Our Media Fails Us, at Fast and Slow Pace, on Climate

On Black Friday, the federal government (reluctantly, it seems worth noting under the Trump administration) released the Fourth National Climate Assessment. The report was released a few weeks early from its initial planned release at the fall 2018 meeting of the American Geophysical Union, a major scientific society focusing on the Earth sciences. This has been rightfully spotlighted as perhaps one of the most glaring examples of a Friday news dump in the Trump administration, given President Trump’s hostility to most climate and environmental policy. Then again, August 25, 2017 was also considered an egregious dump  – as Politico, The Atlantic, Washington Post, and many others reported at the time – so there’s a lot to put in perspective.

While I think it is right to point out this is a Friday news dump, a lot of the comments I see from both media figures and advocates rankles me here. The comments aren’t that the NCA is going to get lost in the news cycle; the concern is that it won’t receive adequate coverage at all to the broader public. But I don’t really see a developed point about WHY that should be true. Sure, people don’t read much news on holiday weekends – but they pick up the news again within a day or two. If someone sees a hypothetical article about the NCA on Monday morning or watches a news clip on it at lunch, it will be new to them if they haven’t read/watched/heard news all weekend. Fresh coverage of the NCA during this week would literally be the opposite of the common sense of “news fatigue” in politics, especially when following everything Trump does or doesn’t do (or trying not to follow it). (Or you can just black out the world.)

To me, this reads as our political and media classes just admitting failure in trying to adequately cover things that don’t fit into an instant 24 hour news cycle. (A news cycle that barely anyone but politics junkies follow in detail.) The NCA isn’t a singular event or press conference. The release happens once, but the contents of the assessment are the culmination of work and study going back to the Obama administration and have literally epochal consequences for our species. Can our media seriously not think of a way to make this have news relevance beyond the first 48 hours the document was released? If they can’t, I don’t think they take climate change or the environment much more seriously than our federal politicians do.

The NCA represents thousands of labor-hours of work (over 1000 people worked on it across a dozen agencies) on a pressing issue and it deserves thorough coverage, regardless of when it is released. Which is to say, that yeah, I get that it can seem kind of boring and so it can be hard to reach people. As I’m writing in another draft post, the combination of “large government bureaucracy” and “science” is not the dream topic most people will rush to learn more about. But that’s not an excuse to skip out on the work, especially when the point of news is to educate and inform the public.

This sort of reminds me of the criticism that Last Word on Nothing (a collaborative science writing blog) received when several of its contributors gave pretty stereotypical answers for why they hated writing about physics. I saw a revival of that dust-up a year ago when a science writer on Twitter said they appreciated that gravitational waves won the Nobel in physics because they hated having to explain topics from nuclear or materials physics to people. But gravitational waves only recently became a thing with good explanations for the general public. I remember when I was interested in astronomy in high school, you could barely find anything that went in detail in a non-technical way. Heck, check out a 2010 version of the Wikipedia page on gravitational waves and see how different it is from the current one. Gravitational waves becoming an “easy” physics concept to explain took years of work by scientists and science journalists and communicators to figure out better ways of describing it to broader audiences. It also required dedication to build up on previous explanations until it hit some critical level of pop cultural diffusion where you could expect enough people to remember what gravitational waves are or why they’re studied. And scientists, journalists, and communicators spent that time because they knew the topic of gravitational waves would be important to the public one day. If we’re not willing to make that commitment and spend that kind of time on something as important as helping the public understand climate change, that worries me. And it also makes me think of Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s recent tweet on the treatment of science in many political publications. We won’t be able to envision better futures and talk about how to achieve them if we can barely make space to talk about the one we’re de facto choosing by our inaction.

I Have a Hard Time Summing Up My Science and Politics Beliefs Into a Slogan

From a half-joking, half-serious post of my own on Facebook:



Evidently, I am the alt-text from this comic.

“HERE ARE SOME GOOD ARTICLES ABOUT PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIOLOGY OF SCIENCE” (I didn’t actually give a list, since I knew I would never really be able to put that on a poster, but some suggested readings if you’re interested: the Decolonizing Science Reading List curated by astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a recent article from The Atlantic about the March for Science, a perspective on Doing Science While Black, the history of genes as an example of the evolution of scientific ideas, honestly there’s a lot here, and this is just stuff I shared on my Facebook page over the last few months.)

Scientists Still Aren’t Really a Political Bloc

The Atlantic recently published an article in the “but Democrats are anti-science too!” genre that seemed to get really weird in the end. Perhaps this is because author Mischa Fisher is a staffer for Republican Congressman Randall Hultgren of Illinois. Honestly, a lot here isn’t new, and I’ll link to my response to Alex Berezow’s book and interview with reason. The big thing, as I said before, is that we’re not given many numbers about the prevalence of anti-scientific views on the left, especially in comparison to their support by the right (fringe views on chemicals show up in New World order conspiracy theorists on the right and granola groups on the left). The only ones Fisher gives are about evolution and creationism and views of God, and I don’t think most scientists actually fret over that in science policy things.

And that’s where I lose my understanding of Fisher’s piece. He seems to be conflating scientists, secularists/skeptics, and Democrats as whatever best fits the argument he makes in each paragraph. There’s no shortage of scientists writing articles attacking chemophobia and irrational fears of GMOs from groups on the left and attacking any science cuts. Nature wrote a pretty balanced review of science policy during Obama’s first term. And there have been many revolts by scientists against policies the administration has pursued. Most scientists don’t care about your view of God, and many want people to appreciate that science doesn’t have to kill religious faith. The American Association for the Advancement of Science came out against California’s GMO labelling proposal last year.

At the end, Fisher says “there is a second, larger reason why it’s important to keep science bipartisan—and why cheap shots about Republicans and science are dangerous. The politics of the immediate will always trump the politics of the long term.” But that just seems to lump in all scientists as knee-jerk Democrats again, which isn’t true. It also seems hard to argue how most Republican politicians do believe in global warming or care about science funding when the members who rise to positions of influence on science policy don’t believe in these things. See: Rep. HallRep. Rohrabacher, and Rep. Smith on the House science committee. And while Fisher says Obama’s budgets have been harmful to basic science, many Republican politicians don’t seem to understand the point of basic research.

Hard Scientists Should Care About the NSF’s PoliSci Woes

Alex Berezow wrote an op-ed in USA Today defending the decision to defund the NSF’s political science programs aside from projects “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States”. Berezow is also co-author of Science Left Behind, a book looking at anti-science tendencies on the left half of the political spectrum, which I blogged a bit about last November. And then the piece tapers off into something about scientists being too Democratic and they’re like a lobby and it just kind of becomes a generic cut the budget piece by the end. Needless to say, I’m not much more convinced by this op-ed than by the book or his interview with reason.

He starts by pointing out that political scientists are predictably outraged, but is confused why natural scientists are angry. He links to theoretical physicist Sean Carroll’s post on the funding cut and calls it an overreaction because he quotes “First they came”. Nazi overtones might be a bit much, but the analogy of continually chipping away at something seems valid. Berezow seems to think the fact that “relevant” political science could still be funded means a hard scientist shouldn’t ever worry about this. But a lot of hard science isn’t immediately practical. Carroll works in cosmology, which is basically abstract physics and abstract astronomy, so it seems entirely reasonable for him to worry about cuts to grants for research projects that won’t generate immediate economic benefit. We’ve already seen an attempt to go down the slippery slope with Lamar Smith’s proposed amendments to limit NSF funding in all fields to only projects relevant to economic or defense interests.

Berezow also claims that scientists act like too much of a partisan interest group since they only attack Republicans. While it’s true the Coburn amendment was approved by a bipartisan vote, that was part of a compromise to keep funding the government past sequestration. And Republicans have repeatedly offered similar amendments in the past, even when there weren’t such pressing budget concerns. It also seems ironic that despite two of Coburn’s amendments being incorporated into the bill, he still voted against it. Part of the logic behind the scientists are an interest group claim is how often they identify with Democrats. The survey does show that scientists are more Democratic and liberal than the general public.  This may lead to a disconnect between scientists and the public on some issues, and it merits study, but there’s no clear mechanism explaining it. But Berezow also seems to be including social scientists in his definition of scientists. The survey everyone talks about is focused on natural scientists. While some social science fields are also filled with liberals, I believe that political science and economics have a stronger Republican/conservative presence. 

Scientist ideology

Also, if politicians are going to go after interest groups, there are many with more votes to grab than a scientist bloc. In 1999, there were only about 3.5 million people with STEM degrees working in science and engineering fields. But if we’re talking about scientists as a interest group, we need to separate them from the engineers. Engineers are more likely to work in industry instead of in the public sector or academia than scientists, and also tend to be more evenly split along party and ideological lines. In 2011, about 35000 people graduated with doctorates in physical, life, and social sciences and engineering. Although this includes engineers, the fact that this only looks at people graduating with doctorates increases the odds that they will be doing basic research for the government or academia. Not all of those people are American citizens, though, and so they won’t vote. I don’t know the number for social sciences, but international students now make up almost half of all natural science and engineering grad students, so that already narrows the voter pool to like 25000 new group members a year (assuming nearly all social science PhDs are American citizens, for some reason). And not all these people will end up being funded by the government, either in a government agency or by public grants to universities. 27% of life science PhDs, 54% of physical science PhDs, and 71% of engineering PhDs went to work in industry in 2011. Factoring that in, a “government-dependent scientist” bloc would only grow by about 14000 votes a year. I think that is the rounding error of a decent get out the vote project.


Technology’s track record, past and future

Following up on my rant on technical solutionism, I wanted to add a bit more about why I do think technological optimism is justified and also something I wish more Silicon Valley commentators understood. First, it seems worth pointing out that if we try to recognize where contributions to quality of life over the last century or so have come from, then the biggest contributor would be technology. Social and political changes are important, but a lot of them end up being enabled by technology. Second- and third-wave feminism were greatly helped by birth control enabling women greater control over their own bodies. When I was in immunology for two weeks before deciding double majoring in biomedical engineering and physics was crazy, the professor said the pre-meds and pre-public health students should thank their engineering major friends for water distribution and water treatment systems. Or consider how much technology goes into the actual treatment of disease. And a great deal of technology ends up having unexpected uses. So technologists have a good track record to justify their thinking they can innovate solutions to things others may not consider major problems.

The other thing I never hear come up in mainstream commentators’ discussion of Silicon Valley’s tech solutionism is the source of a non-trivial (heh, I suppose that word would have to make it into the blog at some point, though I’m surprised it isn’t in the context of math) amount of this thought: transhumanism. To put it (too) simply, transhumanism is broad movement that advocates the use of technology to augment and expand human abilities to reach a “posthuman” status. If you’ve heard of people giddy for brain uploading and/or the technological singularity, they come from one strand of transhumanism (that’s a bit premature, in my mind). The movement started in California, and while it’s definitely spread out, it still has a relatively high concentration in Silicon Valley. Transhumanist publications seem to often write about the movement’s popularity in the tech hub region and it seems to be spreading. One of the big steps seems to be the establishment of Singularity University to bring together people from various backgrounds to help them understand and develop new technologies. Notably, Singularity U founding companies include Google and Genentech. So why is this relevant to the talk of tech solutionism? Because it seems only natural that some aspects of transhumanism diffuse out into broader society, especially in a place as connected to the movement as Silicon Valley. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg’s hope that Facebook will change how people interact socially struck me as more than just capitalist hopes for his business; it also showed a kind of latent embedding of a transhumanist goal that I don’t think Zuckerberg even realized (and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t even really know that transhumanism is a thing).

Who’s afraid of technical “solutionism”?

There seems to be a growing trend of articles in political and cultural circles critiquing the “solutionism” of Silicon Valley; the tech industry’s willingness to identify ever more societal problems that could be solved with increasingly clever devices and software.  Bloggers at the Economist and the New York Times have been looking at an article in the New Yorker, and possibly it’s associated book The Unwinding, by George Packer (in fact, it wasn’t until I was typing this up that I realized they both were referring to the same thing).

I have not read all of thew New Yorker article because it’s behind a paywall, but a follow-up by Packer gives some of the thesis:

My analysis of the Valley’s politics isn’t about left-right in the usual sense. It’s about a particular brand of utopianism that sees solutions for social and political problems in the industry’s products and attitudes.

Continue reading

Why Lamar Smith Doesn’t Seem to Understand Science

So we’ve looked at the research that seemed to motivate the following criteria that Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) has proposed that all NSF-fund research be certified as fulfilling:

  1.  ”… in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
  2. “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
  3. “… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

Now I’d like to break down why these criteria reflect a poor understanding of science and the National Science Foundation. Let’s just go through each point.

  1. First, Smith has the theoretical point of NSF backwards. The legislation that founded NSF put the mission “to initiate and support basic scientific research and programs to strengthen scientific research potential and science education programs at all levels in the mathematical, physical, medical, biological, social, and other sciences” before Continue reading

Is Everyone Anti-Science?

The libertarian magazine reason (I think that’s how they like you to write their name) recently posted an interview with Alex Berezow about anti-scientific views of the left/progressives.  If you’re not familiar with Alex Berezow (I’m not), he’s the editor for RealClearScience, which seems to be a sibling of RealClearPolitics, and he has a PhD in microbiology.  His interview is mostly about his book on the same subject, Science Left Behindwhich he co-wrote with Hank Campbell, founder of the Science2.0 blog (which claims to be like the Web 2.0 of science).  Amazon reviews of the book seem mixed on whether they’re Republican/corporate hacks (not that these terms are disconnected in some liberal circles), right on, or perhaps engaging in false equivalence.  (You can find false equivalence on Wikipedia, but I recommend checking out The Atlantic’s James Fallows’ blog instead)

Based on the interview, I’m going with the third option.  It’s true that some degree of anti-science sentiment exists in practically every political group.  New agers concerned about “natural” products are certainly more common on the left than the right.  But a lot of the skeptic/atheist community is also on the left side of the political spectrum, and they tend to attack dubious claims like homeopathy, alternative medicine, and vaccine denialism.  And while vaccine skepticism may have started on the left (I’m honestly not sure, but I’d buy that scratch that, I’m honestly not sure and I don’t want to do an hour of research for like one line of a post), but it’s definitely started moving over to conservative Christian circles (see: Michele Bachmann during the Republican primaries) and honestly, it seems to be more a middle-class movement than an ideological one.

Here’s a breakdown of other  biases mentioned in the interview or book

  • Electromagnetic radiation and health – I honestly can’t find anyone seriously concerned about this in contemporary political culture.
  • Anti-nuclear movement – that’s a bit harder to argue with, but I would say there’s still a valid complaint about the United States not having a large-scale permanent nuclear waste storage facility.  The rejection of nuclear at all by environmentalists is less defensible.
  • Fracking and natural gas – While fracking isn’t the most intrusive extraction process developed, the recent increase in fracking activity has led to more observations of water contamination that suggest further study is still needed.  I’m also not sure there’s  an opposition to natural gas by itself (it IS cleaner than coal), but that environmentalists tend to prefer renewables.  Granted, the idea that we need to use an energy source we haven’t fully developed yet does seem to go against the idea that we must do things now to stop carbon emissions.
  • “Natural is better” – Less rational yes.  But this isn’t really a policy goal of most progressives I know, aside from pushes for labeling standards.  And organics just seem popular with people willing to spend more on food.
  • PETA – They are not at all close to being a major influence in the progressive movement in my mind.  The only thing I’m really aware of is San Francisco’s attempt to ban pets in the name of animal welfare.  Which failed.
  • Differences between sexes and genders – This one isn’t really developed in the Amazon summary or even mentioned in the interview.  There is a bit of a “gasp” reaction if anyone tends to mention these things, but let’s be honest and admit we developed that because it usually prefaces an actual racist or sexist statement.  Also, gender and sexual norms vary a lot between cultures, so it’s important to realize biology isn’t destiny (in Lysistrata, part of the drama of the sex strike is that women were considered too lustful in Greek culture at the time; compare that to modern American views of female sexuality).  Or from a statistical point of view, while there may be a difference in the “average” man and woman, the variance in individuals of each gender is too large to generalize it to everyone.

Here’s also where I’ll admit I haven’t read any of the book (I just found out about it).  If someone were to cite statistics showing these views are taken more seriously than I’m guessing, I would believe and be willing to revise my views.  But the fact is, none of the reviews mention any and neither does the interview.  More importantly, this just seems like false equivalence because the whole point of most talk of the “Republican War on Science” points out that many of these views come from actual policymakers or people of influence in the movement.  To say a school board member who wants to put “Warning” stickers on a biology text that talks about evolution is the same as a New Ager trying to sell kali carbonica on HuffPo seems to be ignoring how these people are treated in their movements.

I do like one of the points Dr. Berezow makes in the interview.  That is that science policy isn’t just a purely scientific issue, and he brings up the example of funding for nuclear fusion.  This is definitely true, and I feel like it’s something that gets oversimplified when people just say “science policy should be left to scientists”.  In a democracy (especially one that gives so much money to its scientists), it’s definitely important for non-scientists to make sure they can feel comfortable supporting science.

Obama’s Science Record

Nature recently published a lengthy article in their news section that looks at how well President Obama kept his promise to “value science” in his administration.  The opinion seems to be that, for the most part, he lived up to his word.  Over four years, I’ve forgotten what a big deal most of his science policy nominees were and how much respect they garnered from colleagues in his field.  And I have no way of comparing it to George W. Bush’s administration, but I also remember hearing about the big push by the incoming Obama administration to hire researchers for various executive appointments.  One of my science professors freshman year mentioned how faculty at our university had gotten several invitations to apply for executive agencies.  

And his rock star science team seems to have done well, mostly.  A common complaint about Bush-era science agencies was that the White House would “muzzle” researchers when their data or policy suggestions contrasted with the administration’s goals.  One of Obama’s promises was to require federal agencies to develop “scientific integrity” policies that would ensure scientists could state their own views and publish their own data without political interference.  It took a bit longer than expected to create all these policies, but now they’re nearly all in place.

Of course, any mention of the integrity policies would be incomplete without mentioning the two big controversies on this end.  During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, US Geological Survey employees complained that the Obama administration pressured them to underestimate the amount of oil in the Gulf.  And an initial estimate from NOAA was criticized for being done by someone with no experience in the area and using poor techniques.

And at the end of last year, there was some large intramural fighting in the administration.  The Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research recommended that the morning-after pill, Plan B, be made available to all girls “over the counter”.  The Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, overruled that decision and kept the current policy requiring a prescription for girls under 17 in place.  In a memo, Sebelius claimed that there is not enough evidence showing that the “youngest girls of reproductive age” could safely use Plan B on their own.  The bigger deal was the follow-up, though.  FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg fought back in her public statement said that she agreed with the Center’s review.

There’s also lots of other things that happened over the last four years:  science spending in the stimulus, NASA, various proposals to open up new land to resource extraction and also new regulations, the development of ARPA-E, and the list goes on.  But the Nature piece already does a good job, and I don’t see a need to rehash everything they say.  So go check it out.

Following Up on Algebra and Science Debate

I apologize for the dearth of blog posts.  I plan on explaining myself over the weekend.  But I wanted to point out some new developments on two of the news pieces I’ve blogged about:  pondering the necessity of algebra and wondering if we need a “science debate”.

NPR’s Diane Rehm show recently hosted Andrew Hacker, the author of the “Is Algebra Necessary?” piece, along with a “program supervisor of mathematics” in Montgomery County (I’ve assumed that means he develops math curricula for his school district?),  a Duke economics and public policy professor, and writer/columnist Judy Bolton-Fasman to the show to debate the merits of teaching algebra in high schools.  Hacker rephrased most of his argument.  Unfortunately, Nolan, the math program supervisor, made what I considered one of the weakest defenses.  He merely said the general idea of math builds critical thinking skills without explaining why.  When Nolan said this, Hacker immediately interrupted him and said there is no data proving that math education makes students better thinkers or more active citizens.  This really irked me, because a) I felt that Hacker was incredibly rude for talking over Nolan during his speaking time and b) Hacker himself admits he has no numbers supporting his claim that math is the “number one academic reason” students drop out of school and based it on personal talks with unspecified teachers.  I also think Nolan should point out that Hacker’s “citizen statistics” class would probably fail.  Hint:  Statistics is really confusing without a background in algebra, unless you think statistics is nothing but averages and raw probability values.

Another aside:  There was a discussion on the Diane Rehm Facebook page post about this, and it was interesting to hear some people claim that algebra defenders were being misleading by characterizing algebra as addition, multiplication, division, etc.  You know what I think?  THIS IS BASICALLY ALGEBRA.  Algebra is (mostly) the application of many arithmetic operations in a way to find unknown variables.  So my argument is that if you think algebra I is “too hard” to teach high schoolers, I’m not sure how competent you think they are in mathematics (and I’m not sure they’ll ever be that competent, since algebra I forces you to repeat a lot of arithmetic and would probably improve your skills).

The Washington Post had another follow-up from someone who defended Hacker’s argument about the unnecessary nature of algebra.  Basically, he rips apart all of contemporary high school education.  And I’m totally okay with that.  Although I think high school should at least partially be a liberal education, I can appreciate the idea that people think otherwise.  I’m more annoyed when people single out science and math classes as unnecessary, and yet never seem to realize the arbitrary reasoning for other subjects. (Do we really need everyone to take four years of English?  Can’t we just do a composition class in a year?  Who needs to learn about civics?  You can just read the news if you want to understand government.)  At least here, the author is being honest and just arguing that if none of this works from a cognitive perspective, we should just throw out the whole system.

For the other piece, Science Debate got responses from both the Romney and Obama campaigns!  Go here for the side-by-side comparison and check out their homepage for links to reactions.