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Jan 26 2012

More Politics at Science Online

The session that John Timmer and I ran at Science Online 2012, “You Got Your Politics in My Science,” was not the only discussion of politics at the conference. Not even close. The crowd of people from which Science Online participants are drawn are highly aware of politics, particularly as they pertain to science, but this was one of the years when politics surfaced as one of the main sub-themes of the sessions. And of course, this being the kind of conference it is, there are plenty of people writing about this online.

Philip Yam of Scientific American wrote about our session at Observations, pulling out details that I hadn’t in my quick write-up:

But even a nicely framed story would do little to change minds if the message isn’t properly targeted. People who have found their way to the fringe are unlikely to respond to persuasion going the other way. Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus (Simon & Shuster, 2011), which explored the autism fear of childhood vaccines, mentioned he wouldn’t bother writing about celebrity anti-vaccinationist Jenny McCarthy as it wouldn’t advance the story anymore. Of course, if McCarthy gets her own talk show, the vaccine-autism controversy could reenter the public discourse in a big way, demanding responses from more knowledgeable sources.

Instead, the attendees talked about reaching the unconvinced and finding the “bridge” audience. Mommy bloggers, for instance, are a good group to reach out to for dispelling myths about vaccines. One attendee mentioned trips to pharmaceutical labs as a means of demystifying the industry. The question then came up about who the “mommy bloggers” are for climate change, evolution and science literacy.

Pascal Lapointe dove into cultural cognition at Agence Science-Presse, taking pieces from several sessions on how to bridge the divide. The article is in French, but Google Translate does a good job with it (tweaked slightly):

“I think there are people who can be convinced,” said John Timmer, ready to change their mind. But sometimes you have to take circuitous routes: in this workshop, one participant gave the example of the environmental activists from Kansas who have given up convincing their fellows of the reality of global warming, but managed to enlist them in efforts at high-level energy savings and government investments in new energy (playing the card of competitiveness).

A role for politicians

It would be easier to build bridges if science was taken more seriously in politics. Shawn Otto–who was on the team that launched Science Debate 2008 and is trying to launch Science Debate 2012, bringing the presidential candidates to discuss science–led a workshop whose title set the tone of pessimism: “Can democracy still work in the age of science.”

He thinks he can convince politicians to be more rational when the science is in … but probably not those of today. Specifically, in this election year, the American way of thinking leads to a fiercely anti-intellectual attitude among the Republican candidates: they may deny global warming, vaccination, evolution (and attack Mitt Romney … because ‘He speaks French!’) without losing a single point in the polls.

David Wescott, of It’s Not a Lecture, came away both heartened and frustrated by what he saw at Scio12:

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.

This is one of those posts for which the discussion in the comments is also required reading. I understand David’s frustration. In a lot of ways, it is a reflection of the frustration of Scio12 attendees. They (we) are a highly political group who have been fighting on these fronts for years. We get tired. That we must continue to fight obscures the progress we’ve made. We really just want this to be over and it’s so obvious to us that science has earned respect it isn’t receiving and why isn’t there just a magic bullet already?!?

The good news is that it’s meetings like Science Online where we relax and recharge and refocus. Yes, we gripe. Yes, we even whine. Then we plot and plan and gang up to create results that none of us could on our own. Media people meet eloquent, passionate scientists (not necessarily two distinct groups). Activists and scientists and writers tell each other what they need and what they have to offer, gaining respect for different kinds of expertize in the process. People who argue in public during the year remind each other that it comes out of a strange respect and is heated by shared passions for making a difference.

It isn’t one big step toward that massive campaign to raise science in the esteem of the rest of the world. It isn’t that magic bullet. It is, however, lots of small steps in that direction, lots of local campaigns, lots of changing the world a few people at a time. It won’t get us all the way there in the next year. What it will do is move us forward in the next year. It will also sustain those of us doing the work for another year until we recharge and refocus one more time.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Luna_the_cat

    Speaking of getting politics in one’s science, have you seen this?

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204301404577171531838421366.html

  2. 2
    Stephanie Zvan

    I hadn’t. I was happier then. *sigh*

  3. 3
    Luna_the_cat

    Yeah. That.

    I guess that the second attempt at a “ClimateGate” fell too flat, so the skeptics felt they needed to create some other form of ammo.

    As with the tobacco-cancer link, the goal is to create doubt in the public mind. This being the case, I honestly think they’ve won.

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