“Science writing in the Age of Denial”

I don’t know how I missed news of this April event at the University of Wisconsin, but no matter – video is online:

Science writers now work in an age where uncomfortable ideas and truths meet organized resistance. Opposing scientific consensus on such things as anthropogenic climate change, the theory of evolution, and even the astonishingly obvious benefits of vaccination has become politically de rigueur, a litmus test and a genuine threat to science. How does denial affect the craft of the science writer? How can science writers effectively explain disputed science? What’s the big picture? Are denialists ever right?

Missouri may have opened a creationist Pandora’s Box

Missourians have voted overwhelmingly for a ‘right-to-pray’ constitutional amendment that creationists may use to let students opt-out of certain topics in science class. When I voted on Tuesday in my St. Louis suburb (against this amendment, of course), the ballot described the proposed amendment with a single, innocuous sentence that basically nobody could disagree with (except maybe Richard Dawkins or Jerry Coyne). No wonder the thing passed with 83% in favor – you can make anything sound good if you’re not constrained by honesty, which, when it comes to prayer, one would think ought to be a constraint.

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

In the months leading up to the vote, Amendment 2 prompted unsuccessful lawsuits over its ballot wording, which its critics argued oversimplified the issue to the point of deceit. Continue reading “Missouri may have opened a creationist Pandora’s Box”

Pursue ignorance, learn science

Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person’s mental map. It has contours and coherence, and for all I know rules of operation as well. – Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner

Dr. Stewart Firestein, a Columbia University neurobiologist is a scientist after my own heart. A former actor and theater manager, he went to graduate school in his mid-thirties, and despite the late start, has pursued a successful career understanding olfaction. He teaches a class on ignorance in science, and he’s written a book based on the ideas in the class, Ignorance: How It drives Science.

The basic message of the book is that facts are boring, while ignorance is (or can be) interesting, and we need to teach and practice science with this in mind. In this brief, genial book, Firestein gives advice on how to have an interesting conversation with a scientist – ask any of the following questions:

Continue reading “Pursue ignorance, learn science”

Former climate skeptic finally catches up to current science

LA Times: Koch-funded climate change skeptic reverses course

WASHINGTON – The verdict is in: Global warming is occurring and emissions of greenhouse gases caused by human activity are the main cause.

This, according to Richard A. Muller, professor of physics at UC Berkeley, MacArthur Fellow and co-founder of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project. Never mind that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and hundreds of other climatologists around the world came to such conclusions years ago. The difference now is the source: Muller is a long-standing, colorful critic of prevailing climate science, and the Berkeley project was heavily funded by the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, which, along with its libertarian petrochemical billionaire founder Charles G. Koch, has a considerable history of backing groups that deny climate change.

Continue reading “Former climate skeptic finally catches up to current science”

Economics does shape science

Some final observations from Paula Stephan’s provocative book, How Economics Shapes Science (Harvard University Press, 2012):

1) The current incentive structure is creating an inefficient system. The job market for biomedical PhDs has been generally poor for some time now, and it has been getting worse. From the perspective of Deans and established investigators, the system is working beautifully because established scientists are highly productive. But from an economic perspective (and from the perspective of newly trained PhDs), this is a highly inefficient system that relies on cheap, temporary, highly skilled workers with future job prospects that are unlikely to repay the opportunity costs of PhD and postdoc training.

The university research system has a tendency to produce more scientists end engineers than can possibly find jobs as independent researchers. In most fields, the the percentage of recently trained PhDs holding faculty positions is half or less than what it was thirty-three years ago; the percentage holding postdoc positions and non-tenure-track positions (including staff scientists) has more than doubled. In the biological sciences it has more than tripled. Industry has been slow to absorb the excess. A growing percentage of new PhDs find themselves unemployed, out of the labor force, or working part time.

Continue reading “Economics does shape science”