The Sciences

AAAS Report #5: Science Under Attack

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitFeb 21, 2006 4:03 AM


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This entry is long. I hope you understand why after you finish reading it. I try not to post long entries very often, but when I do, it's because I have something I really need to say. I've been discussing the AAAS meeting in the past few entries, but I haven't said just why I came to the meeting. I was invited to participate on a panel discussing the current attacks on science, both by fundamentalist religions and by ideological politics. On the panel would be experts on biology, education, creationists, and, well, me. I decided to tackle the astronomical nonsense coming from young Earth creationists. They approved of my topic, so I prepared a talk; basically, very similar to what I was going to say at James Randi's The Amaz!ng Meeting. A day or two before the talk, however, I had a change of heart. I decided to totally change my talk, even the topic. Mind you, I never ever do this. Ever. When I say I'm giving a certain talk, that's what I give. But things had changed a bit since I sent in my topic idea. The big thing was the George Deutsch business. Speaking up about him on this blog was not like anything I had done before. Obviously, though, I couldn't leave this topic alone any more. I've been watching science suffer terribly these past few years, and I could no longer keep quiet. After watching things go by for so long, speaking up felt very right to me. So I decided to change my panel topic. I want to get other people to talk about this. The more scientists we get speaking publicly, the more likely it is people will take action. But the first step is to just get people aware of what's going on. So I started taking a lot of notes the night before my talk, and worked all morning researching and scrawling down ideas. I was feeling a bit weird about it, and I was getting nervous. That, plus I'd be speaking in front of scientists, as well as several people I respect immensely, added to my jitters. The time finally came, and the other speakers talked one by one. First up was Genie Scott, a tireless crusader (har har) against creationism in all its guises. She is the leading fighter against Intelligent Design, and was involved in the Kitzmiller case in Dover, Pennsylvania. She talked eloquently about the recent attacks on science by these groups. The other speakers included researcher Jon Miller, who gave an excellent talk about the percentages of Americans who think evolution is or is not real. It was fascinating; most Americans (90%!) feel that their lives are better because of science, yet 50% of Americans think that we depend too much on science and not enough on faith. A full 40% reject evolution! We rank 33rd out of 34 countries (just above Turkey) in accepting evolution. How weird is that? I wonder if those 40% get vaccinations for viruses, or take antibiotics? Other speakers gave equally provocative talks, but finally it was my turn. I had a lot of stuff to say, I really did. I got to about ¼ of it before time ran out. Figures. I talked about Deutsch, giving an overview of that affair. I talked about not just creationism, but ideological attacks on astronomy, and other sciences. I talked about how this Administration talks the talk about science, but doesn't walk the walk. How Bush wants to go the Moon, but hasn't funded it, and that's why NASA had to cut huge amounts of science from their plans to pay for it (a diatribe for another, not too distant day). I then gave advice, such as it's worth, to those in the room. This part was something I wrote down before the speech, so I can post it here for you to see. I can't conclude this blog better than with what I wrote, so I'll leave you with these thoughts.

What can we do about this situation, this attack on science and scientists? In this audience are scientists, educators, and journalists. As someone who can lay claim to all three professions, let me tell you what I think. To the scientists, find the best among you who can communicate. Not just professionally, though that helps. We need people who can talk to people, explain not just the science, but the joy, the wonder, the sense of awe we as scientific explorers get. You want people to want to understand science? Let them see the twinkle in your eye when you describe why we do what we do. To the media, please, don't simply take what people say and repeat it. Don't feel the need to get "balance" in your reporting by talking to "both sides". Sometimes there aren't two sides! If someone builds a Holocaust museum, would you interview a white supremacist who says the Holocaust never happened to achieve "balance"? When a new vaccine comes out for a virus, would you interview a homeopath so that "both sides are heard"? This administration has put a jack-booted heel to the throat of science for years, and it's the media's responsibility to shine a light on it. I'll admit to not pulling my weight in this issue, but, obviously, that stops today. And finally to the educators: don't just teach rote science. Science isn't memorization, it isn't a dry compendium of facts, dates, numbers. It's like a living, breathing thing, it grows, it repairs itself. Science brings us knowledge, wonder, enlightenment. That's what you should teach your students. The content will come after their minds are primed. Teach them the joy of discovery, and maybe these attacks on science will wither on their own.

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