Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Science suddenly needs consensus?!?!

A very good discussion over at BMG about global warming/climate change which raises the issue of how lay folks understand and react to sciency folks. Politicizing science. Carve out some time and take a look. Here's a taste, a comment in the thread from one of my favorites, lightiris.

I'd be interested in the reaction to this of any sciencers out there.
No science is going to convince the "deniers" or "skeptics" or whatever you want to call them at this point. Climate change has jumped the shark, so to speak, and now resides in the realm of hoax and conspiracy theory. The science has been done, and anyone who claims there is any "debate" about that is a) lazy, b) disingenuous, or c)ignorant. Climate change has received a toxic injection of politicization, ensuring no rational treatment of the topic is forthcoming. The "deniers" or the "skeptics" have a vested interest in rejecting the evidence and furthering their narrative; they're not going to give that up any time soon, even though the overwhelming body of science is not on their side.

This issue is a perfect example of how this generation's crop of scientists is poorly trained. There's a reason MIT is now requiring eight semesters of English for its undergraduates: science, as a discipline, is unable to communicate effectively. It's not enough to hole up in your lecture hall or your lab and shun the unwashed masses, but that is what science has done. I've had a lot of conversations with educators as well as my own family members who are PhDs in hard sciences--genetics, geology, biology, virology--who all seem to indicate that this is a serious concern among the nation's university leadership. My brother-in-law even went so far to say that at his research university, the tipping point for graduate students getting good fellowships is a) their ability to reduce complex ideas into lay terms--in writing and b) their demeanor. The geeky, socially awkward science kid with the straight As is going to find s/he has some competition based on skills that they do not have. Fortunately, there are a small number of outliers to this trend--Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson, V.S. Ramachandran, and Neil Shubin to name a few--but the history is not good--and we're living the consequences. Science, too long ensconced in its labs and ivory towers, has become an object of ridicule rather than admiration. Neil deGrasse Tyson is particularly eloquent on this topic. Carl Sagan is is more likely weeping than laughing in his grave at what has happened since his groundbreaking dream of bringing complex science to the masses so that people can understand and make informed decisions.

The corresponding ascendancy of anti-intellectualism in the United States is a concomitant problem and is as likely to ensure our relegation to the international back row sooner rather than later, all the hand-wringing by conservatives about wanting "good schools" notwithstanding.

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