05 October 2005

A slow awakening.

Scientists, as a whole, are massively, epicly conservative.

That statement is not, of course, meant to describe the political leanings of most scientists - that's a whole different story. When I say that scientists tend to be conservative, I mean that in the sense of being cautious and slow to change. If you don't believe me, just ask any grad student who has the misfortune of presenting a new idea to their advisor.

It's not a surprise, really. Caution is a major part of scientific training. We are trained, trained again, and trained some more in the art of caution. We are warned about taking risks. We are warned not to try to squeeze interpretations out of the data that are not supported by the data. We are really pushed to note when others fail to be cautious. A healthy skepticism is the hallmark of a good scientist. Couple a tendency to be cautious with the "ivory tower" mentality that is still all too common in the academic world, and you have the makings of a population of individuals who will normally steer well clear of anything that has the stench of politics about it.

But a change, long overdue, is in the air. Slow and reluctant to anger and slower still to take action, like Tolkien's Ents, scientists are starting to wake up and get involved. Scientists are starting to find their voice, and an anger that has been kept submerged beneath the dignified facade of the academic community is starting to boil to the surface. It's been a long time coming.

There are any number of reasons for this anger, particularly in recent years. As Chris Mooney has documented in a recent book, the current administration has distorted scientific research on issue after issue. They have twisted, distorted, and outright lied about scientific research. The president has publicly belittled government scientists. In the view of the Bush White House, any time that some paid industry shill says something that contradicts the concensus of the vast majority of the scientific community, it means that "the jury is still out" on the issue.

Yesterday, Mooney summed up both the situation and the reason that we should care about it quite nicely in an OpEd piece:
Today we are facing a full-fledged national crisis over the role of scientific information in public policy-making. It's a subtle crisis in some ways, often obscured by the complexities of scientific disputation. But it is a crisis nonetheless, one that threatens every one of us because it affects not only public health and the environment, but the way we treat knowledge itself in American society.

That may sound alarmist to some. Personally, I think it might be an understatement.

We live in a world where science plays a huge part in all of our daily lives. It has become so important, so ubiquitous, that we no longer even notice it. It is, for most Americans, part of the natural background, no more noticable than the air. It is also, for most Americans, no less critical. Modern medicine and pharmacology, electronics and computers, the way we produce food, even things as mundane as the way we make sure that food gets distributed properly - all of these things are driven by recent advances in the sciences. If everything that is the product of a scientific advance made in the last fifty years were to vanish tomorrow, millions would be dead within a week. It's bad enough that so few people in the US understand science. Taking advantage of this, and trying to get people to misunderstand science, is utterly immoral.




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