Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Fool Me Twice

               One of the reasons I think science rocks is because the conclusions are based on evidence.  I can be completely gullible in a regular non-data-based conversation, and I always seem to be a sucker for the pathologically lying friend.  But, science is a reliable friend that allows you to check up on the data, question the circumstances, and retest.  Well, data is nice—wonderful even, but one could argue that there are poorly designed experiments that could give spurious results.  That’s true, but that is not data that would hold up and stand the test of time.  There’s peer-review by the scientific community, which happens before anything gets published and which catches most of the experimental design flaws and can stop a publication dead in its tracks.  And, there’s a community of scientists who should be able to replicate your experiments—studies must be repeatable if the conclusions are to be believed.  Scientists know that “belief” should never be required in a conclusion, but rather evidence is.  We scientist do not “believe in” climate change or evolution—rather the available data support the conclusion that climate change is occurring and that evolution has shaped the diversity of life on earth. 
                ShawnLawrence Otto published a book in 2011 called Fool Me Twice:  Fighting the Assault on Science in America, and I read it with great interest because I’m intrigued by the debate that seems to be on-going in America regarding science, currently global climate change and evolution (as always it seems).  This book offered a lot of insights as to why some people may be wary of science, like the use of science to create weapons of mass destruction.  And why people may not view scientific conclusions as solidly as scientists do, which Otto proposes is a result of an educational system that has promoted viewing the world from different perspectives with no real “truth.”  In contrasts, science revolves around attempts to uncover and reveal Truth.  If people do not believe that there is such a thing as “the truth,” only different ways of perceiving the world, then no wonder science is taking a beating in politics and the media. 
                There were a couple of points he made that I am going to carry forward with me.  One, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 1987 decision to abolish the “fairness doctrine” which resulted in Otto’s words of “severing one of the last ties to a common public foundation of knowledge and its cousin, the carefully researched public record that journalists had worked for sixty years to build.”  Broadcasters were then no long required to present balanced news coverage, resulting in a new era of yellow journalism that allowed the rise of Rush Limbaugh and Fox news, which has had a huge impact on the impression of science by the public.  Otto also holds scientists accountable for becoming disengaged with the public, which has allowed a lot of debate to continue without a strong scientific foundation.  He’s totally right about that.  We scientists need to figure out what role we can play in helping with scientific literacy.  Even though we ecologists are seldom pale, we could still stand to step out a bit more.  He also suggests that scientists should be reaching out to churches, which is completely interesting, isn’t it?  Scientists certainly share a range of religious views, like the non-scientific community, but there are few who are engaging with congregations in a way that could be beneficial to scientific understanding.  And I am totally guilty of this, as a religious person that goes to a church where a disturbing portion of the congregation seems more likely to visit the Creation “Museum” right down the road than to ponder the awe-inspiring interconnectedness of life on earth that arose through evolutionary processes. 
                So, I think you should read this book too and see what you think about it.  There is a lot to think about and I’ve only touched on a few of Otto’s points.  As the best books do, it has me thinking about the world in a new way and also contemplating some different ways I can interact with people.  It’s even got me thinking I need to visit the Creation Museum and take some notes on what the creationists think is so astounding that it could only be heavenly created—so at least creationists and scientists are all awe-struck by this dazzling world, and that is potentially common ground where we can start a dialogue.