After a long hiatus, I’m attempting a return to my blog. One thing I would like to do in this and future writings, is to share some favorite science communicators. Here are four of them: Ken Miller, Eugenie Scott, Stephen Schneider, and Kerry Emmanuel.
All four of these speakers address topics in science that carry political baggage (not so much among scientists, but in the public): evolution and climate change. These subjects are interesting because they present some of the greatest challenges to science communication. These speakers are excellent for the very reason that they are so effective at meeting the challenges: rising above ideological mirk, and getting at the heart of the science. I hope you enjoy.
Biologists -especially those who defend evolution in the classroom- are often the subject of straw man attacks, accused of everything from communism to fanatical atheism. Ken Miller is a great counter example. Miller has been an outspoken advocate for the teaching of evolutionary biology, and thus a formidable opponent of Intelligent Design/Creationism in school curricula. But, contrary to the stereotype of the “atheist scientist”, Miller is a devout and outspoken Catholic who talks openly and frankly about issues of science and religion. His Templeton essay on science and religion is among the most eloquent pieces I’ve read on the subject.
A key theme of my blog is the importance of scientific thinking and the values of science. It is not literacy of any one particular subject of science, but literacy on scientific thinking itself that is most missing from public discourse. And, the values of science are frequently under assault. At the heart of the assaults on science, is a fundamental confusion about what science is and how it works. As a religious scientist myself, I take common cause with Miller in saying that “Intelligent Design” is fundamentally unscientific and in fact anti-scientific, because it blurs and confuses distinctions between science and belief. Miller is one of the most articulate and credible speakers on the subject. I highly encourage checking out his webpage. Here is one of my favorite excerpt from a talk he gave about the Dover PA textbook trial. I’ve edited the segment for brevity, but the whole talk can be found here. Here’s the teaser:
In understanding the distinction between science and religion, another excellent speaker is Eugenie Scott, the recently retired director of the National Institute for Science Education (NCSE). Unlike Miller, Scott considers herself to be a strong agnostic, if not atheist. Nonetheless, she draws a sharp distinction between the value-neutrality of science and the incorrect notion that science is anti-religious. A big pet peeve of mine is when people accuse science of being dogmatically “materialist” – subscribing to a philosophy that the material world is “all there is”. In this clip, Scott hits it out of the ball park. Science does not assume a purely materialistic world; it simply restricts itself to answering materialistic questions – this is a very important distinction.
As this century continues to unfold, our success and survival will increasingly depend on our ability to discuss complex and sometimes yet-to-be-fully-resolved science topics. To me nothing underscores this challenge like the subject of climate change, which requires us to balance abstract long-term thinking against tangible short term problems; which still has many open questions; and which has become politicized to the point of being toxic. The issue requires a level of scientific savvy that I fear is missing from our political leadership and much of the general public at large, and it needs to change, fast. I worry very deeply about the implications of a warming planet, but I worry more about what our failure to reasonably discuss this problem says about our ability to deal with future problems of the same magnitude – and there will be more problems of this magnitude in the near future.
Unlike, my own field of pure physics, the study of climate falls under the umbrella of “complex systems science” – the study of systems that are not amenable to reductionism, where many moving parts interact on different scales and across different fields of science.
Among the figures to speak on the topic of climate science, one of my favorites is the late Stephen Schneider. Schneider was as much a philosopher of science as he is a key figure in the development of modern climatology. He spoke frequently about our “ability to survive complexity”, and cut through the difficulty of the scientific and political problems of climate change with razor precision. He gave a great series of lectures on “Climate Change: Is the Science Settled Enough For Policy?“. The whole lecture is very much worth watching. Here is a clip where he reminds us that any subject in a science is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Scientific theories have many different components, with different levels of certitude and knowledge. A critical first step to understanding science is being able to sort it into it’s various components and reason out each topic on its own merits:
Another key skill in managing the intersection of science and politics is the ability to separate between the two. Especially when the science is inherently uncertain, policy boils down to risk evaluation which is in the realm of value judgements. Science gives us probabilities and confidences, but it’s up to us to determine what to do about them. And, we have to be extremely careful not to confuse value judgments with scientific judgements. Here, Schneider lays this out:
This last speaker is another climatologist, and he covers many of the same themes as Schneider. I highly recommend Emanuel’s rebuttal to a controversial article by political scientist Roger Pielke Jr on natural disasters and climate change. His article is both terse and profound, and can be found here.
One of the key problems of climate change is that politicians and the public see it as a debate between two opposite scenarios: doomsday and nothing-to-worry-about. These are what Schneider calls “the two least likely outcomes”, and they present a false choice. The best available science lays out a continuum, a spectrum of possibilities, ranging from mostly benign to really bad. We don’t need to “choose which outcome is right”. We need to look at the spectrum and make policy decisions according to our best estimates of their likelihoods. The following is a clip from Emmanuel’s excellent summary talk, “What we know about climate change”. The whole lecture provides one of the best overviews on the topic. Here is Emmanuel laying out the basic idea and talking about the concept of tail risks:
A common tactic from dogmatic people who attack scientific theories is to accuse scientists themselves of dogma. No doubt, all scientists have our biases, and some can be quite dogmatic. But, the scientific community is largely populated by people who are turned off by ideology and prefer the complexity and nuances of the world as it is, to naive simplicity of the world as we want it it to be. At our best, we leverage our skeptical community and our methodology to place a strong check on bias and dogma. I picked these examples because they run counter to the accusations of “atheism”, “alarmism”, or “socialism” that get so cheaply tossed around by partisan hacks. These are people who embody the voice of reason, who value being reasonable and being accurate above all else, and I hope that shines through. How we think about the world has very real implications for how we ultimately act in it. It is here where science has many important things to say about the future of our society.