Meanwhile, as Julie Marsh points out, the state of Texas continues to push for alternatives to evolution in its science curriculum in schools. Even after the Lancet retracted its infamous paper suggesting a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism, The Huffington Post published a piece by David Kirby insisting the retraction "changes nothing." (and guess what? this post is the first thing you see when you google "Lancet retraction.") And sadly, the South Dakota House of Representatives just passed a resolution - well, let Kate Sheppard explain:
The resolution, approved by a vote of 36-30, states that public schools should be required to teach students that "global warming is a scientific theory rather than a proven fact" and that a variety of "climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics" could be changing the weather. Yes, that’s astrological, as in horoscopes. And as Brad Plumer points out, thermology involves the science of infrared body imaging. Not quite clear what role that might play in global warming.In Utah, one state legislator called climate change "in fact a conspiracy to limit population not only in this country but across the globe," and prompted the state Assembly to pass a resolution urging the federal government to stop its "carbon dioxide reduction programs."
Now the New York Times reports that opponents of science are trying to link some of these issues together - leveraging misinformation about climate change to promote misinformation about evolution. It cites a bill filed in Kentucky that tries to question the science on both.
From a politics and communications perspective, science is getting its butt kicked right now on the state level. And while the stimulus package Congress passed a year ago gave science funding a boost, overall sound science isn't doing all that much better on the federal level.
This is a serious problem for everyone in many ways. Right now I'm focusing on my line of work. When science is attacked, people don't know who to believe on issues of fact - and they can't make informed decisions. If you're a business with science-based product, you're vulnerable to any kind of fear-based campaign with halfway-decent, focus-grouped messaging. You know, like "there's antifreeze in vaccines." (there isn't.) Further, if a business tries to stand up for science, it's attacked as mercilessly profit-driven. Who's right is irrelevant.
So where is the campaign to fight back?
The truth is there isn't one. What we have is a handful of decent books like Unscientific America and Denialism, a lot of really smart science and medical bloggers, and Bill Nye. There is a grassroots group (more accurately, a group of groups) called Citizens for Science that tries to take on the issues facing science education - but you may notice that they list no chapters in the states mentioned above - Utah, South Dakota, and Kentucky.
Science has a serious PR problem, and it's this: Critics of science are searching people out and talking with them in the simplest terms possible. Scientists and "science writers," if they talk at all, are basically talking with each other.
Even Bill Nye, who really tries to talk with non-scientists, likes to talk about meeting Stephen Hawking. He's really preaching to the converted.
The blogosphere represents an outstanding opportunity for scientists to share ideas with the rest of us. And there are hundreds of really smart scientists writing very impressive blogs - most of which use words I've never seen. But on issues like climate change or evolution or when science is criticized generally, Not many science bloggers I've seen like to talk with the "persuadables." They prefer to eviscerate their critics, and insult those who might follow those critics. On science blogs, scientists are sharing their points of view with their colleagues, and they're adding some powerful snark for good measure. It may be good science, but it's not good PR. And what's happening in the blogosphere is happening elsewhere as well.
I've heard people say "we need to make science cool" - a lot of that talk was at ScienceOnline 2010 - and that would be nice, but I don't think that's really the answer. "Science" isn't really going to beat out American Idol or the NFL or whatever.
Cool is important, but I think we need to make science relevant. There's a difference. For example, I think every scientist should listen to Robert Krulwich's 2008 Commencement Address to graduates of Cal Tech:
When a cousin, or an uncle, or a buddy comes up and asks you, "so what are you working on?" even if it's hard to explain, even if you know they don't really want to hear it - not really - I urge you to give it a try. Because talking about science, telling stories to regular folks is not a trivial thing. Scientists need to tell stories to non-scientists because science stories - and you know this - have to compete with other stories about how the universe works and how the universe came to be. And some of those other stories - Bible stories, movie stories, myths - can be very beautiful and very compelling. But to protect science, and scientists - this is not a gentle competition - you've got to get in there and tell yours, your version of how things are and why things came to be.Yes, we should celebrate science and scientists in our pop culture. But it's not enough. Science has to be accessible and relevant. Those who do it must be able to talk about it - not "media trained" but able to explain, in simple terms, what it is, why it's important to them, and why could be important to everyone else.
Further, people have to be able to participate in it, at least in some way. Darlene Cavalier and Michael Gold are developing this wonderfully important and engaging website called Science for Citizens that gives regular folks an opportunity to participate in real science projects run by real scientists. Of course, I learned about this by watching Darlene present it to a room full of scientists. And I saw some of those scientists mumbling things like "that's not really science."
What Darlene and Michael are doing is profoundly important, and it deserves enormous support. Not everyone is going to be a PhD but everyone should have the opportunity to participate in the scientific process, and feel the rush of discovery and awakening that comes with learning and experiencing new things.
As more people have that understanding and perspective, I think we'll see much more support of science generally and far fewer attempts by state legislators to obfuscate or reject what we know is true.
So gear up, science bloggers... I'll be sharing more thoughts soon...