Is It Time for a Science Debate?

While running errands yesterday, I realized it was 2 PM on a Friday, and I immediately switched my car’s radio to NPR to listen to Science Friday.  (Aside:  I think Science Friday is one of the best science programs for the general public.)  Yesterday, they had a particularly interesting segment about science in the presidential campaign, or more specifically, the lack of it.  An organization called Science Debate is hoping to get Mitt Romney and Barack Obama to participate in a debate with questions focused on science and technology issues.  They started in 2007, and although they failed to get a full “science debate”, they did manage to get the Obama and McCain campaigns to write responses to their questions.  They haven’t gotten much farther this round.

The lack of progress makes me wonder, do we need an extra science debate?  One part of me says yes, but another part doubts that.  The fact that the 2008 campaigns took the time to answer Science Debate’s 14 major questions impresses me.  I’m not sure I would expect much more this time around, but it also seems kind of unnecessary.  The written answers of the Obama and McCain campaigns are actually very thoughtful for campaign rhetoric.  I’m not sure we would see responses with half as much detail in our mediocre presidential debates on television.

Having read through the answers, it’s clear that what a presidential candidate says about science policy means nothing on its own.  A president can help lead, but if Congress doesn’t want to follow, nothing will happen.  Since most science issues are matters of funding and regulation, the power is nearly all in the legislative branch’s hands.  The president can really only influence how strictly executive agencies like the EPA, Department of Interior, and Department of Energy enforce regulations or propose some limited programs.  If we want to see more science in government, it probably won’t happen until we start electing more scientifically knowledgeable people to Congress.

I also had one major criticism of the segment.  A common statement was about how little scientists and researchers engage with the public, and how they need to do more.  While I agree with this statement (clearly I made this blog for something), it was disappointing to not hear any of the panelists mention the reasons scientists don’t reach out to people.  Even though universities claim to value “public service” from professors, it almost never is important when faculty come up for tenure.  A lot of academics also tend to look down on popularizers of science, thinking it tends to dumb down research.  When I interviewed a chemistry professor at my undergrad institution, he told me how his colleagues felt he wasted his time on his outreach and education projects, even though he had been considered one of the most influential chemists of the last decade.

It’s also really hard to get opportunities to explain work to the public that doesn’t explain the “big picture” and “you would be hard-pressed to find volumes on condensed matter physics, biophysics, the physics of “soft” matter like liquids and non-linear dynamics. And yes, these are bonafide fields of physics that have engaged physics’s best minds for decades and which are as exciting as any other field of science.”  As a blogger from the wonderful ScienceBlogs points out,  this has become a vicious cycle: ” The high-profile topics are attractive to the general public, so they buy books about those subjects, so publishers publish more books about those subjects, which makes those areas more popular, and so on.”  (Another aside:  I’ve always felt there’s a great book waiting to be written about how there are many aspects of everyday life we don’t understand, like where turbulence comes from, or how we don’t fully understand the behavior of water molecules on large scales)

On the non-physics end, the SciFri panelists also admit that the public mainly thinks of medicine when they think of science, and that’s also kind of telling of public support for “science” if that’s all they know.  The National Institutes of Health already get most of the research money in government, but honestly, a lot of the big breakthroughs in medicine of the last century originally came from unrelated fields (radiation therapy and virtually all the imaging techniques come from physics, and genetics is becoming heavily influenced by statistics and computer science).  This also poses lots of problem for science PR.  Most “science” news and policy people I’ve seen focus mainly on health, which, while important, is only one aspect of science (and only one area of where your tax dollars go in research).  So to hear the ScienceDebate CEO and the director of public affairs for the American Physical Society not offer any ideas for innovative science outreach, let alone mention any of the the problems people face in trying to reach out, felt like a disservice to aspiring civically-minded scientists.

4 thoughts on “Is It Time for a Science Debate?

  1. In defense of us non-scientist book buyers, people whose jobs don’t involve frequent contact with non-scientists (people who work outside of PR and medicine, mostly) tend to be terrible at explaining their work. Blame it on language barriers, inadequate science education in schools, whatever. In my experience working with researchers and professors on both sides of the divide, most professors and researchers lack the ability to communicate effectively with anyone between the 7th grade and graduate school. There are a few exceptions (my college science for nonmajors

  2. course required a great book called The First Three Minutes). However, there is a distinct lack of education among scientists about how to talk to the general public (look how NASA’s rhetoric went from broad themes, simple but exciting concepts, and astronaut bios to scientific specifics and demonstrations and what that did to their audience and funding). A great place you might want to look to fix this dilemma is economics. Consider the success of Freakonomics, The Upside of Irrationality, and the rise of economists as campaign surrogates. The mass popularization of economics was relatively swift, maybe half a decade. What they found were ways of explaining cutting edge research without any technical terms, graphs, or textbooks. That didn’t mean treating everyone like an idiot, it just meant speaking the same language.

    • It wasn’t meant to be a condemnation of people who don’t buy books on science. I’m just pointing out that a group of scientists should understand why the culture of both academic science and publishing/television/any medium of industrial information diffusion makes it hard for people to reach out to the public. And I’ll definitely agree that many scientists are bad at explaining things to non-technical people, but most of them aren’t interested in writing pop science books anyway.

      I’m not sure if book sales translate into outreach success for me. Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” was on bestseller lists for ages, but everyone seems to think it’s more an unread coffee table book. Freakonomics was incredibly popular when it came out, but to me it doesn’t seem like it’s translated into broader interest in economics or greatly improved economic literacy (I’ve heard WAY too many people on American Family Radio on road trips saying how all debt is bad, as if contra-cyclical spending was some foreign concept). I will say one group people has become really interested in actual economic policy lately. But I’m thinking of the more philosophical and radical fringes of the Tea Party, and while they seem more economically literate than the average person, I’m not sure I’m about to say it shows popularity of economics since most of them reject the findings of mainstream economists.

      I think we’re awash in economic campaign surrogates right now because that’s the big issue. But economics is also a bit more “immediate” to people. Officials can jibber jabber about taxes and loans all day, and most people

  3. Pingback: Following Up on Algebra and Science Debate | nontrivial problems

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