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October 7, 2007

Hip to be Square: Does Science need to be Re-branded?

There is a famous though experiment about the nature of quantum mechanics known as Schrödinger’s Cat. In this experiment a cat is placed into a box along with a radioactive isotope and a canister of hydrogen cyanide hooked up to a Geiger counter. The isotope has exactly a 50% chance of decaying in an hour. Should it decay, the Geiger counter is programmed to open the canister releasing the gas and thereby killing the cat. At the end of an hour, without looking into the box, all we can know about the cat is that it is in a superposition, simultaneously dead and alive. Science it seems, has found itself in a similar position to that infamous cat, both relevant and irrelevant in today’s society. However, unlike in the above situation there are two groups debating over what is to be done to save the cat. One group wants to alter the experiment to better the odds the cat survives, the other group seems content to sit back and let the whole thing ride. Recently I was present when these two factions once again butted heads.
On September 28th the Bell Museum hosted “Speaking Science 2.0: The Road to 2008 and Beyond.? The featured speakers were Chris Mooney of SEED Magazine, Matthew Nisbet an Assistant Professor of Journalism at American University, P.Z. Myers Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota Morris and Greg Laden, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.
First up were Chris and Matt, who had excellently choreographed a tag team presentation about the need for scientists improve their ability to communicate with non-scientists. Chris laid the framework about how scientists are trained to talk to other scientists, something they do very well, but usually leave the public in the dark. Matt spoke on the change in the media to a format that is not conducive for long discussions on weighty scientific topics as well as how the increasing fragmentation of the media allows people who have no interest in science to ignore it altogether. Chris returned with the argument that to combat this ambivalence to science, science must be recast as something that is personally meaningful. He related this to the ongoing “debate? on global warming by indicating that to overcome the campaign of misinformation, science must highlight both the economic and moral implications of ignoring our impact on the environment. Matt rounded out their argument by emphasizing three points that he feels are necessary to regain the public’s trust and respect: message discipline, increased access to local news and community connections and facilitating incidental exposures to science.
Greg Laden then stood for the opposition. The general thrust of his largely unconnected arguments was that there is an anti-science movement that was attacking science in government, schools and society in general. He asserted that scientists are in fact good communicators, but that because the K-12 educational system has been gutted of most of its scientific content, and because of that the public is essentially incapable of understanding what it is that scientists are saying. He painted a pretty grim picture about the state of this “Culture War,? but towards the end of his time Greg did offer the fairly rosy statement, “Science will be the primary philosophy that people will use in their lives.?
The anchor of the debate, P.Z. Myers came out strongly against framing, saying at one point that, “Framing is a way to convince someone who doesn’t know anything to trust you,? and that trust is the antithesis of science. Instead he argued that the popular science model of trying to get information out to the people was the preferred method. Education, he averred, was this nation’s salvation. After presenting some disturbingly low figures about how many Americans believe in evolution he spent much of the rest of his time railing against religion’s influence on society and the need for the public to divorce itself from its corrosive effects.
There were a number of questions from the audience and much light-hearted ribbing by both sides, but it was unfortunately clear that nothing had been decided, nor anyone persuaded from their original position. As I walked home, I mused over the debate. Both sides made some thoughtful arguments, and having experienced K-12 education as recently as I have, I was certainly sympathetic to Greg and P.Z.’s line of reasoning, but I ultimately had to side with Chris and Matt. It seemed like framing science was a lot like giving a fun demonstration with liquid nitrogen and various acid/base combinations to grade-schoolers, and the path Greg and P.Z. advocated was more akin to smacking the above children with a copy of The Origin of Species. Furthermore, and most importantly, Chris and Matt presented very clear, concise steps to achieving their ends, Greg and P.Z. didn’t seem to do much more than declare war on religious fundamentalism.
I agree that science is in danger. I agree that there are people out there who want to discard heliocentrism and bring back humors. However, if science is Schrödinger’s Cat then those Luddites are the radioactive isotope, and I would much prefer giving the cat a gasmask to poking at the isotope.

September 21, 2007

About Burke

Burke Bourne
My work in the field of biology ranges from reforesting areas of the Great Plains, to combating the scourge of soybean aphids to my current position, studying chimpanzee territorialism. I’m interested in pursuing a career in either primatology or science journalism.