08 October 2012

Are science writers in denial?

While it's still a few months away, I'm really looking forward to ScienceOnline 2013 and the panel I'm co-moderating with Emily Willingham called "Tackling science denialism with a systematic game plan."

I'm very concerned about recent developments in politics and how they relate to science.  A lot of people know about Congressman Todd "legitimate rape" Akin of Missouri.  But if you don't follow science and science policy closely, you may not have heard about the issue of sea level rise in North Carolina or the recent comments from Paul Broun, a Congressman from Georgia.

I'm not simply concerned about these developments - I'm concerned that there are no strategies even under consideration to address them.

A few months ago a state government-appointed scientific commission estimated that the sea level in North Carolina would likely rise by 39 inches over the next century.  That represents an acceleration over previous years, mostly due to climate change.  The estimation is based on sound science, and it's actually a mid point of more and less severe estimates.  Unfortunately, it also means that the houses and offices and shops you build right on the beaches of the Outer Banks will likely be underwater in a few decades.

That didn't stop the state's construction industry, however. They got a law passed saying the scientists were wrong, and it was spearheaded by a business owner who says climate change isn't real.  So the commission has to go back to the drawing board - probably until they get the numbers to match something the builders like.

So the scientists and environmentalists did what in my experience they often do - they mocked the local building industry for a while, wrote some snappy blog posts, and then they moved on to another topic.

But I'm not interested in mocking adversaries.  I'm interested in beating them.

I'm interested in forming an alliance with insurers, who may be forced to provide coverage they know will cost them a lot of money.  I'm interested in passing new laws forcing people to take personal responsibility for the construction choices they make.  I'm interested in setting up a liability system similar to the one we have for brownfields - essentially, if you buy a building on land we know isn't suitable for construction, you're responsible for the cleanup costs and then some when that place is condemned.  And from a PR perspective, I'm interested in seeing what might happen if we start throwing that word around - "brownfield." I'm guessing that would get a reaction.  And I'm interested in sustaining that effort.

And now we have the curious case of Dr. Paul Broun, the man representing Georgia's Tenth Congressional District.  Video surfaced last week where Dr. Broun said that evolution, embryology, and the big bang theory are "lies from the pit of hell" designed to fool people into thinking they don't need a "savior."  That "as a scientist" he's seen data that say the earth is about 9,000 years old and was created in six days.  And yes, this man serves on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology with Congressman Akin.

So cue the blog posts.  Cue the angry statement from Bill Nye. And then watch the community move on to the next outrage.

Dr. Broun is running unopposed.  In a district that is home to the University of Georgia, a man who sees "data" of a young earth is running unopposed.  So his comments truly have no consequences.  It's not as if he's going to be removed from the Science Committee.  To me, the strategy would be simple- it starts with fielding a candidate who offers a different approach to interpreting information.  But I'm concerned that this community - the one with so much to lose if issues are brought up and then forgotten - denies they can do anything more than write about it.

More thoughts on the basic pillars of denial in the science community as I find the time to write.


Tuomas Aivelo said...

Regarding to congressman, as a someone living in a country with multiparty system (and several representatives chosen from one district), I see it kind of problem of a system: The republicans don't want to challenge the current congressman, as party leadership could see it as being difficult, and if the district if safely republican-voting, then they will always pick a republican over democrat.

It's not like you could really create a race to congress on science issues. That would be thrilling, but no, it just won't happen.

David said...

Tuomas, we're actually seeing more primary challenges in the Republican Party these days. Sadly, the challengers seem even more hostile to science than the incumbents.

I don't think a primary challenge is impossible. In fact, I think any kind of challenge will bring some accountability to the words and actions of our elected representatives.

Unknown said...

I think this is a really positive move, well done for pushing it.

I wonder, is there a term for land that is currently suitable for development, but which we can comfortably predict will not be within a few decades? Redfield? Might be a handy way to get people thinking about land suitability in terms of its future instead of its past.

Zen Faulkes said...

I keep seeing this piece in my feed, so apparently a lot of people like it.

I, however, am puzzled.

What would you have science writers do? They are a small group of people spread out all over multiple continents. Are they supposed to pack it up, move to some random American state, establish residency and run for office?

David said...

Zen, a completely valid point and the subject of future posts and the #scio13 panel I'll be co-moderating.

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