be funded because it provides tangible benefits in the form of cures for diseases and cool gadgets is utterly wrong, and deeply anti-intellectual. Which reminds me of this Nature article from last week:

    http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100609/full/465682a.html

    Absolutely scandalous.

    The irony of the whole thing is that we are actually way behind with a lot of those expected benefits precisely because most of research funding have been going to “translational research” and things that will “stimulate the economy”. If we had told people “Look, there will be no magical cures for cancer in the next few decades, we don’t understand how the cell works well enough to develop them right now, now let us do the research and figure out what we need to know before we can give you what you want” and invested all the billions that have gone into drug trials and development of therapies that either don’t work or only prolong the time a person spends alive in the hospital, we could have been in much better position. Instead we have to justify the crumbs we’re getting while outrageous amount are spent on absolutely silly stuff all the time by promising “cures” and “economic benefits”…

  41. This is still a chicken and egg argument, and I grow so weary of the intellectual immaturity on BOTH sides. One camps says “we must fix this crisis by changing how we communicate science to the public at their present, albeit lowered, educational level” while the other shouts back “we must fix this by changing how and how much science is taught to the public so they acn grasp science without framing.” The “No I’m not -you are” quality of all this was hilarious 14 or 15 months ago . . .

    GM, you are correct that education (from K to Gray) needs to change. We can’t have a society that deals with science properly if we don’t educate them as to how. But Chris and Sheril were right too – scientists do need to spend more time communicating in a way that works for those segments of the population who aren’t scientists.

    And Nullis, taking the uncertainty out of science when communicating it – particularly to decision making groups – is NOT fabrication or lying or any of the other terms you brought up way back up-thread. I can’t even count anymore the number of times that a scientist has been ignored when giving advice to a management body or political assembly precisely because s/he interjected uncertainty in his/her reporting. People who have ot make political decisions do not want, need, or respect uncertainty. If that’s all science brings them, science will always be rejected.

  42. @GM

    The attitude that science should be funded because it provides tangible benefits in the form of cures for diseases and cool gadgets is utterly wrong, and deeply anti-intellectual.

    I take it you aren’t funded by NIH, or NSF, or any other federal granting agency? Because if you were, and wrote your proposals from this stance, you’d have $0.00 to spend on your research.

    Is that sad? Perhaps . . .

  43. Anthony McCarthy

    Scientists are more than willing to engage with the public. It is the public that doesn’t want to listen. GM

    Oh, then it’s hopeless. We can all go do something else. I’ve got weeding that needs to be done.

    Science is not done for the specific benefit of anyone. GM

    Two points. First, the assertion that science that doesn’t have as its goal beneficial applications turns it into a hobby. And no one is required to take an interest in other peoples’ hobbies, never mind fund them.

    Second, I think you’ll find that the large majority of people agree with that last point and if there is no benefit to them in the picture they don’t care to fund the uncommunicative scientist’s quest to satisfy their curiosity. I wonder how many scientists, even the most theoretical and removed from utility, would pursue their hobby if they weren’t getting paid for it. Some would, there are musicians who do their work for nothing and take day jobs to support it. But most of us don’t pretend the world owes us for it.

    Luckily, I think most scientists aren’t such stuck up egomaniacs. Though they’re certainly pointed in that direction through peer pressure and imperious snobbery.

  44. GM

    Yes, my research is funded by the NIH, and yes, I don’t feel bad about it all. And yes, grants are “dishonestly” written in the “it is health-related” frame all the time so that people can get money to do actual science

  45. So you admit to framing your communications, even within the scientific community to obtain funding? How is that any different then framing in another societal context to try and get people to understand science? Why is one acceptable and the other reprehensible?

  46. Milton C.

    Jeebus. I’d really like to see GM’s utopian society, where the arts and humanities don’t exist, where we don’t think about ethical issues (because that’s “utterly worthless” – we should do whatever the hell we want and not worry about consequences), and we do nothing but sit in front of a lab bench all day and mutter to ourselves emotionlessly.

    We’ve established that GM’s a scientist. I’ll add something more since, as a scientist, I know a few people who sound like him: he’s unable to foster meaningful human relationships, as well.

  47. John Kwok

    @ GM -

    Given your nihilist attitude, it is remarkable that many scientists can – and do – communicate effectively with the public, whether it is at a small town meeting or a festival like New York City’s World Science Festival (And it, by itself, is not unique in the exceeedingly broad array of venues sponsored privately and pubicly, in which scientists are given ample opportunity to communicate their research to interested members of the public.). Sadly, I must agree with Milton c.’s recent observation (# 46) regarding your personality. It is a most apt assessment IMHO.

  48. GM

    46. Milton C. Says:
    June 15th, 2010 at 9:20 am
    Jeebus. I’d really like to see GM’s utopian society, where the arts and humanities don’t exist, where we don’t think about ethical issues (because that’s “utterly worthless” – we should do whatever the hell we want and not worry about consequences), and we do nothing but sit in front of a lab bench all day and mutter to ourselves emotionlessly.

    Apparently I have struck a nerve there. As I have explained many times, as a scientist you are supposed to be able to challenge all of your assumptions about pretty much everything. One of these assumptions is the value of the classics.

    The works of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky etc., are the pinnacles of human thought, we’re being told, and this is one of the most sacred premises on which our intellectual tradition is based on. What exactly are all those authors telling you though? 99% of it is about relationships between humans and they promote a very deeply anthropocentric view of the world. But that’s not at all how the real world works, the real world is not about feelings, ethics and morality, it is about moving matter and energy around. So all those great works not only don’t tell you anything of meaning, they actually actively misinform you about the real world. It’s not so hard to see, one just have to not unquestionably accept what he has been spoon-fed all his life as absolute truth .

    This is not to say that art is useless, quite the opposite. I have never said that. Or that some of the works in question are not great pieces of fiction. It is the influence they have and reverence they are held in that I have problem with.

  49. John Kwok

    @ GM -

    You’re just as bad as my favorite Morris, MN evolutionary development biologist, who once denounced my appreciation of Anton Bruckner’s music, simply because Bruckner claimed he had been inspired by his devoutly held Roman Catholic Christianity. It’s a shame that all you are doing is merely projecting your own beliefs and emotional insecurities onto these great works. Wonder if you would feel the same toward Mark Twain or Herman Melville or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work for similar reasons.

  50. GM

    John Kwok @ 49:

    Your posts shows that you have not understood absolutely anything about what I said above.

  51. John Kwok

    @ GM -

    I understand completely what you are saying, and I’m simply not buying it. One can’t condense human emotions and artistic aspirations downward so that they correspond to a view of the universe that is both rational and subatomic.

  52. GM

    One can’t condense human emotions and artistic aspirations downward so that they correspond to a view of the universe that is both rational and subatomic.

    1. What exactly does the above mean?
    2. Whatever it means, what is your justification for claiming it?

  53. Deepak Shetty

    @Jinchi

    Why would that be a reasonable standard for a successful campaign?

    Just to show it can be done. There are various assertions being made right?
    a. America isnt as scientific as it should be (we agree)
    b. Scientists should communicate better (we agree)
    c. That scientists communicating better would fix a major part of the problem (we probably disagree). If you wish to make this assertion you should be willing to prove it works as well right – after all we should use the scientific method , conduct some experiements and see the result, anecdotal as they may be? Again you need not take the Pat Robertson nut or a public figure who has a lot to lose (but you implicitly admit that these people reject science not due to lack of communication) , you can take any creationist , some of whom may be very resaonable in other aspects too. You might even try convincing people who say “teach the controversy”. If you have any experience arguing with these folks , you know why scientists communicating better will not work with most adults who have an existing bias. For all the hot button topics, good literature does exist, that it has not convinced the deniers must mean that the problem is not just communication (and it cant be the major problem either)

    then science education has a very good track record of changing people’s mind

    yes, when the mind is open, but it isnt science education that is being argued about correct? Unless you believe that part of the solution is that research scientists should also teach high school? I totally agree that if you could get good teachers to teach children good science from a very young age, perhaps we could reduce the problem – but not only would it need an overhaul of public education, it would also need some safeguards that parents cant undo what is learnt in school and that homeschooling is discouraged and frowned upon. I dont see any reasonable way of doing the latter points though. I’d also like to see qualified people on education boards – why the heck can a dentist be on an education board and decide stuff on biology?

  54. SLC

    Re Anthony McCarthy

    Two points. First, the assertion that science that doesn’t have as its goal beneficial applications turns it into a hobby. And no one is required to take an interest in other peoples’ hobbies, never mind fund them.

    Unfortunately, often times the beneficial applications of science are not at all obvious at the time a study is contemplated and performed. An outstanding example of this is the 1908 paper by Albert Einstein on the subject of stimulated emission. This rather innocent looking paper was published in the Annalen der Physik, a German physics journal. In no way, shape, form, or regard could Einstein or anyone else at the time of publication have contemplated the consequences of this rather theoretical paper. To Einstein, it was an interesting problem to study which appeared to have no obvious practical application. Wrong. The theoretical issues in that paper led to the development of the laser, a multi-billion dollar technology (the CD/DVD player on Mr. McCarthys’ computer uses a laser). Some hobby!

  55. Deepak Shetty

    @Philip

    GM, you are correct that education (from K to Gray) needs to change. We can’t have a society that deals with science properly if we don’t educate them as to how. But Chris and Sheril were right too – scientists do need to spend more time communicating in a way that works for those segments of the population who aren’t scientists.

    Nope , very few people deny that scientists need to communicate better. The argument is based around how much effective it would be without changes to education at a very low level (and other factors) and how much of the identified problem(‘Unscientific America’) it would solve by itself.

  56. SLC

    Re John Kwok @ #49

    Does Prof. Myers also not appreciate the music of Johann Sebastian Bach that was much inspired by his Lutheran religious beliefs? If so, he would be in substantial disagreement with Richard Dawkins, a big Bach fan.

  57. Deepak Shetty

    Anthony McCarthy

    Oh, then it’s hopeless. We can all go do something else. I’ve got weeding that needs to be done.

    Or post comments on intersection?
    Unless the core problems are identified they cant be fixed. We already know some people dont listen and there is no hope for them (examples were already posted), and that these people are even in positions of power. However if you do identify that the problem is people who dont listen the only solution is to get to them when they do i.e. children. Its sill that every conservative worth his salt has already realised this , but the so called scientific internet blog commenters dont.

  58. John Kwok

    GM -

    Maybe if you tried to think seriously about C. P. Snow’s concept of two cultures and ponder whether you are an apt example of one who has allowed himself to be trapped in the intellectual ghetto of one of them, then you might comprehend what I just said. Have no doubt that you would be as befuddled by Brian Greene’s interest in mixing the two, as evidenced, most recently, with his World Science Festival. Am I right?

    Again, Milton C. was absolutely right in noting this:

    “I’ll add something more since, as a scientist, I know a few people who sound like him: he’s unable to foster meaningful human relationships, as well.”

    It is with utmost regret that I feel compelled to remind you of it.

  59. GM

    53. Deepak Shetty Says:
    June 15th, 2010 at 12:00 pm
    Unless you believe that part of the solution is that research scientists should also teach high school? I totally agree that if you could get good teachers to teach children good science from a very young age, perhaps we could reduce the problem – but not only would it need an overhaul of public education, it would also need some safeguards that parents cant undo what is learnt in school and that homeschooling is discouraged and frowned upon.

    That’s what I have been arguing here for a very long time. Effort should be invested in having mandatory centralized nation-wide educational standards, and very high ones too, not in preventing creationists from taking over school boards in 50 different states. This would go a long way toward making things better. Yet aren’t going to see any scientific communicator even talk about it

  60. John Kwok

    @ GM -

    Apparently Ken Miller does talk about it, and, moreover, mentions it in his book “Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul”. And he hasn’t been the only one.

  61. John Kwok

    @ SLC (@ # 56) -

    That’s news to me. I thought he was a cultural philistine, no doubt carrying on in the grand tradition of his Viking forebears.

  62. GM

    John Kwok @ 59:

    I am still waiting for a post based on rational argument rather than mere assertions showing me why I am wrong. I have reasons to think the way I do, I explained them. You haven’t provided any such rational reason

  63. GM

    Apparently Ken Miller does talk about it, and, moreover, mentions it in his book “Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul”. And he hasn’t been the only one.

    I haven’t read that one. If I am not mistaken, it is also mentioned in passing in Unscientific America. That’s not my point though, what I had in mind is someone taking this as an active position and actually working towards that goal. What do we have things like NCSE for?

  64. Deepak Shetty

    @GM

    That’s what I have been arguing here for a very long time.

    I agree in principle with what you propose (though I find your solution too i don’t know extreme isn’t the right word ). I don’t see a practical way of implementing it even if all of us agreed which is where I think we also parted ways the last time :) .

  65. Anthony McCarthy

    SLC, Why did you think listing a number of applications for things contradicted what I said? And it was really more apropos at oracs.

    Considering the other conversation you seem intent on having with me, why would you celebrate someone who’s main scientific achievement was in contributing to the shutting down of labs basic research, in that case?

  66. GM

    64. Deepak Shetty Says:
    June 15th, 2010 at 12:52 pm
    I agree in principle with what you propose (though I find your solution too i don’t know extreme isn’t the right word ). I don’t see a practical way of implementing it even if all of us agreed which is where I think we also parted ways the last time

    Well, what many people here don’t understand is that when I talk about things, I come at the problem with the full awareness of the political impossibility of real solutions that tackle it at its root. Which more or less gives one the freedom to discuss them freely and talk about solutions as if they were possible, even knowing fully well they are not

  67. Nullius in Verba

    “And Nullis, taking the uncertainty out of science when communicating it – particularly to decision making groups – is NOT fabrication or lying or any of the other terms you brought up way back up-thread. I can’t even count anymore the number of times that a scientist has been ignored when giving advice to a management body or political assembly precisely because s/he interjected uncertainty in his/her reporting. People who have ot make political decisions do not want, need, or respect uncertainty. If that’s all science brings them, science will always be rejected.”

    I don’t recall bringing those particular terms up – but whatever.

    Politicians deal with uncertainty all the time – questions of social policy and economics are rife with uncertainty. And there’s absolutely no problem with a scientist being ignored because uncertainty was expressed in their reporting. Too much uncertainty is a perfectly valid reason for making such a decision. Perhaps politicians would make better decisions if uncertainty was expressed more often.

    I think what you might be referring to is the advocate’s position – an advocate wants the decision to go a particular way, irrespective of whether it is the right decision from the point of view of the politician or the people he or she represents. Seen from that viewpoint, then yes, under-reporting uncertainty is tactically wise, as it makes errors in your favour more likely. Advocacy has its place, and I am by no means condemning it. But science is not advocacy, and makes no judgement about the outcome. Science has no means to assign weights to costs and risks – reasoning “ought” from “is”. If you’ve told the truth and the politician has ignored it, that’s the politician’s responsibility, not yours. That’s what they’re voted in and paid to do, not you.

    The same goes for advocacy for funding. Remember, it’s not your money, it belongs to other people, and it’s not necessarily right that you get it.

    Speaking from my own experience, I’ve very often expressed considerable scientific uncertainty about consequences and have quite frequently been given the go-ahead nevertheless. If they want it enough, they’ll take the risk. So I guess it depends on the management. Maybe it’s different for other people. But even where it is, I still think it would be better to change the management than to change the communication.

    Is giving an impression of scientific certainty where none is justified ‘fabrication’ or ‘lying’? Let’s just say that I think it would take considerable moral flexibility to see it any other way.

  68. Well, what many people here don’t understand is that when I talk about things, I come at the problem with the full awareness of the political impossibility of real solutions that tackle it at its root.

    This is one of those assumptions that you should be challenging.

  69. Deepak Shetty

    @GM
    heh . Yep accomodationists cant tell the religious to keep their religion at home or the conservatives to keep their politics out of science or parents that they are doing a pretty poor job of raising their children or school teachers that they arent able to teach – scientists are an easier target though.

  70. Deepak Shetty

    @Jinchi
    Which part should GM be challenging?
    That you understand the argument?
    or that it is politically impossible?

  71. SLC

    Re Anthony McCarthy @ #65

    I am a little confused here, what lab is Mr. McCarthy referring to and who is the individual who shut it down? If Mr. McCarthy is referring to Joseph Rhines’ lab and accusing Martin Gardner of shutting it down, he is nuts. Mr. Gardner had no power to do any such thing. He merely criticized Prof. Rhines’ protocols. So have James Randi and Prof. Bob Park among others.

  72. Which part should GM be challenging?
    That you understand the argument?

    As a rule, you should never assume that you can read someone else’s mind.

    But the key point was the second.

    that it is politically impossible?

    That’s about as big an assumption as I can imagine. We’re not talking about breaking the laws of physics here.

  73. Deepak Shetty

    @Jinchi
    As it currently stands , I dont see the politicians being able to push anything remotely useful when it comes to public / science education. Are you suggesting that alternatives are possible? if so what and how?

  74. Nullius in Verba

    Jinchi,

    “That’s about as big an assumption as I can imagine. We’re not talking about breaking the laws of physics here.”

    That might be partly my fault. On an earlier thread, we had a go at GM for apparently advocating coercive population control measures to bring the global population down to about 15 million (IIRC). He clarified the point to say that he recognised that this was not politically viable, reminiscent as it is of eugenics; just that he thought that doing it was nevertheless the only hope for mankind’s survival.

    I think he is making a point of emphasising the political impossibility because I advised him that it would have avoided some of the unpleasantness had he done so earlier. But it appears to have been bad advice. I apologise to GM for that.

  75. John Kwok

    @ GM -

    We don’t have any organization I know of, such as NAS, AAAS, or NCSE, actively promoting the adoption of national standards for the teaching of science, as they exist in other Western countries, most notably France and Germany, if I’m not mistaken. And NCSE was not established for that purpose, but instead, to defend and to promote the teaching of sound mainstream science – especially biological evolution – from the actives of religiously-motivated “scientific creationists”.

    Sorry but I don’t have time to engage in extensive arguments with you. I am in the midst of revising an unpublished manuscript.

  76. Carl Sagan did more to politicize science (i.e. Nuclear Winter) than nearly any other scientist of his time. That you held hi in such high esteem in your book is a HUGE flaw.

  77. Sorbet

    Regarding string theory, you guys should read Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong and Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics. String theory cannot make experimentally testable predictions and therefore has become a kind of quasi-religion with a few select ‘high priests’ chanting mumbo jumbo simply for the sake of being mathematically elegant with no connection to the real world, forming a clique and opposing the appointments of young theoretical physicists who criticize the stringy status quo. Very much the hallmarks of religion; it’s all there in Woit and Smolin.

  78. Deepak Shetty

    @Mike H

    Carl Sagan did more to politicize science (i.e. Nuclear Winter)

    What other option did he have? (Assuming the accuracy of nuclear winter).Nuclear decisions are made by politicians , Sagan only acknowledged the reality.

  79. Nullius in Verba

    Sorbet,

    When it comes to quantum gravity, nobody can make experimentally testable predictions.

  80. John Kwok

    @ Sorbet -

    An interesting observation of yours with respect to string theory. Can’t comment further since I must plead the “Fifth” due to my ties – even if they are quite loose – to several of its proponents.

  81. SLC

    Re Sorbet

    It is incorrect to classify string theory as a theory of physics as we sit here today. It may best be described as a theory of mathematics that may or may not have application to the physical world. In this regard, it is in the same position as group theory was after it was developed by Galois and others or non-Euclidean geometry was after being developed by Reimann. It would not have occurred to either Galois or Reimann that their mathematical theories had any physical significance. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the physical significance of these mathematical theories became evident. The big problem I see with string theory, which I kno9w nothing about, is that it has been around for some 25 years now and doesn’t seem to have made much progress in explaining anything or predicting anything.

    It should be noted that not all theories of mathematics have physical applications. For instance, it would seem that Fermats’ theorem, which was finally proven at the end of the 20th century, has no physical application,

  82. Brian Too

    27. GM,

    I disagree, based upon the principle that different audiences require different messages. The hard core science delivery goes to the usual publication routes and can use whatever technical language is useful and suitable to the investigators.

    However what we are talking about here is interesting a non-technical audience. The technical audience is already interested, but you cannot assume that about a general audience. Starting with the hard stuff, or failing to explain the problem, and you turn off most casual audiences right at the start. That’s a path to failure.

    Good science communicators understand this and start at the beginning. They set up a human interest story, or they frame it as a mystery, or they sell it as a technology we could benefit from if only we understood a certain thing. There has to be a story hook. This is something that good writers, or story tellers, or actors understand. It’s about making your audience care about something you care about.

    If your audience pulls back and says “so what?” you’ve lost them.

    A good communicator gets the audience interested. Then they know that they can feed in more detail, more content, and the difficulty level can rise a little. However you must end with that rather than starting there.

    In my opinion, if there is a failing with scientists communicating with non-scientists, that’s where the problem is. The scientists want to get right to the “good stuff”, which assumes their audience is at the same knowledge and interest level as the scientist themselves, more or less.

  83. Deepak Shetty

    @Brian
    Your argument works if the non technical audience is either ignorant or misinformed and is willing to listen to whatever human interest story or framing you come up with.

    If you look at the controversial topics, do you really believe that is the case?

  84. GM

    82. Brian Too Says:
    June 15th, 2010 at 7:10 pm
    27. GM,
    I disagree, based upon the principle that different audiences require different messages. The hard core science delivery goes to the usual publication routes and can use whatever technical language is useful and suitable to the investigators.
    However what we are talking about here is interesting a non-technical audience. The technical audience is already interested, but you cannot assume that about a general audience. Starting with the hard stuff, or failing to explain the problem, and you turn off most casual audiences right at the start. That’s a path to failure.

    Maybe, but there is a difference between getting people to understand the science and getting them interested. It is not the same thing. You can get people interested but if they fail to put the necessary intellectual effort in it, they may not learn anything, or end up with some terrible misconception.

    I think plenty of people are interested in climate change. The denial blogs get a lot of traffic. Has this helped science?

    The technical information is absolutely necessary. Of course, few people need to know all the gory details, but “Let’s get’em interested and not obsess over details” not a healthy attitude.

    Good science communicators understand this and start at the beginning. They set up a human interest story, or they frame it as a mystery, or they sell it as a technology we could benefit from if only we understood a certain thing. There has to be a story hook. This is something that good writers, or story tellers, or actors understand. It’s about making your audience care about something you care about.
    If your audience pulls back and says “so what?” you’ve lost them.

    The problem is that if you set up a “human interest story”, people will think about the topic through this frame. And that’s not necessarily the best things, actually it is usually the opposite, as it leads to some serious misunderstandings and distortions of the science.

    This is wrong on a very fundamental level and it is wrong in specific situations. As I will not get tired of repeating, the goal of science is to advance our understanding of the world around us. So far by doing so we have found out that the world is cold impersonal place that does not care at all about humans. Communicating science by “creating a human interest story” hardly makes this point clear to anyone.

  85. Nullius in Verba

    “I disagree, based upon the principle that different audiences require different messages.”

    There is a continuous spectrum of audiences, ranging from “know nothing and care even less” to deep technical specialists. But this includes people who are interested, informed laymen who can cope with a bit of technical detail, the highly educated who can cope with quite a lot, scientists and engineers specialising in other areas who could probably cope with anything you can if you went through all the intermediate steps, and so on. We’re all “members of the public”. We’re all sat here in the audience.

    Even when talking to other scientists outside your specialism, it does help to say why anyone should be interested in knowing the answer to the question, to start with the basics. But don’t forget all the people in the middle, who do want to see some real content.

  86. Nullis,
    the U.S. manages commercial fishing in our EEZ through a process where fishery management councils make harvest decisions for the fisheries in their regions. Councils are Presidential appointees, and have industry, local stakeholder and federal members. They are supposed to rely on the fisheries science – stock size, reproductive status, impact of harvest – that is provided by the NOAA Fisheries Service. NOAA has some world class fisheries folks working there, so there is usually never a question of how good or complete or relevant the science is that is presented to the councils. That said, time and time again when the fisheries scientists come to a council and tell they that a new quota they are considering is likely to have this impact, within this bound of uncertainty, the council ignores them because they can’t tell the council exactly, with no error, what the impact of a change will be. So it is quite possible to report good science, have the uncertainty discussed and in terms that non-scientists can understand, and then have the science completely ignored because the uncertainty butts up against economic and/or political considerations.

  87. Sorbet

    SLC, I agree with your even more critical stance on string theory. It is indeed more mathematical than physical, although its proponents would like to claim it as a theory of physics.

  88. Sorbet

    John, one of string theory’s strongest proponents and your fellow Stuyvesant alumnus recently said that he does not expect string theory to be tested during his lifetime. We live in interesting times.

  89. John Kwok

    @ Sorbet -

    Am an agnostic on string theory, though more on the skeptical side, especially when it hasn’t accomplished anything remotely as the Modern Synthesis Theory of evolution – which I will concede is sufficiently flawed enough to have extended – in accounting for everything like antibiotic resistance in pathogens to observed instances of speciation. As for my fellow alumnus, I may ask him that should I see him next month at a midsummer alumni mixer.

  90. John Kwok

    some typos so am reposting here:

    @ Sorbet -

    Am an agnostic on string theory, though more on the skeptical side, especially when it hasn’t accomplished anything remotely as the Modern Synthesis Theory of evolution has – which I will concede is sufficiently flawed enough to have extended – in accounting for everything like antibiotic resistance in pathogens to observed instances of speciation. As for my fellow alumnus, I may ask him that should I see him next month at a midsummer alumni mixer (After I raise the issue with him as to whether he ought to continue attracting the “affection” of prominent New Atheists simply for soliciting financial sponsorship of his annual event from one well known foundation which has ample religious interests and seeks to tie them with those pertaining to science.

  91. Nullius in Verba

    #87,

    Good example. You have two competing factors – the immediate and the long-term interests of the fishing industry. The NOAA report on the consequences of each option, but how do you weight them? Which is more important to the people it will affect? The costs are weighted by the probabilities, but the costs are essentially political.

    When you say “the council ignores them” I suspect you mean that the council doesn’t do what you and the NOAA think they ought to – reduce the quotas. But you can’t deduce “ought” from “is” – and talking about what they ought to do is advocacy.

    I suspect that in this case the politicians aren’t being entirely honest. They’re leaving quotas high as a result of an entirely different political calculation that they don’t want to admit to, and the rejection on the basis of “uncertainty” is simply a convenient story.

    But even taking their story at face value, just because they didn’t lower the quotas isn’t evidence that they ignored the scientific testimony, or treated it inappropriately. They might have done, but on the basis of what you’ve said the question is still open.

  92. TB

    First, regarding @ Deepak Shetty’s “experiment.” I point you to the people running the Clergy Letter Project and the NCSE’s efforts to engage religious people about science. I’m sure they provide results.

    Second, there’s this:

    “44. GM Says:
    June 15th, 2010 at 7:19 am
    Yes, my research is funded by the NIH, and yes, I don’t feel bad about it all. And yes, grants are “dishonestly” written in the “it is health-related” frame all the time so that people can get money to do actual science”

    GM just inferred that he misrepresents his science in order to get government funding. And his defense is that everyone does it so it’s OK? We’re supposed to listen to his opinions regarding ethics and religion why?

    And GM, I’m going to be bookmarking that little nugget and sharing it with you for a looooong time.

  93. We’re supposed to listen to his opinions regarding ethics and religion why?

    I thought GM made clear in his first comment that he doesn’t believe in religion or ethics.

  94. John Kwok

    @ Jinchi -

    But GM apparently thinks that to be truly scientifically literate, then one must discard such “primitive” belief systems as religion and ethics. Apparently he isn’t familiar with philosopher Austin Dacey’s “The Secular Conscience”, which makes a most persuasive case as to why secular humanists – including atheists – need to have a well developed code of ethics, if only to demonstate that such a code is a viable alternative to those promulgated by fundamentalist religious fanatics.

  95. TB

    Ha! True Jinchi. But it’s certainly woth questioning whatever his take on value systems is, especially since his own system seems to approve of defrauding taxpayers.

  96. Deepak Shetty

    @TB
    Sigh not the compatibility crap again. The point is not that religious people cant accept evolution or conservatives global warming which we already have examples that yes they can. Its that people who reject it cant be converted by good science communication. I am asking for you to prove that you can convert say a creationist roman catholic and you are pointing out Ken miller is a roman catholic who believes in evolution or Pope John Pauls statement that evolution is compatible with roman catholicism.
    I repeat people who have fairly open minds , religious or otherwise may benefit from better communication. this was never the disagreement. The disagreement is whether this is the most crucial problem or the most important one.

  97. Nullius in Verba

    “I am asking for you to prove that you can convert say a creationist roman catholic and you are pointing out…”

    The point of science communication isn’t conversion. It’s understanding.

    This is fundamental. So long as you see the problem as one of advocacy, and how you are going to induce belief, political approaches like “framing” are going to continue to appeal. That’s politics, and its vulnerable to (and attracts) political opposition.

    The question should be: can you get a Creationist to understand evolution?

  98. TB

    Don’t try and patronize me Deepak, nor try and twist my words.
    If you want results, then go ask the people who are actually working on the experiment. Otherwise your challenge on an Internet blog comment section has as much validity as, well…

  99. ThomasL

    GM already acknowledged his opinions are likely unethical. It doesn’t take too much reasoning to get that if such is the case when he ponders the big questions of life (remember, it’s all just a math problem and morality is meaningless…) his actions are likely less than what most would consider ethical as well. That was several threads ago. His attitude about twisting truth to obtain funding and being perfectly O.K. with it is thus not very surprising. I mean such is all just a meaningless game after all, isn’t it? I tried to point out to him working ALL the way through a thought and recognizing ALL of its implications is an important aspect of being “educated”… It is how one gains consistency in thought.

    Reading his ongoing commentaries on theology does provide me with quite a bit of humor though. I wonder if he realizes he sounds as ignorant in such ponderings as he professes everyone else is in regards to science (although we have all had far more serious science education then theological training – and sorry, Sunday school isn’t serious anything, and most never go farther…). When discussing science the only opinions allowed are those who achieved PHD status, yet when discussing religion and theology or ethics and the humanities we are supposed to only deal with the most pathetic thinkers to be found. Rather funny.

    Despite almost all getting such ponderings on what is going on in religiontheology seriously wrong, one might start with pondering the idea of “God is agape” – exactly where is there any “thing” to point at in that line of thinking? Any who are still caught up in the physical existence argument are working on the kindergarten level… and have confused the Platonic philosophical construct for the religious one (that most are caught in one and fail to transition to the other, more authentic, construct is somewhat like the problem of getting the masses to understand science…).

  100. Deepak Shetty

    @Nullius

    The point of science communication isn’t conversion. It’s understanding.

    All right bad choice of word.
    But is understanding the only goal? Isn’t acceptance of scientific theory by the general population a goal as well? Or are you satisified with “I understand evolution, I just dont believe its true?”

    So long as you see the problem as one of advocacy

    I dont want to. Id love to say heres the theory explained , make up your own mind and have a good majority of people accept it. However this hasnt worked , is it not?

    The question should be: can you get a Creationist to understand evolution?

    Kurt wise I suppose(yes there are some things he doesnt get). And yes some creationists do understand evolution. Are you contending that most creations disbelieve evolution because they do not understand it?

  101. Deepak Shetty

    @TB
    You post about a project which get’s various clergy to sign a letter saying creationism is bad science, a project that includes statements like “Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. ”
    And you have the audacity to say I’m twisting your words or that I’m patronising you?

    The challenge is a straight forward one. That none of youll are willing to meet it is probably because you dont consider yourself good communicators (if so a surprising moment of honesty) or that you know it wont work or perhaps you may have some other reason, if so go ahead let me know. Don’t bother about religious people attempting to tell other religious people whats good science and whats good religion with “timeless truths”.

  102. TB

    Oh Deepak, if you really wanted to find out if this kind of communication works I’ve given you two organized efforts where you can inquire. No one here has to do any work for you.

  103. TB

    100. ThomasL Says:
    June 16th, 2010 at 8:49 pm
    GM already acknowledged his opinions are likely unethical. It doesn’t take too much reasoning to get that if such is the case when he ponders the big questions of life (remember, it’s all just a math problem and morality is meaningless…) his actions are likely less than what most would consider ethical as well.

    —–

    I think he did more than just acknowledge being unethical, he’s pretty much outed himself as a troll – simply quoting that comment back to him every time he posts will be enough to discredit anything he says.

    And IF he’s a real scientist, then his scientific findings should be suspect as well. After all, IF he lies to get funding (and we have no proof, just what we can infer) then what will he do to keep receiving that funding?

  104. GM

    96. TB Says:
    June 16th, 2010 at 3:38 pm
    Ha! True Jinchi. But it’s certainly woth questioning whatever his take on value systems is, especially since his own system seems to approve of defrauding taxpayers.

    ========================================================

    100. ThomasL Says:
    June 16th, 2010 at 8:49 pm
    GM already acknowledged his opinions are likely unethical. It doesn’t take too much reasoning to get that if such is the case when he ponders the big questions of life (remember, it’s all just a math problem and morality is meaningless…) his actions are likely less than what most would consider ethical as well. That was several threads ago. His attitude about twisting truth to obtain funding and being perfectly O.K. with it is thus not very surprising. I mean such is all just a meaningless game after all, isn’t it? I tried to point out to him working ALL the way through a thought and recognizing ALL of its implications is an important aspect of being “educated”… It is how one gains consistency in thought.

    =========================================================

    FYI, nobody is defrauding anyone. What many people fail to realize is that spending on “useless” basic research is what will eventually get the “cures” because the cures typically result from better understanding of basic biology. Everybody who knows a little about the way science progresses know this. Including the people who run NIH and how are just as “guilty” in what you accuse me of as I am. Right now the majority of NIH budget is going into things that are directly “health-related” and which as a general rule do not produce anything. There is a good argument to be made that those funds should be redirected to basic research, the public should be told to not expect quick returns in the few decades and the science should be let to take its course towards actual understanding of basic biology, which once it is achieved, will make “finding the cures” much easier.

    But it’s not going to happen because it is politically impossible to “sell” to the public anything involving expenditure of money with expected returns 30-40-50 years away from now.

    You can accuse scientists in “defrauding the public” so that they can play with their expensive toys at public expense, but it does not work that way.

    You sound a lot like certain republicans and their outrage over Drosophila research….

    P.S. For the record, what I have said is that such thing as absolute moral law does not exist and that ethics is a vacuous discipline. That moral law does not exist is a necessary conclusion based on what we have learned in the last few hundred years. It is extremely poor science to claim otherwise.

    This does not mean that we should go out and start raping and robbing each other. In fact, as far as I am aware, people who reject the the existence of absolute moral laws do not exhibit a unusual propensity towards committing crime, quite the opposite; the prisons are where the highest concentration of religiosity can be found .

    Reading his ongoing commentaries on theology does provide me with quite a bit of humor though. I wonder if he realizes he sounds as ignorant in such ponderings as he professes everyone else is in regards to science (although we have all had far more serious science education then theological training – and sorry, Sunday school isn’t serious anything, and most never go farther…). When discussing science the only opinions allowed are those who achieved PHD status, yet when discussing religion and theology or ethics and the humanities we are supposed to only deal with the most pathetic thinkers to be found. Rather funny.

    This argument has been throughly dismantled so many times that one start to seriously doubt the intellectual abilities of anyone who brings it up again. To claim that “you have to have theological education to speak on the subject” is pure BS. I don’t need any training in astrology to tell you that it is nonsense. Nobody has yet demonstrated that religion should be taken more seriously than astrology.

    Not only that, but is a safe bet that many theologians are atheists. It is highly unlikely that so many otherwise intelligent people would have studied the subject for centuries and none of them would have come to the inevitable conclusions that there is absolutely no reason to think that gods exist.

    BTW, nobody here claims that the opinions of those who have “achieved PHD status” should be taken seriously when talking about science. Competence does not equate having a PhD. What is asked for is basic intellectual discipline on one side and respect for expertise when you don’t have it.

    P.S. I am not sure where you came up with the “Sunday school” thing. I have been raised in the complete absence of religion. This means nobody has been indoctrinating me in believing in God but nobody has told me that God doesn’t exist either, it is just that I didn’t really hear about God until I was 6 or 7, at which point I had read enough science to be only able to laugh at the idea.

  105. GM

    104. TB Says:
    June 16th, 2010 at 11:58 pm
    I think he did more than just acknowledge being unethical, he’s pretty much outed himself as a troll – simply quoting that comment back to him every time he posts will be enough to discredit anything he says.
    And IF he’s a real scientist, then his scientific findings should be suspect as well. After all, IF he lies to get funding (and we have no proof, just what we can infer) then what will he do to keep receiving that funding?

    Wow…

    Here is what I said for those with very short attention spans:

    44. GM Says:
    June 15th, 2010 at 7:19 am
    Yes, my research is funded by the NIH, and yes, I don’t feel bad about it all. And yes, grants are “dishonestly” written in the “it is health-related” frame all the time so that people can get money to do actual science

    From this to using the word “lying” it takes quite a huge leap across the gap between intellectual honesty and Creationist Debate Tactics 101.

  106. ThomasL

    Well GM, I’m not “debating” you. I have tried to discern what it is you think. I have found a rather sloppy mind. I’m sure it’s more accurate when dealing with math and such equations as are found in most higher levels of scientific enquiries, but in the areas of language and social sciences it leaves quite a bit to be desired. It honestly makes little difference to me if we agree, though attempting to understand what exactly you mean by what you state can be difficult to parse.

    If something is “dishonest” it is generally termed to be “less than true” – more commonly just referred to as “a lie”. The reasoning behind it does not change the nature of what it is, and thus matters little; it’s just an exercise in rationalization at that point. Unless you really want to go down the road that process doesn’t matter, only results? That kind of reasoning ends up with “might makes’ right”, both logical conclusions from your line of reasoning, but you might not like that – thus the need to actually do the work and take your thoughts all the way to their conclusions. You may not want to, though don’t blame us when we end up confused if you don’t feel it is important. I only ask that you be consistent in your thinking and don’t throw out contradictions between differing threads.

    As I said, you are so far off base in what is going on in theology (as are most) I’m not even sure where to begin. First you have to do quite a bit of study in language and philosophy – both topics you find no use for. Though why you find the second of no use is quite surprising as all of our sciences did come out of one of the two branches of Philosophy (natural). It has only been in the very recent history of things that “moral” and “natural” philosophy split off into all the various “schools” that make up what we call modern education (science, politics, sociology and on and on). Thus the fact that it all got rather mixed together over the course of centuries of study and work shouldn’t be very surprising. In fact you can see the split (eventually leading to all the “soft” and “hard” disciplines) in the underlying question of all knowledge: “how do I truly know what is ultimately real”.

    That doesn’t mean it did justice to either the hard sciences or the soft (social) sciences. Both suffered. You see the result of the mixing and feel one is pointless and misled the other, rather than seeing they were both sidetracked into dealing with things they weren’t designed to deal with. One has to do with the “objectivity” of things (science) and the other attempts to look at the “subjectivity” of things (social).

    Science is great at giving us objectively reasoned answers, but does little to deal with the problem of subjectivity. The second problem, “subjectivity” can trace it’s complications all the way back at least as far as Socrates dialogs, in for example, “Lysis”, where every attempt to determine what a “friend” is ends in failure. Such “life” issues just do not work like a math problem, and for every rule you can likely find an exception even in your own life (something math doesn’t allow). Anytime the two concerns cross the result is bound to be confusion.

    When you start treating “subjective” questions as an invitation to do objective reasoning you will end up in trouble as Socrates tried to show us all those centuries ago. Thus when you hear “God” and go looking for a thing you are already lost. Unfortunately it’s actually worse than that, religious language is a very specific type of speaking (why the study of language is mandatory for anyone wanting to make sense of any of it). I’m not going to get into a huge debate with you over it, I’m not interested in trying to teach a four+ year program to someone in a blog. I am only pointing out you know not what you speak about. I will leave you with a couple clues, take them or leave them…

    “The religious dogmatist characteristically holds to philosophical viewpoints developed by empiricism or rationalism (without being circumspect about the consistency of the two). A usual manifestation of their dogmatism is in the philosophical notion that words stand for objective meanings. Language is referential or representational. The notion of the literal interpretation of the Bible requires this philosophical position.”

    “The struggle to bring meaning to that which is empty of meaning defined religion and made its beliefs, concepts, and rituals conspire to fasten meaning in life. An individual’s confrontation of his/her own nothingness remained a perpetual prospect, not a developmental task; but only as an individual confessed an ultimate emptiness did an authentic religious language provide cogency to efforts to think about their state of being. This is why religion in some form pervades the world’s cultures. The existential condition of meaninglessness knows no cultural bounds. It is “the human condition”. Nevertheless it is easily ignored.”

    The result of the ignorance of philosophical history is in all of these conversations (and much of the modern literature concerning it all) almost everyone is really just arguing over historical philosophical schools. And I think that is rather funny.

  107. GM

    107. ThomasL Says:
    June 17th, 2010 at 3:52 am
    If something is “dishonest” it is generally termed to be “less than true” – more commonly just referred to as “a lie”.

    I have always thought that when one uses “” to highlight a word, this is clear sign that its meaning is not to be taken literally… I may very well be wrong though, I am not an expert in the study of language…

    The reasoning behind it does not change the nature of what it is, and thus matters little; it’s just an exercise in rationalization at that point. Unless you really want to go down the road that process doesn’t matter, only results? That kind of reasoning ends up with “might makes’ right”, both logical conclusions from your line of reasoning, but you might not like that – thus the need to actually do the work and take your thoughts all the way to their conclusions. You may not want to, though don’t blame us when we end up confused if you don’t feel it is important. I only ask that you be consistent in your thinking and don’t throw out contradictions between differing threads.

    I see very little contradiction in my thought If it looks like there is a contradiction to you, it is the result of blog conversation being so fragmentary in its nature, and of people taking things out of context.

    However, I have not time about the “that kind of reasoning leads to the “might makes right”" crap. If there is no objective morality, as all the evidence points to, then that’s the way the world is. Period. You have to follow the evidence, not see things the way you wish them to be. See below for more on that.

    As I said, you are so far off base in what is going on in theology (as are most) I’m not even sure where to begin.

    So can you enlighten us on what exactly is going on in theology right now other than desperate scrambling about how to keep it at least somewhat relevant?

    First you have to do quite a bit of study in language and philosophy – both topics you find no use for. Though why you find the second of no use is quite surprising as all of our sciences did come out of one of the two branches of Philosophy (natural).

    Can you please show me where I have said that philosophy is useless? Exactly the opposite, I have always stated that scientific education these days suffer very badly from science being disconnected from its natural philosophy roots, for a long list of reasons that there isn’t time and space to discuss here.

    This is not to say that all of philosophy is meaningful, because a lot of it is utterly useless as it deals with nonexistent things.

    It has only been in the very recent history of things that “moral” and “natural” philosophy split off into all the various “schools” that make up what we call modern education (science, politics, sociology and on and on). Thus the fact that it all got rather mixed together over the course of centuries of study and work shouldn’t be very surprising. In fact you can see the split (eventually leading to all the “soft” and “hard” disciplines) in the underlying question of all knowledge: “how do I truly know what is ultimately real”.
    That doesn’t mean it did justice to either the hard sciences or the soft (social) sciences. Both suffered. You see the result of the mixing and feel one is pointless and misled the other, rather than seeing they were both sidetracked into dealing with things they weren’t designed to deal with. One has to do with the “objectivity” of things (science) and the other attempts to look at the “subjectivity” of things (social).

    That’s a utterly false dichotomy that is only valid if the “subjectivity” of things (the social) is on equal level with the “objectivity” of things (natural world). It is not. You can only think that the study of the “social” is as important or informative as the study of the natural world if you suffer from what I call extremely ignorant anthropocentric arrogance. If you don’t suffer from that, and you claim that the “social” is still important., you have to study the “social” in ants, plants, bacteria, etc, on equal ground. Those are already very well covered by ecology and evolutionary biology though.

    Science is great at giving us objectively reasoned answers, but does little to deal with the problem of subjectivity. The second problem, “subjectivity” can trace it’s complications all the way back at least as far as Socrates dialogs, in for example, “Lysis”, where every attempt to determine what a “friend” is ends in failure. Such “life” issues just do not work like a math problem, and for every rule you can likely find an exception even in your own life (something math doesn’t allow). Anytime the two concerns cross the result is bound to be confusion.

    See above.

    When you start treating “subjective” questions as an invitation to do objective reasoning you will end up in trouble as Socrates tried to show us all those centuries ago. Thus when you hear “God” and go looking for a thing you are already lost. Unfortunately it’s actually worse than that, religious language is a very specific type of speaking (why the study of language is mandatory for anyone wanting to make sense of any of it). I’m not going to get into a huge debate with you over it, I’m not interested in trying to teach a four+ year program to someone in a blog. I am only pointing out you know not what you speak about. I will leave you with a couple clues, take them or leave them…

    “The religious dogmatist characteristically holds to philosophical viewpoints developed by empiricism or rationalism (without being circumspect about the consistency of the two). A usual manifestation of their dogmatism is in the philosophical notion that words stand for objective meanings. Language is referential or representational. The notion of the literal interpretation of the Bible requires this philosophical position.”

    Once again, I have no time for that crap. Especially from people who claim that it is important to examine the history behind ideas. The history here is very clear. A bunch of ignorant goat herders wrote down their creation and historical myths (and they did in quite incoherent form), it then by historical accident happened to have an enormous influence on the way otherwise smart, but not much better informed people thought over the centuries. The same happened dozens and hundreds of other times in other parts of the world, it is just that those just as uninformed and ignorant people who produced different sets of incompetent creation myths didn’t end up ruling over the whole world.

    How one can claim both that “One has to be aware of the intellectual history” and “You shouldn’t take the Bible literally” is beyond me. It has been only relatively recently that the Bible has stopped being taken literally, as it has become intellectually indefensible to do so.

    “The struggle to bring meaning to that which is empty of meaning defined religion and made its beliefs, concepts, and rituals conspire to fasten meaning in life. An individual’s confrontation of his/her own nothingness remained a perpetual prospect, not a developmental task; but only as an individual confessed an ultimate emptiness did an authentic religious language provide cogency to efforts to think about their state of being. This is why religion in some form pervades the world’s cultures. The existential condition of meaninglessness knows no cultural bounds. It is “the human condition”. Nevertheless it is easily ignored.”

    That’s a direct admission of intellectual bankruptcy. If it has no meaning, it has no meaning. It by no means follows that elaborate collections of completely false fairy tales have to be made up because of that

    The result of the ignorance of philosophical history is in all of these conversations (and much of the modern literature concerning it all) almost everyone is really just arguing over historical philosophical schools. And I think that is rather funny.

    Ah yes, it is all “difference between philosophical schools” so we’re going to keep our superstitious ignorance safely hidden behind this excuse.

  108. TB

    GM, where did I use the word “lying?” I clearly said that all we know is what we can infer from what you wrote. And what we can infer is that you don’t beleive your research is health related, yet you happily write grant proposals “dishonestly” in order to get NIH money. Then you rationalize the “dishonesty” (your word, your quotes) by saying any science research should be funded and it’s the publics fault that the can’t understand that.
    That rationalization may have merit, but it doesn’t change the fact that you seem to feel it’s OK to frame your research “dishonestly” in order to get funding.
    You seem to feel you deserve that funding, that you’re entitled to it.
    You’ve revealed too much here, you know these statements are enough to spark an investigation your identity ever becomes known. Now you’re trying to mitigate the damage, and it isn’t working.
    I wonder how many people reading this are trying to figure out your identity? I wonder how many scientists hungry for grant money would be happy to blow the whistle on you?
    It not so much what you said that’ll get you in trouble, it’s the arrogance behind it.

  109. TB

    BTW, I love the counter attacks: “You can accuse scientists in “defrauding the public” so that they can play with their expensive toys at public expense, but it does not work that way.”

    Of course I’m not accusing scientists of doing anything. I’m not even accusing you of doing anything. I’m simply quoting what you yourself said. Hell, I’m doing you a favor by making you aware of your misstep. Trust me, there are lurkers on here who are looking back at your previous posts for clues to your identity.

    And I love how you use quote marks around “cures” and “health-related” and “guilty.” Here’s how I use quote marks: Your defense boils down to “everybody does it.”

    You know, all of what you claim may be true – the wink-wink, non-nod unspoken agreement to fund research. The difference is you didn’t leave it unspoken. You mouthed off about it on the internet and that kind of thing comes back to bite people all the time. That’s your blind spot, that arrogance.

    And you don’t even have to worry about me reporting you – you’ve probably made a ton of enemies over the years with that attitude. This is a public blog post, all it takes is for one person to follow one link. How many people do you know would love to have your job, your facilities, your funding?

    That’s your problem, I want nothing to do with you.

    But as far as just this blog goes, is we can happily disregard any of your opinions on science communication. Your distain for Mooney’s work is shredded by the hypocrisy of “framing” your research “dishonestly” in order to get NIH funding. It’s OK to do that but not improve science advocacy through science communication?

    Pfft! You don’t even rise to the level of troll. And I wouldn’t insult the New Atheists by putting you in their camp.

  110. Chris Mooney

    ok, that is enough for this thread, folks.

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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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