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Monday, July 20, 2009

More Questions Than Answers

I wrote my weekly “What I’m Reading” post and scheduled it to publish on Sunday… July 26. The bad news: I wanted to push it out there on July 19. The good news: there will definitely be a post this coming Sunday since I can’t figure out how to reschedule its publication date!

UnsciAmI follow a number of bloggers on ScienceBlogs. Recently a tidal wave of “discussion” about Unscientific America has left me dismayed by the lack of civility and the comments by people who haven’t read the book.

I downloaded the tome to my new iPod Touch with Kindle reader, and whipped through it in a day. My reaction overall is mixed. I do not see the problem as a lack of science literacy (has the general public ever really understood much about science? Or history? Or literature?) No, I see a lack of respect for science and scientists as the real issue. We need to regain public trust!

Adding communication classes to PhD work seems unlikely to solve the problem of a lack of respect for science. As much as I loved the work of Carl Sagan, having his clone about today would probably do little to reassure the general public. We were promised “better living through chemistry.” While DDT could zap mosquitoes and eliminate malaria, it had detrimental effects on the environment. The green revolution that has allowed the overpopulated world to be fed has taken its toll on the land. People now mistrust the agribusiness industry. In medicine, it seems like papers trumpet polar opposite results; the public can’t decide what to believe, and thus decides to believe no one.

The major complaint about the book over on ScienceBlogs regards religion. Mooney and Kirshenbaum take PZ Myers (Pharyngula) to task for “crackergate.” I have only been hanging out in the blogosphere for about 6 months, so I missed the original escapade. Basically, PZ, an atheist, showed photos of a defiled communion wafer on the blog a few years back. I remember hearing a bit about this in the mainstream media at the time. My reaction: (1) I guess he really wanted to piss people off; and (2) don’t the people whining about his “blasphemy” have something bigger to worry about? The chapter also discusses others in the blogosphere who are referred to as “the new atheists,” an in-your-face breed of nonbelievers. I have to agree with the contention that aggressive atheists turn off the holy rollers, especially when their faith is mocked. That is not the way to earn their respect; however, even if Carl Sagan came back from the dead to poetically tell them that the beliefs of their faith (creationism, etc) are wrong, it is unlikely that they will budge.

Ultimately, two antithetical forces are at work here. Science demands testable facts to support its theories. Religion is based on faith which requires belief without proof. Having grown up in the bible belt, I can tell you that new earth creationists are not swayed by the fossil record or any other evidence you present regarding the reality of evolution. They believe.

The book raised some interesting points and gave me things to think about on the airplane. It’s a good starting point for the discussion on attitudes toward science in the US, but I don’t believe it provides the complete answer we seek.

5 comments:

  1. I haven't heard the argument from this angle, Pascale...that scientists have lost the public's trust. Don't we have a responsibility to report findings even when they contradict findings in the literature? How does one keep the media from picking up your findings and touting them as the next cure?

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  2. I don't know how we keep the media from distorting the nature of science. Let's face it, all science is incremental; it is only in retrospect that we can examine a body of work and see a paradigm shift has occurred. Even the space race, the result of a bunch of money and our "American Can-Do-ness" proceeded in fits and starts, with experimental failures along the way. If it hadn't been incremental, then we would have just built a rocket and sent it to the moon; it wouldn't have taken a bunch of Gemini's and 11 Apollos!
    Part of the issue may be the explosion of the news media with a round-the-clock news cycle, eager to exploit any sound bite that sells.
    I heard a talk at the Diabetes meetings a few years back on the discovery of insulin. A number of groups were closing in on insulin at the time, but Banting got there first. After insulin was brought to market, Banting turned his attention to cancer, but never got anywhere with that problem. The speaker argued that many small observations and advances in technique were converging to allow the discovery and use of insulin to occur. We weren't at that point with cancer yet, thus Banting's failure to bring another major advance to the world.
    Maybe what the public needs to know isn't specific scientific evidence or facts, but a better appreciation of the way little bits of knowledge ebb and flow, eventually leading to what they think of as "discovery."

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  3. Totally agree with your agreement :)

    "I have to agree with the contention that aggressive atheists turn off the holy rollers, especially when their faith is mocked. That is not the way to earn their respect; however, even if Carl Sagan came back from the dead to poetically tell them that the beliefs of their faith (creationism, etc) are wrong, it is unlikely that they will budge."

    The American brand of fundamental Christianity is unqiue because the extremely religious Christians in other parts of the world don't share the same views. Somehow they think everything is relative and reality is in the head and their way is the right way and the rest of us are going straight to hell. At the same time I like their family values and clean living and they are welcoming of mixed race couples (provided of course you believe the earth is 5000 years old).

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  4. Not all American Fundamentalists welcome mixed race couples; it varies from sect to sect. And yes, I am going to hell if they are right, but that's OK cause all my friends will be there!

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  5. Quick question unrelated to the point of the post. You say
    "I wrote my weekly “What I’m Reading” post and scheduled it to publish on Sunday… July 26. The bad news: I wanted to push it out there on July 19. The good news: there will definitely be a post this coming Sunday since I can’t figure out how to reschedule its publication date!"

    How do you write it early and tell it to publish on a specific date? I'm thinking my blog posting would not be so erratic if I could write a post and then tell it to post it in a couple days if I write several on a single day.

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