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Delegitimizing science

Recently the President of the United States accused the main stream media of being "enemies of the American People". In response, journalists have engaged in a certain amount of hand-wringing about being delegitimized.

Science has been confronting this issue for a generation. And the media has not always been an ally.

Journalism, in the US, is largely a business. And businesses have to make money. For them, there's been more money to be made in controversy than in just covering the facts. But now the shoe's on the other foot.

Educators and scientists have been demonized as the enemy by the right wing for a long time. Now, perhaps, journalists will recognize that everyone with a commitment to the truth needs to come together and stand up for honest dialog. There is room for differences of opinion in honest dialog. And for differences in goals and values. There is no room for people who lie, who intentionally seek to deceive their interlocutor, or reject the possibility of agreeing on a shared body of facts to support their argument. Dialog is not possible with such people and they must be resisted to the utmost.

This is not to say that science is truth. Or that data can't be misleading or incomplete. But for many years the Republicans have been seeking to undermine the foundation of the enlightenment: that reasoned dialog and inquiry can take us toward the truth. The alternative is fascism, a "cultural revolution", and a plunge into the dark ages. Resist!

Limits of persuasion

Recently, on Facebook, I was forced to acknowledge that a "friend" — a former roommate from college — was trolling me. He would pretend to engage with me, like he was interested in having an actual discussion when, in fact, he was simply posting false, inflammatory articles just to see if he could get me to waste my time responding to them. I say that because it requires little effort to investigate the reputation of the authors or the sites distributing the posts to determine that they are, in fact, specious. And he's a lawyer and clearly capable of performing the necessary due diligence.

Another so-called "friend" rejects science and shares pseudoscientific racist posts from neo-nazi websites, but in his case, he may simply be too limited to understand what he's looking at.

But I'm left with a quandary. Many people I know simply block or unfriend people like this. I haven't wanted to do this because like Steve Randy Waldman, I genuinely believe in persuasion: The greatest mistake we can make, in my view, is to not try to persuade.

Persuasion is not about elegant logic or Oxford-style debates. It is about interacting, with good will and in good faith, with people who look at things differently, and working to understand how they see things so that you can help them understand how you see things. Persuasion involves a meeting of minds, and very frequently alterations of circumstance and behavior by all involved.

Then today, I saw Quinta Jurecic's Bannon in Washington: A Report on the Incompetence of Evil:

Trolling reflects a profound lack of sincerity, even a hostility to sincerity. It allows the speaker to make an offensive declaration and then insist that his or her (usually his) statement was just intended to make you mad—that you’re the real fool for taking this seriously. The speaker gets to say the thing and also gets to deny responsibility for it. The troll believes that people who care about things are chumps and that the only wise way to go through the world is with a level of ironic detachment that borders on nihilism. Trolling isn’t just about being offensive. It’s about being gleefully offensive.

And that sounds exactly like what I'm seeing.

Persuasion requires good will and good faith on both sides. Don't feed the trolls.

Defending Science

A March for Science is being planned for April 22, 2017 -- Earth Day. Initial messaging suggested it would be a "Scientist's March on Washington" which provoked some reactions like this one from scientists who like to see their work as apolitical.

It is a common attitude among scientists that their work is apolitical and has inherent value. They believe that reasoned dialog will lead to common understanding, because reality is on their side. They are wrong. This is a war between Romanticist and Enlightenment paradigms which are incommensurable.

It is fundamentally political to use data, rather than dogma, to make decisions.

It is fundamentally political to use reason to persuade, rather than fear to compel.

Unless we advocate for and demonstrate the importance of science, we can lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the people in the United States who are inclined to see both enlightenment and romance thinking as equivalent ways to make sense of reality.

If we lose the battle, the United States will plunge into a new dark age. You don't need to look farther back than the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to understand what the shape of such a dark age can look like. The reality of a 9-mm brain hemorrhage is no less a reality than any other.

We should march. We must march. The stakes have never been higher. This is the moment for which every educated person was educated. Education, reason, and dialog must be defended vigorously. We must not fail to recognize the existential threat that faces us and assume that reason will carry the day.

Science and Politics

As a child, as the son of a scientist, I grew up in a scientifically literate family. At first, I wanted to be a scientist myself but, even in college, I could see that the funding priorities for science were shifting.

Science used to be about basic research. Scientists trained for many years and then, having proved their judgement through education, dissertation, and the tenure process, were given free rein to pursue their own agenda, regardless of what anyone else thought of it. Most basic research is incoherent to anyone outside of a field. A naive person will scoff at what seems like the pursuit of silly or trivial questions, but many of our key innovations and advances derive from research that began this way.

It's sometimes difficult to disentangle innovation in science from engineering. The advances during World War II in both gave us unimagined new destructive powers, as well as many other capabilities in sensing (RADAR) and information processing. The synergies of these innovations have given us the modern age. And there was a time that people understood that.

Growing up in the 1960s, we were bombarded with popular messages about the primacy of scientific understanding. Tennessee Tuxedo had Phineas J Whoopee. Gumby had Professor Kapp. Einstein was beatified, if not deified. Science was respected by popular culture.

Part of this push toward science, it turns out, was driven by a lie. In the late 1950s, the US and Soviet Union saw themselves in a race to develop ICBMs. The Soviet Union succeeded in orbiting a satellite first, leading to great angst that the US was behind in the "space race". This led to a huge surge in investment in science teaching and research -- and undoubtedly influenced the public perception of the importance of science. But in point of fact, the US could have put a satellite up first. Eisenhower intentionally held back military efforts, because he wanted either civilian efforts, or Soviet efforts, to succeed first.

During the 1970s, there was a growing scientific understanding of the limits of the earth to accommodate human activity. Environmental regulation based on science were put into place to reduce pollution. But corporations weren't happy with restrictions on their ability to extract profits while shifting the costs, through environmental degradation, onto the public.

In the 1980s, Reagan was elected, who took a dim view of science and just hated government. This was when the trend began of shifting all of the growth in the economy away from government and working people to put in the hands of the very wealthy. The government was invoked as a bogeyman to explain why there weren't jobs or people couldn't be paid more.

I've always been horrified by presidents singling out particular scientific projects to mock -- not just Republicans, but Democrats too. Bill Clinton mocked a grant to study the blood of horseshoe crabs -- like it was something crazy -- and evidently not understanding that the horseshoe crab immune system has unique properties that make it essential to medical testing. George W. Bush mocked a homeland defense bill that included a line item to create a new building to house the nation's collection of "bugs and worms" -- not understanding the important of bugs and worms to agriculture and that they're stored in alcohol which, if attacked could cause the whole building to go up in flames.

Today, science is under siege. Basic research is all but dead. Wisconsin has undermined tenure. And the current president rejects science on climate change as a "Chinese hoax". His "ban on Muslims" is already blocking scientists coming to study here.

In World War II, the Germans killed off and chased away their Jewish scientists -- including the man who first envisioned the possibility of creating a nuclear bomb, Leo Szilard. Einstein was also a Jewish refugee. And many, many others.

Science is not perfect: It is a human endeavor. Science sometimes fares badly when paired with journalism, which is more interested in headlines and controversy than the long arc of theory. Or when used as a substitute for ethics. But science is the best we've got if we want to take reality into account when making decisions. And we ignore it at our peril.

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