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January 01, 2006


(I thought I just posted this, but maybe I hit preview and then closed the window.)

If after reading all that, you're mooning for more Mooney, here is an interview with him that some folks I know at Rockefeller University (scientists) did in their campus newsletter.

NS: How would the Republican “war on science” affect a grad student, a postdoc, or a junior faculty member?

CM: Well I’d like to think that it’s going to actually have a positive effect. A lot of people at that level are telling me what they really want to do is to at least make part of their career dedicated to talking to the public, communicating scientific information, not just publishing, not just the rat race of getting a lot of journal publications, getting a position. They also want to engage people.

Emphasis mine. And that's pretty much where I am personally. (If you're not accomplished academically though, everyone assumes you are just someone who couldn't hack it in research and went to the supposedly softer life of advocacy and politics. Which, for many people, is the case. But being productive scientifically, and still finding time to do public work -- not easy!)

Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Bill Nye, Mr. Wizard, Jacques Cousteau... thare's a high class group that's made up of science advocates.

Isaac Asimov, too. And a lot of great scientists turn to the public advocacy sphere after they've harvested their laurels.

Integrating it with your own training is a different matter.

(But don't worry, I'm on it.)

I'm taking your word this is an open thread (not just a science thread), and recommending that -- for negative reasons -- everyone look at David Ignatius' column today in the Washington Post (or NY Daily News, where I saw it).

Among other observations on the year (one of which is the suggestion that Bush somehow moved to the center with the Alito nomination), Ignatius declares --with no evidence -- that, even were the Bush coalition to collapse, it would be replaced by not a Democratic one, but by a moderate Republican one headed by John McCain. Even putting aside how this shows the press remains in full swoon for Mr. Straight Talk, I believe this, better than anything else I've read, shows the problem we Democrats have with the Washington pundit corps. It's not that they're automatically pro-GOP; it's that, despite two Clinton victories (and Gore's shoulda-been), they find Democrat rule inconceivable.

This is not dissimilar to what the press corps was thinking, from the other angle in the late, 70s. They believed Carter was failing badly, but they never dreamed Reaganism could take over -- they fully expected a Howard Baker/George Bush (pre-voodoo-conversion)-type candidate to win. (You should have seen the way they promoted Bush after his razor-thin win in Iowa in 1980)

The fact is, the press is not liberal, and, obviously excepting the right-wing sound machine types, not rigidly conservative. They are almost to a man moderate Republicans (as James Carville says, they just can't get enough tax cuts or abortion rights). The economic gap between the press and the populace is, I think the biggest reason why they can't see the possibility of the Democrats ever taking charge. It's going to take a two-by-four at the ballot-box to ever make them think otherwise.

and even then they'll look for reasons why it was an error.

David Ignatius is out of his mind. Alito is a scary right wingnut.

Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould...

And don't forget the wonderful - the quinessentially wonderful, in this context - Richard Feynman!

This really shouldn't be a battle between the people who worship the scientific method vs the people who worship the bible (or whatever) - worshiping the scientific method is like having a war against 'terrorism'; terrorism is a mere tactic, just as the SM is a mere tool (vital though it is). Rather, it's a battle between humanism and superstition. The greatest science has tended to be cultivated imagination rather than plodding research itself leading to the 'correct' answer (IOW, the plodding is necessary but not sufficient, and that is a perfectly rational insight).

I look forward to this discussion!

jonnybutter, well put. there was a reason kekule dreamed of snakes and it wasn't the scientific method.

Thanks for that, EW! My little pronouncement was spoken like the autodidact I am, even though I knew it was hardly an original thought. I don't have a background in science (per se) at all - I'm a musician and composer - but I am forever arguing with some of my fellow 'creative people' against the rather mediocre idea that the problem with our civilization is that we're 'too rational'. I'm convinced that the subject of artists and scientists is more the same than different, and that the segregation of art and science is not only artificial, but a fairly recent 'innovation' (however inevitable that segregation may have been for a while). I was thinking of Einstein and Erasmus Darwin (not to mention his grandson's refusing to call himself a 'Darwinist'), but that Kekule example is a wonderful one which I was not aware of.

I think scientists might be coming around to this insight faster than many artists are, which is why so much art (eg 'pomo') is so boring (with some notable exceptions). Many artists now put themselves (unawares) sort of in league with people who can't quite dismiss the idea of ID, and for the same reason: it just doesn't feel right to seem to banish Imagination. Of course ID is really just gussied-up Creationism, but the above is the reason, I think, that ID gets as much political traction as it does. I don't think most people REALLY believe in creationism so much as they are just sceptical of what I call the worship of the scientific method (eg you must PROVE that chicken soup is good for you). If we're going to deal with the politics of ID vs Evolution (and the War on Science itself, such as it is), we have to consider not the true-believing Fundies so much as the 'independents', so to speak. ID is a very clever way to frame - or really, create - the argument; it's an attempt to goad the 'scientific community' into simply reacting in a predictable, defensive way.

It's not unlike leaving the total defense of Civil Liberties to the ACLU or someone like Madeline Murray O'Hair; I don't mean to slam the ACLU at all, but they are a last-resort, test-case sort of outfit. Neither Civil Liberties nor Science are 'fringe' concerns.

(I'm also not suggesting that there's anything wrong with proving that chicken soup is good for you - it's sort of fun, actually. But the average person is well aware by now that science is not only 'wrong' sometimes, but can seem to be overweening despite its occasional wrongness - the 'trust me, I'm a doctor' syndrome).

In political terms, this goes back to what I see as a central problem in the progressive mindset, the idea that we aren't 'getting our message out', which is an implicit way of saying to voters: 'why don't you understand us?'. If we want to lead, our first job is to understand THEM. They aren't 'them'; they are us.


Let's remember that the best theology has a cultivated imagination, too. In mainline Protestant and Catholic academies, theology and science don't compete, they inform each other. See The Templeton Foundation and The Metanexus Institute.

If we want to lead, our first job is to understand THEM.

That point well taken, jonnybutter. I think most science advocates are way behind on this point. There is a sentiment that to understand science takes so many years of training, and it's so complicated, that the problem with the public is that they just don't UNDERSTAND and if we were to EDUCATE and DO OUTREACH we could make them just like us. It is often forgotten and worth remembering that "they" are smart, educated people who happen not to be trained in science but have arrived at their opinions (not always but often) through thoughtfulness and reason, and it may be insulting to them and not fair to act as if they are just not well-educated enough to form the "right" opinions.

As to the rest, I was more trying to suggest that imagination is an integral part of the scientific method. I think the scientific method has come to be taken as a stand-in for sober, white-jacketed, dusty dry analysis. When in reality most scientists are better suited to straight-jackets than white-jackets. The successful ones often take a very playful, funny, mischievous (and yes dream-inspired) tack to get where they're going, and in fact many many many of us are also part-time artists and musicians. What's summed up in the dry formulation "generate a hypothesis" does not really do justice to the scientific method -- that step is where all the magic happens, and what sets us apart from (most) other animals.


Let's remember that the best theology has a cultivated imagination, too.

Yes, indeed. We aren't really dealing with what could properly be called 'theology' (certainly not the 'best') in this particular conundrum.


I was more trying to suggest that imagination is an integral part of the scientific method.

That is a good point. I was generalizing wildly, of course. What you describe is the same thing that happens in the 'plodding' part of making art (which is most of it!): you play around, are open to accident, etc. Boredom may even be the mother of invention sometimes, eh?

The political problem has a lot to do with whoever self-selects (or is selected by dumb teevee shows so as to generate maximum conflict) to be spokeshumans for 'science', maybe more than with the way science really is. But, let's face it, there is a ready supply of humorless, self-important scientists. They take the bait the fundies put down for them, and are as foolish - in their way - as are the fundies: they volunteer to be strawmen, sometimes. When the choice is so crudely deliniated ('is God god, or is Science god?'), it's really no wonder that most people are ambivelent at best. These fundie poohbahs are terrible theologians, but they are very clever politicians.

...in reality most scientists are better suited to straight-jackets than white-jackets. The successful ones often take a very playful, funny, mischievous (and yes dream-inspired) tack to get where they're going, and in fact many many many of us are also part-time artists and musicians.

I've noticed that! I just wish that more artists were part-time scientists, or at least didn't see what they do as antithetical to science; doing so is every bit as reactionary as any politics of fear. I mean, hell, we're not even in the twentieth century anymore, much less the ninteenth!

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