The non-defense of science

By Randy Olson, November 4, 2011

To ask for the proper scientific response to the political distortion of science is kind of like asking what sort of defense a team of dwarves should run in a basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers. I suppose I could recommend that the dwarves run a zone defense, but it really doesn’t matter because nothing they try is going to work. The dwarves’ problems are fundamental and systemic, and until they are addressed at the large scale, nothing will succeed.

Sliding downhill. I was born in 1955 and grew up in a country led by John F. Kennedy, a president who surrounded himself with scholars and whose administration seemed to embody the idea of knowledge as the foundation to a bright and secure future. But those Camelot dreams not only have failed to come true, they have faded.

Just look at the progression downward in television — still the most powerful medium of mass communication — where the quality and depth of news has atrophied. We’ve gone from Edward R. Murrow to Dan Rather to Stewart and Colbert. In 2008, the New York Times asked, “Is Jon Stewart the most trusted man on television?” and suggested the answer is probably yes.

Instead of at least the dream of a day when the average citizen would evaluate scientific data to make up his or her own mind on complex issues like human-caused global warming, today most people — including, unfortunately, politicians and media personalities — are simply lost on the big issues. The country needs leaders to explain these complexities and deal with the politically driven disinformation that confuses science-related issues.

Cub Scouts versus the mafia. These days the profession of science is under attack. There are the blatant, obvious attacks, like the Climategate offensive of 2009. And there are the less public elements of erosion of confidence in science — such as a television producer friend of mine telling me the words “science” and “scientists” are now actively avoided at the Discovery Channel because “they are perceived as elitist.”

The result: a weakening of the science community and an increase in its vulnerability to attack. I made two movies about science controversies: Flock of Dodos is about anti-evolution efforts; Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy is about attacks on climate science. While making the first movie, I came up with a humorous alternative subtitle, “The Cub Scouts against the Mafia,” which I never used. But as I made the second movie, I found myself drawn to it again.

The subtitle refers to the naïveté of scientists, who are often as trusting as a bunch of Cub Scouts (both groups having honesty as one of their founding principles). In contrast, the anti-science forces seem to have minimal ethics — as was seen in Dover, Pennsylvania in 2005, when a federal judge accused two anti-evolution school board members of perjury, and with Climategate in 2009, when the attackers of climate science were not only willing to commit theft, but their followers never even questioned the ethics of stealing emails.

What to do about science distortion? There is a basic norm in the profession of science that all decisions must be made by committees. This is perhaps a reflection of the core belief in the peer review process; if all research must be approved by a committee of peers, then no policy decisions should be made without a committee. As a result, potential lead organizations like the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science lack the ability to lead, because their directors are little more than mouthpieces for the sluggish committees that reside within.

The overall effect is slow, limited leadership, leaving the science community vulnerable to attack. And this is exactly what happened with Climategate. When word got out that climate scientists’ emails had been stolen and were being used — falsely, as it turned out — to suggest that some aspects of climate science were fraudulent, there was no voice of leadership on the scientists’ side. In fact, there was nothing but chaos, as Fred Pearce of Yale Environment 360 detailed in an article with the blunt title, “Climategate: Anatomy of a public relations disaster.”

A body with no head. So this is at the core of most science communication failures: no effective leadership. Today, Republican presidential candidates like Rick Perry espouse anti-science nonsense in debates. But the next morning, who is combatting the distortions in the media? Nobody.

In a perfect world, the National Academy of Sciences would have a loud, powerful, and charismatic leader, who — on the morning after anti-science debate rhetoric is spewed — would provide the comforting voice of scientific accuracy and have the media savvy to get a rebuttal onto the home page of major news websites.

That response mechanism doesn’t exist. There are individuals and small groups attempting to fill this void. For example, three scientists (one of whom is a senior member of the National Academy) organized a Climate Rapid Response program, and the Science Debate 2012 group is seeking to push presidential candidates to talk more about science issues. But the large science organizations shy away from politics and are largely inept when it comes to communication.

One thing that major science groups could easily do to level the playing field would involve taking an aggressive stance not on the interpretation of science (which is inevitably political), but against attacks on the profession of science itself. Large science organizations should be ready for battle. There is nothing political about defending peer review or the advancement of ideas. Again, though, such an aggressive orientation would require bold leadership.

For now, science is stuck with a “strategy” that boils down to pretty much every scientist for himself or herself, which is what happened with Climategate. As a result, the only advice I can offer is that the strategy has to change. Climategate should have been a wake-up call: It should have been seen as a 9/11 for the science community. It should have brought cries of “Never again!” and a new awareness among scientists of the value of clear and timely communication. But that didn’t happen, which means that, for now, presidential candidates can spout all the egregious anti-science they want, knowing that the response will be underwhelming and delivered with the ferocity of a pack of Cub Scouts.

Topics: Climate Change


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