However, #scio12 also left me surprisingly conflicted and frustrated.
To me, science is hope. It's the process by which we discover our origins, try to understand our present, and help shape our future. It holds the promise for addressing humanity's greatest challenges. And it's even more than that - it's what lets me watch my little boy's eyes light up when I tell him birds are, in a very real sense, dinosaurs. It's what makes every make-believe launch of a rocket ship into outer space just a little more fun. It's what makes every moment in the backyard an opportunity for discovery. The people who pursue science and who share it with the rest of us are among my most valued heroes. It's really that big a deal to me.
And yet, scientists continue to feel the effects of a withering, coordinated attack in our politics and in our culture. This is nothing new, of course - but the attack is increasingly well-financed, sophisticated and diverse. The strategy is to associate many scientists with something foreign, conspiratorial, and nefarious. To create just enough public doubt over well-established scientific consensus that certain people avoid accountability. To create an atmosphere that prompts everything from government censorship to death threats, and compels scientists to think twice about speaking up. Failing that, to marginalize scientists to the point where excluding them from important policy decisions is commonplace. The success of this strategy, of course, relies on a relatively uninformed and fairly disinterested population.
I think most #scio12 attendees agree generally on the political and cultural challenge. I also think there are a good number of individual people there who do their own part to address a small piece of it. But collectively, I don't think this community has anything resembling the sense of urgency or the strategic consensus required to overcome it.
There were plenty of panels that focused on particular pieces of this. One focused on science literacy. Another on outreach. A couple more focused on politics. And a very important one focused on interacting with the media. And from the panels I attended (and others I read about via twitter etc) I was struck by how reluctant so many scientists are to engage beyond their own community. They talked about the inherent and legitimate risks scientists (and especially non-tenured scientists) take just by talking to reporters and all the things that could go wrong. There was very little about what could go right. There was skepticism that anything could be accomplished by "framing issues" or PR campaigns. There were many examples of politics encroaching on sound science, but very little about scientists organizing or fundraising or running for office or developing strategic communications campaigns.
From my perspective, #scio12 was an amazingly deep dive into the details and tactics of science communication, up to and including the differences in brain chemistry between liberals and conservatives. But all I could keep thinking of was what an unnamed George W. Bush Administration aide (long rumored to be Karl Rove) told Ron Suskind in 2004:
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'And I can't help but think that's what science is up against today. Seriously.
What's even more frustrating is the individual elements of a strategic plan to win this fight - and believe me, it is a fight - were everywhere at #scio12. I wish more people could have seen Matt Shipman tremble when he described to me the righteous fury he feels over injustices in his community - and then how he channels it positively through his First Step Project. I wish more people could summon the measured dignity and good humor Josh Rosenau constantly displays when he peacefully confronts his adversaries on the issue of teaching evolution. And I wish someone would just give Danielle Lee a microphone, stick her in front of a television camera, and tell her to just say whatever comes to mind - because, well, see for yourself:
(One take, people. ONE TAKE. Unscripted. Imagine what this would be if I didn't suck so bad at recording video.)
I realize, of course, that it's not #scio12's responsibility to stimulate a grassroots effort to make science more popular and relevant, or compel politicians and business leaders to see a huge downside to censoring or otherwise obfuscating science. And I also realize that there are dozens - maybe hundreds - more examples of people doing the right thing among the attendees. And yes, it's very important to have sessions about literacy and outreach and dealing with the media and what makes a conservative's brain tick.
But I for one am tired of analyzing the contour and measuring the force of the fist punching "science" in the face. The other side has a strategy, and they are committed to action more than analysis. They're always on offense. It's time to develop an overarching strategy that positions science and scientists as the good guys and critics as the bad guys. It's time to move the needle of public opinion, and it starts by increasing the number of people who actually know a living scientist. It's time to coordinate efforts, develop a real commitment to outreach, and then just go out and git'er done.
I think what pisses me off most of all is that I haven't thought it all through, and I don't have the time to do it myself. But despite this rant, I am hopeful - if for no other reason than the amazing people who put on and attend #scio12.