Despite its importance for the economy, education, escalating health care costs, and national security, science rarely plays a role in the debates and election process. Shawn Otto and a group of others from a mix of professional backgrounds, sought to address this by trying to force science into the dialogue. The statistics on the number of science questions posed and answered was tracked and tallied and between some 1400 questions answered, exactly 6 mentioned science, and 3 of those involved UFOs. So in selecting national leadership who make decisions regarding the aforementioned issues, often without the input of advisers who have a background in science, Otto and others wanted to get the candidates to address some of these issues by campaigning for an opportunity to be heard, soliciting questions from the scientific community as well as anyone else interested in having their questions answered regarding the candidate’s positions, and out of this grew ScienceDebate 2008.
Between presidential elections, Otto wrote a book about the current state of science in this country, Fool Me Twice. Over the course of 300 odd pages, he makes a lot of interesting points regarding where science started in this country, where we are, where we might be headed, and most saliently perhaps, why increasing the dialogue between academic scientists and the public is important. It wasn’t a particularly quick read, but I thought I would highlight some of the points that really resonated with me.
The Founding Fathers names tend to get tossed about quite recklessly these days. The case Otto makes is initially that the guys on our side of the pond were more focused on tangible products and innovating new products as well as ideas. By comparison, in Europe, people were more focused still on theory and philosophy. Part of the Founders’ philosophy for our new nation was that it was imperative to have an educated public so that they could make informed decisions about who to elect and why. To this end, public education was a key part of making this all work; denying education to those who couldn’t afford it was in nobody’s best interest. I think this is an interesting point to consider given the current state of educational reform as well as the current trend of science-denying in large swaths of society.
The next point that really interested me was the way the public’s perception of science has changed over time. After end of World War 2, people had witnessed the awesome power of weaponized science when we bombed Japan. The Manhattan project was one of the first really big federally funded scientific endeavors, and as we descended into the Cold War the fear of nuclear holocaust had a profound effect on our policies here. It is part of why the national interstate system was built: decentralization of urban areas and the possibility of evacuating a major metropolitan area in the event nuclear missiles were fired (don’t think too hard about the futility of such a measure). It was also really interesting to see how the threat of communism constantly drove the way we did things in this country, from pouring tons of money into defense and the arms race as well as the space race. I was walking through the Smithsonian’s American History Museum the day after reading that section and was really struck by the way several decades of trying to stem Communist Expansion and Soviet Power influenced our scientific funding. From WW2 to Korea to the Cold War to the Vietnam War to the Soviet Collapse and our hidden role funneling weapons to the Mujahideen, to the current situation we find ourselves in with our own technology being used as weapons against us and the threat of bioterrorism, as well as good old fashioned nuclear bombs. Through this whole period, the government increased their support of research and development, meaning that scientists had to justify their cause to the public with a decreased frequency, leading to reduced dialogue between the two parts and increasing mistrust and skepticism.
The last point that really resonated with me regards the prevalence of what is defined as “postmodern theory,” the idea that everyone’s ideas are valid because there is no absolute reality, directly conflicts with hypothesis driven research and a scientific knowledge based on fact. If you are willing to accept that everyone has a right to their own opinions, or that no religious belief should be held higher than another because everyone’s got a valid right to whatever they believe, somehow the out growth is that when it comes to science, everyone’s ideas are equally valid. But when it comes to ideas that are not based on sound experimental evidence that are circulated and held to be equally as valid, that’s a huge problem for public policy and public health. The persistence of the belief that vaccines cause autism, that climate change is a fraud, the continual push to have creationism accepted as an equally valid counterpoint to evolutionary theory, all cloud and confuse the discussion.
Otto ends the book with where things are headed. At the end of the day, this is a multifaceted problem which will require a change in the way we think about these issues from all sides. Decreased emphasis on science education at the expense of more basic reading and writing standardized test-based performance evaluations are really hurting the country because we get away from what makes learning fun and innovative and focus instead on memorization and regurgitation. Scientists need to be out there more sharing the value of their work and educating the people, even if they are resistant. There is also a rapidly expanding gulf between generations and comfort with technology which isn’t going to go away. Assuming the public is disinterested or too dim to understand hurts everyone.