A rather odd paper in the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication makes the case, in a way, that science needs a public intellectual writing like how Paul Krugman has for economics. The paper tears apart the rhetoric of the NY Times columnist and seems to suggest that what is missing in public discourse is a scientist willing to mix it up with a similar degree of plain-spoken advocacy and truth-telling. The paper explicitly dismisses the kind of persona of stalwarts like Bill Nye the Science Guy, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan despite the very public denouncements from all about science denialism.
Realistically, the paper misses the point. Is Paul Krugman an effective communicator? Sure. But why does he have such a bully pulpit? It is not simply because of his communication skills (and this paper notably does not investigate how he came to write the way he does), it is because one of the most influential newspapers in the world decided to give him regular column space. And why did they do that? A big part is because economics is clearly tangled with politics: elections are often won or lost on the state of the economy. But part of it is that New York is a center of financial activity: there was from the start a readership interested in opinions about economics. It didn’t hurt that he was local (so some columns have dealt with New York specific themes) and that he could write to a fixed space on a deadline.
Are there no voices like his out there in scienceland? Well, the blogosphere seems pretty loaded with scientists being pretty noisy about things (you could start at contributors to Real Climate and branch out from there to find some folks on the climate side of things just for starters).
So GG will argue that it isn’t the absence of equally robust voices in the scientific community that has prevented the emergence of some kind of equally influential science writer, it is the absence of an equivalent platform, one where such an individual can learn the ropes of effective public rhetoric. And where might such a platform emerge? Not New York or Washington DC; neither community really has enough of a science readership to make a publisher turn over space on a regular basis; those communities are far more fascinated with power and money. Probably the three most likely candidates are Boston, Denver, and San Francisco. Boston has an enormous number of universities and some of the most capable scientists in the world. Let the Boston Globe give Kerry Emanuel space a couple times and week and see what happens. Denver is home to one of the largest communities of earth scientists anywhere, plus a public that values the outdoors and so has more interest in the environment than many other markets; maybe the Denver Post should make inquiries. The San Francisco Bay Area is also home to a lot of earth scientists as well as a couple national labs and the tech industry; you’d think that the San Francisco Examiner or Chronicle might be willing to host some science column and encourage a political angle to it.
There are though a couple other barriers. Krugman is a Nobel winning economist but also a reliably liberal voice; knowing about where he fits on a partisan scale probably makes it easier to rely on him as a columnist. Economists are much more political creatures than physical scientists. A scientist writing op-eds might anger the right one day in complaining about removing evolution and climate change from textbooks, and then piss off the left the next in pointing out the ridiculous claims of anti-vaxxers and GMO opponents. Its not clear how that might play (the closest Krugman seems to come to that is pointing out that restrictive growth regulations, like those in liberal cities like Boulder and San Francisco, make these communities too expensive and exclusive for their own good). Another barrier is the risk of weighing in strongly where you know little. Linus Pauling was a two-time Nobel medalist who went far off the deep end in advocating for vitamin C as a kind of miracle drug; would he have made a good columnist? You need a generalist who can avoid falling into a trap of thinking they know more than they do while venturing into unfamiliar terrain from time to time. And frankly the broader community views “scientist” as one-size-fits-all, but there is a pretty wide gap between lab and field sciences in practice that has at times produced prominent intellectuals on one side saying pretty stupid things about what the other side does. A Nobel Prize in Physics might not make one a great commentator on earth science, for instance (and earth science lacks a Nobel; the closest is the Crafoord Prize). (GG recalls the naiveté of some physicists pursuing a fabled fourth force some time back, while physicists can ridicule how geologists thought the Earth was eternal back in the day).
Finally there is the pain barrier. The paper mentions Micheal Mann as a possible candidate for such a public intellectual, but when you consider the kinds of attacks he has endured (some pretty powerful people threatening his job and credentials in court and in halls of government)–these are well beyond what most columnists have ever faced, and this is without him having regularly spoken on topics beyond climate change. Scientists generally do not go into science to be attacked in court or vilified in public. The ferocity around climate change dwarfs the typical economic arguments over business cycles and Federal reserve policy.
[And an aside. Why does it seem that astronomers of all people end up as public celebrities? Are they viewed as more distant and so safe?]
So will voices emerge like those the author of the Krugman analysis paper desires? It seems profoundly unlikely, but not because of a rhetoric gap.
So previously we’ve discussed how the current administration seems hell-bent on removing any kind of scientific information from being in the room when decisions are being made. This gets justified under claims of bias from scientists working within the government or funded by the government; the replacements, so far, have been representatives of industry or political appointees with no scientific backgrounds. Remember, this is not replacing scientists writing policy–they didn’t do that, this is replacing scientists providing scientific advice. It would be like replacing your dentist with an accountant.
What, exactly, is the result of this kind of maneuver? The answer may well be splashed across the front page of every paper in the country every few weeks.
A nice piece by Mark Rosenberg in Politico describes the result of blocking scientific inquiry into a public health issue from many years ago: the handcuffing of the Center for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health from examining gun violence. Although technically barring the organizations from lobbying for gun control, the effect has been to prevent any attempt to investigate what works and what does not work in preventing fatalities or injuries from gun use. The analogy Rosenberg uses is that of cars: scientific study of what made car crashes happen and make them fatal led to years of updates to cars and motor vehicle laws that have greatly reduced fatalities on the road.
So what has preventing similar work on gun safety meant? It means that as everybody wants to stop school shootings, nobody knows what might work. So as Florida students demand action from legislators, the problem is, what action is appropriate? The answer, as Rosenberg points out, is we don’t know. Could it be banning certain guns? Could it be some better screening? Could it be better school security? Because we don’t study it, we don’t really know. The result, as everybody can see, is paralysis. This is, apparently, what the NRA wants because, it would seem, they fear any action which might impact gun ownership–even though we don’t know that that would be the recommendation that might emerge from research.
Now carry this forward to everything from toxic chemicals to unproven drugs to endangered species to climate change. Silencing science means you really have no idea what to do even once you agree there is a problem. Farmworkers mysteriously have incredibly high cancer rates? Maybe its the chemicals they handle, or maybe the food they eat, the places they live, their ancestry? Who knows? So do nothing. Songbirds suddenly vanish from cities across the country. Why? Who knows? Nothing to do about it.
Science is a tool to prevent you from deluding yourself. The only reason not to deploy it is to maintain personal delusions about the world around you. It would appear that this is the mindset of the current administration. The damage likely to emerge could be immense. Ignorance of the law is no defense in court. Perhaps ignorance of science should similarly penalize those trying to exploit it.
Ars Technica has a rundown of all the damage that the Trump administration’s budget priorities would do to scientific research, and frankly the scope of what they don’t want to do is breathtaking. Yes, this is the same kind of document that was dead on arrival in Congress last year, but the shear stupidity and strong desire to value ignorance over knowledge portends a future of decisions based on…political contributions? readings of tea leaves?
It isn’t a surprise to have this administration want to shut down a satellite that measures carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Or another that takes pictures. But it is still stupid.
Since earthquakes mainly affect blue states, let’s cut back on earthquake work. Also volcanoes–blue states! Same thing with tsunamis (little does the Trump administration know that there is a tsunami risk along the East Coast). But mining? Gotta give that research a big boost.
Weather forecasting? Don’t need that; just look out the window, folks. Who needs a forecast? Just carry an umbrella on your way to the limo.
Search for asteroids that could hit earth? Hah! Divine wrath if it happens, why look?
Pretty much all governmental science takes a hit in that budget, and while Congress will probably authorize more, it isn’t hard to anticipate foot dragging and repurposing as much as is possible.
An engineer GG knew once said that people who wanted things to be faith-based rather than science-based were welcome to fly on airplanes constructed from faith. Welcome to faith-based governing; it isn’t clear what the faith is, but in the absence of observational truth, it isn’t faith in science.
To be clear, this has not been a traditional GOP priority; in fact for a long time, science did better with the GOP in power than Democrats. Most of us would not willfully blind ourselves before walking along a cliff edge, but this administration seems to glory in poking a stick in any eyes that look outward.
Pissed off? You can support scientists running for Congress through 314action.org. Or run for Congress yourself. Right now there are a grand total of 5 members of Congress with science degrees. Some 60 more are now running.
Politics and industry make strange bedfellows. Politics is often short-sighted, with most politicians locked in to the next election, or even the next round of polls, but multifaceted. Industry, on the other hand, can look over longer timespans but is narrowly focused (“can” is not always “does”). You might hope that the pair could produce public policy that was both broad and longterm, but the reality seems to combine the worst characteristics of each.
Nowhere is this more evident than in peering into the future of oil. Mason Inman’s recent biography of M. King Hubbert, The Oracle of Oil (Amazon link), provides a nice reminder of this interaction from an earlier time. Hubbert’s views on oil, which were made with an eye towards a fully sustainable economy, conflicted with corporate and political motives. Corporations are in a specific business and like to hear that their future is bright, a disastrous approach when the future is changing (see Eastman Kodak’s fall as digital photography bankrupted their film business). Thus there is a tendency within a company to both develop rosy forecasts and believe them (the more pessimistic will tend to leave). Politicians want happy news about tomorrow–Cassandras don’t tend to get elected. So what happens when unhappy predictions are made?
Earlier GG noted that the EPA (and to a somewhat similar degree, Dept. of Interior) were engaging in what actually seemed to be a war on science. If you didn’t catch it, some of the scientists booted off advisory panels at the EPA have filed suit alleging that the government violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The Union of Concerned Scientists joined the suit, saying that EPA’s actions were an “affront to the scientific integrity of the EPA and the federal government.”
Of course, the administration can always fall back on their other approach to advisory committees and simply not convene them. For instance, most members of the National Park System advisory board resigned because, basically, nobody would let them meet. This 80 year old advisory board was responsible for, among other things, approving new historic or natural landmarks and was just one of 200 advisory boards suspended early in 2017.
One characteristic that seems to define this administration is arrogance. It is one thing to hear advice and choose not to take it (which, arguably, was the kind of arrogance the Obama Administration was accused of by rural westerners), but it is a totally different level when you won’t even allow advice to be spoken to you. This is the same arrogance that results in people insisting on driving their sedans over bad or abandoned mountain roads and either dying or being rescued after suffering through an ordeal. Is this really the best mentality for operating a government?
It was fun to revisit the wilderness for a week, but time to get grumpy again.
One of the things that struck GG in looking at the New Year’s summary of 2017 summaries made by Electoral-Vote was the asymmetry in type of content between the liberal and conservative pundits. Liberal pundits were appalled by the tone of the President. Conservative pundits focused more on what actually changed: judicial nominees, the tax bill, changes in regulations.
Maybe in the first weeks of Trump’s presidency it made sense to decry his ugly tone in tweets and off-hand statements because to that point, statements by a president carried real weight, but by now we all get it. This is what President Trump does. Just as Clinton hammered far too hard on what everybody could see about Trump, the left-of-center commentators and the media at large seemingly cannot let the latest stupid tweet go unmentioned. While this is fine fodder for late night comedians, it isn’t really telling us much about how the country is being governed. Several of Trump’s cabinet appointees are actually pretty capable and active in moving an agenda, and it seems clear that they have a pretty free hand to advance their agenda (for instance, the 10 priorities for the Department of the Interior are listed as the Secretary’s agenda, not the President’s). Whatever the soap opera in the White House is, stuff happens elsewhere.