18 April 2006

Show Up.

How involved in politics should scientists be? What factors are important when it comes to making that decision?

For some of us, the answer to that comes fairly easily. One or two of us managed to evade the stereotype of the scientist-of-the-future, and caught the involvement bug because we were popular enough to win a role in student government early in our lives. A few of us were caught in a different stereotype - the children of the flower children - and have never known what it is like to not be involved in political causes. A bunch of scientists are just plain incapable of keeping their noses out of anything they bump into, whether it directly involves science or not.

The decision is harder for others. There are a few scientists who really do have an ivory tower mindset, and actively try to avoid anything that smacks of politics. Many put so many hours into their science that they don't have any to spare for politics. More are apathetic to politics, or disillusioned, or simply unaware of the issues.

Both the involved and uninvolved should read a new article in PLoS Biology. The article, "Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology," provides both reasons to get more involved in the political process and some hints as to where the efforts of scientists might most effectively be focused.

The article, written by Liza Gross, focuses on the work of Dr. Jon Miller, who has spent decades studying the public perception of science. Some of what he has to say is depressing (if not terrifying). Some of his message raises the possibility that there is still hope. All of it is worth reading.

The key point made in the article is this:
"The era of nonpartisan science is gone."

That's a fairly bold statement, but it is true.

As the article points out:
It's not that Americans are rejecting science per se, Miller maintains, but longstanding conflicts between personal religious beliefs and selected life-science issues has been exploited to an unprecedented degree by the right-wing fundamentalist faction of the Republican Party. In the 1990s, the state Republican platforms in Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Missouri, and Texas all included demands for teaching creation science. Such platforms wouldn't pass muster in the election, Miller says, but in the activist-dominated primaries, they drive out moderate Republicans, making evolution a political litmus test. Come November, the Republican candidate represents a fundamentalist agenda without making it an explicit part of the campaign. Last year, Miller points out, former Senator John Danforth, a moderate Missouri Republican, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece that for the first time in American history a political party has become an arm of a religious organization. The United States is the only country in the world where a political party has taken a position on evolution.
So what is a scientist do do? Miller has a suggestion that might come as a shock to some. If you don't like the way that the fundamentalists treat science, then get involved:
The era of nonpartisan science is gone, says Miller, who urges scientists and science educators to learn the rules of this new game and get behind moderate Republicans as well as Democrats to protect the practice and teaching of sound science. Given the partisan attack on evolution and stem-cell research, he thinks scientists need to learn more about how the political process works. They need to be willing to run for the school board, write $500 or even $5,000 checks to support moderate candidates, and defeat Christian right-wing candidates. “Scientists need to become involved in partisan politics and to oppose candidates who reject evolution or attack scientific research,” he says. “It takes time, money, and paying attention to the issues.”
For most scientists, both time and money are limiting resources, but that is a hurdle that must be overcome. In politics, the decisions are made by those who show up. If we want things to change, we need to get involved.

Not everyone has money to donate to a political campaign. Time, on the other hand, is something else. We might not have as much of it as we want (or need), but we always have some. Running for the school board takes a lot of time. Speaking during the public comment period of a school board meeting takes a lot less. Writing your congresscritter takes even less - in fact, you could have written one in less than the time it's taken you to read this. You might not be able to do much, but there's no excuse for doing nothing. It's time to show up.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Joe Shelby said...

Augh. The article had it until it used the phrase Sound Science.

Scientists and those who advocate for them need to learn to avoid that phrase; it's already been hijacked by the Right to defend their destructive policies.

2:10 AM  
Anonymous wolfwalker said...

Ouch. I agree, that's a pretty unpleasant picture that the article paints. And I'd call it a must-read even if I don't entirely agree with its arguments and conclusions.

I saw two key points. One was the one you pulled out, the other was the abysmally low percentage of American adults who are "scientifically literate." However, the second one made me wonder how he was defining "scientific literacy."

Unfortunately, I also noticed that even as he's deploring the influence of partisan politics on scientific literacy, Miller can't help but fall into partisan sniping himself. He says:

"The era of nonpartisan science is gone, says Miller, who urges scientists and science educators to learn the rules of this new game and get behind moderate Republicans as well as Democrats to protect the practice and teaching of sound science."

I've seen quite a bit of unsound science from Democrats. Not as much as I see from Repubs, but still much more than I like. We should support people who value solid science, regardless of party affiliation, and reject people who advocate junk science, again regardless of party affiliation. We should not even suggest that either party is better at keeping its science solid, or at effectively supporting and using solid science.

3:08 AM  
Blogger Ed Darrell said...

There are many opportunities to become actively involved that are far short of running for the school board, or other office.

For example, here in Texas it's a cinch to get elected delegate to the senatorial district and state political conventions -- one merely needs to show up at the "mass meeting" at 7:00 p.m., at the polling place, on primary election night (in March). In my precinct, we generally have 20 to 30 delegates to the senatorial convention. In the past five elections, only twice has there been anyone there other than me. I have a lot of friends, but not enough to fill all the delegate slots -- let alone the alternate slots.

To go to the state convention, one needs only show up at the senatorial district convention and ask, in our precinct.

Conventions are not always a lot of fun, but generally they are. It's a good place to corner people and find out who is running things in the party -- and change them. Resolutions on policy and laws are a sideshow, but as you noted, the Republicans in Texas recently have had hate-filled, ignorance promoting platforms (their education plank may be obscene, but it's not so bad as their plank against the U.S. courts, which adopts religious politics so far out most Christians don't even know what it is). It would take a handful of people to speak against such planks to change them. It is some comfort that the platforms are generally disregarded completely by serious candidates. But it used to be that platforms often voiced the ideals of our nation, and they promoted education, good business, civil rights, good health, and other sound policies that built this nation.

Scientists can also get involved by contributing money, and especially by contributing advice. Politicians are not always good at soliciting information and advice from proper venues, so it's important that scientists speak up at appropriate times. "Appropriate" generally means "early in the process."

In the past few years I've confronted several state legislators, all of whom were completely surprised to learn that their state land-grant universities have extensive research programs that are based in evolution. In each and every case, those programs involved research on the state's largest money crops. Someone is asleep at the switch on informing these guys. Scientists can invite their local legislators to tour the labs. These tours make great photo opportunities, especially for weekly newspapers.

Woody Allen once said 80% of life is just showing up. That's true in politics, too -- your headline is amazingly apt.

4:58 AM  
Anonymous Gerard Harbison said...

I absolutely agree. I am seriously worried the GOP is in danger of losing the minority of scientists who still consider themselves Republican. I'm worried because I'm seriously considering bailing on the GOP myself; but the consequences for America of one party in effect becoming the equivalent of a religious fundamentalist party and the other being secular, would be the same disaster seen in the Islamic world.

A calculated, limited campaign, where scientists contribute to and the opponents of, and campaign against, the most pro-creationism of GOPers, such as Rick Santorum, would be a very effective way of nudging the GOP away from its current theocratic path.

5:29 AM  
Blogger crevo said...

The article failed to point out the amount of disinformation being shelled out by groups such as the AAAS in order to push evolution on the public. For example, see this commentary on the number of misrepresentations and distortions used by the AAAS in order to stop HB 2107:

http://www.tulsatoday.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=937&Itemid=2

9:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The linked editorial consists of tired rhetoric 'The bill only covers science! If ID [creationism] isn't science, you have nothing to worry about' which is right up there with 'if you're innocent, you have nothing to worry about . . .' and 'OMG, the AAAS CEO said that there's no scientific debate about evolution! That's a lie! Scientists debate details and mechanisms of evolution all the time!" - which may not technically qualify as a bait-and-switch, but for anyone for whom his meaning isn't immediately obvious, he explains it the next sentence of his supposedly heinous op-ed : "the evidence accumulated during the past 150 years—from dinosaur fossils to the latest discoveries about our own genetic coding—proves that evolution is the only plausible explanation for how life has unfolded over millions of years.”

The final straw appears to be that he has the temerity to suggest that the bill's passage might conceivably lead to a number of completely standard and oft-repeated consequences! How dare he?!

Ultimately the AAAS' great sin seems to be that, like Judge Jones in the Dover case, and like every other pro-science advocate out there (as they're using completely mainstream arguments), they have the gall to disagree with Discovery Institute claims. Perhaps the writer of the Tulsa Today piece should seek a position with the DI's media complaints division? (Speaking of disinformation, misprepresentations, and distortions . . .!)

See what the AAAS actually has to say here.


-Dan S.

1:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I should specify that the words in single quotes are my paraphrases, not exact quotes. And sorry about the various mistakes . . .

-Dan S.

1:40 AM  
Blogger crevo said...

"which may not technically qualify as a bait-and-switch, but for anyone for whom his meaning isn't immediately obvious, he explains it the next sentence of his supposedly heinous op-ed : "the evidence accumulated during the past 150 years—from dinosaur fossils to the latest discoveries about our own genetic coding—proves that evolution is the only plausible explanation for how life has unfolded over millions of years.”"

Well, that part of it isn't at issue with the Intelligent Design community at large anyway. If he is using that definition to differentiate between ID and evolution, then he has failed to make a criteria which the majority of the ID community disagree with. Many in the ID community fully agree with this idea of evolution. So if this is what Leshner is worried about, again, he has nothing to fear from ID.

As the article states -- Leshner's criticisms of ID are based on misinformation about both ID and evolution.

For more insight into the issues discussed, see the ARN thread on the issue:

http://www.arn.org/ubbthreads/showflat.php?Cat=0&Number=30312619&an=0&page=0#Post30312619

5:10 AM  

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