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.
Well, its been several months since The Mountains that Remade America came out, and it feels like it is worth a moment to contemplate the process, particularly the surprises. Just in case anybody else is interested.
Writing an academic trade book is kind of neither fish nor fowl. A textbook is in some ways a glorified collection of lecture notes. Now you do have to go through and fix up things, and often you realize there are things you don’t teach that should be in the book, but this is material you are deeply familiar with. Often the hardest part is coming up with exercises at the end of chapters that aren’t too bland and aren’t too hard. Tedious, yes. In some ways the oddest part about textbooks is that you don’t generally cite the source material the way you might in a journal article, which can be liberating.
A regular trade book (you know, like novels or anything without footnotes) is similarly liberating: maybe you sort of recall some piece of information, and you are pretty confident it is right, but you can’t lay your hands back on it, well, you can stick it in. Now depending on the topic, a fact checker might be employed to look for mistakes, but that can be somebody else’s job.
No, an academic trade book rests on the author’s shoulders more squarely. Read More…
A National Review article recently crowed that Al Gore’s “Doomsday clock” had passed and things were OK. You’d think for a publication that for years had at least the reputation for being able to understand and properly use the English language that the Review could parse Gore’s statement properly; the article says: “Gore declared that unless we took “drastic measures” to reduce greenhouse gasses, the world would reach a “point of no return” in a mere ten years.” That was 10 years ago.
A “point of no return” is awfully different from an unbearable climate, and while that article uses more ridiculous (and also selectively quoted) materials to ridicule Gore, was he in fact right? What is a “point of no return?” It means that there is enough warming baked in, by heat stored in the oceans, CO2 already in the climate system, that harmful effects in the future are unavoidable. The climate community pretty much believes we passed that point: significant warming in the latter part of the century is guaranteed, significant ice loss in Greenland will raise sea levels enough to force abandonment of very low lying areas. While the exact magnitudes of change will remain uncertain, bending the curve back to a natural state is beyond any mitigation we can plausibly deploy in the next few decades. If anything, most climate scientists would argue that Gore was an optimist: we probably passed a tipping point some time ago. The argument now is to try and limit the damage, because it can be much worse if we continue to do nothing.
So if crowing about your personal misunderstanding of climate statements passes as deep wisdom in the National Review, what does this tired chestnut of a cartoon tell you?
I mean, really? Can Americans get their head around the idea that the East Coast is not the only thing that counts as “global”? Check out this global image from the same day as the cartoon (via WUndergrounds’s Category Six blog):
How many times do some people have to be hit over the head to grasp the difference between an average and a distribution? Or to even have the most simple concept of geography?
We are doomed as a species if the opinion leaders we follow remain such doddering idiots.
GG has complained about the letter journals like Science and Nature, sometimes for things they do (like take real articles and smash them down into an extended abstract disguised as an article with a real article lurking in the supplementary information) and sometimes for how they are used (impact factors for salary bonuses or promotion). There is yet another wrinkle out there that had escaped his notice, namely a chilling of communication at meetings.
A piece in The Open Notebook (seen via Retraction Watch) discusses how scientists clam up at meetings and even threaten to blacklist reporters who, um, report on materials presented at meetings journalists are encouraged to attend. Why? Because they fear that the prestige tabloids will reject their work as already published if this work shows up in a newspaper somewhere. And given the rather arcane rules Science and Nature put out (you can only clarify what you said in public, you can’t seek out news coverage, etc.) it is easy to feel like you had better discourage coverage if you have designs on those journals.
This is awful on so many levels. Read More…
Today is Earth Day, and many folks will be out marching for science. There are lots of reasons one might do this–provides the grist for technological advance, allows for finding ways of living longer and better, etc–but GG would like to explore a different tack.
GG was recently in Ireland, and at geologic sites like Giant’s Causeway and the Cliffs of Moher he looked for books on geology in the visitor center stores. There was one rather generic book on deep time at Giant’s Causeway (with a cover shot of the Grand Canyon) and nothing at the Cliffs of Moher. There were, on the other hand, fistfuls of books on Irish history, most of which dealt with events nowhere near the places where the books were being sold. This is hardly unique to these places, but it is sobering. Here are landscapes–geological landscapes–that people have travelled some distance to see, and there isn’t enough interest for there to be even one book specific to the place?
The point? People seem to gravitate to history books but avoid science books. Science books, it would seem, are too heavy for casual reading. Many of the marchers today may feel science is important, but you wonder if they would pick up a science book while on vacation. Now perhaps this reflects a certain inability of those writing science to author accessible books (but there are some really excellent science writers out there), but it might also mean that folks feel that science is best left to scientists. Just give me my smartphone, thanks, and make sure the plane gives me a smooth ride home and all is good.
Science can be more though than just the mechanism by which we find our way to new and better gadgets. It can also provide the same kind of insights into the human experience that we seek in art and literature. But by limiting science to an academic pursuit, the public misses out on this facet of the scientific enterprise.
This is why GG wrote The Mountains that Remade America. The book fuses human history with geological history, so in some ways it is a bit deceptive–here is some nice tasty history, and oh by the ways, there is some geology here too–try it, just a smidgen, and you’ll get a bit more yummy history. Who we are, why we do things some ways, how we live in others is rooted in the geology of a region, but this aspect of history is buried in most of those history books cluttering visitor center shelves. Hundreds of books address the California Gold Rush. Few if any consider how the gold got to be there–or that the presence of different kinds of gold deposits dictated how the rush would affect later history. Or consider how John Muir’s idolization of empty landscapes might have been different had he been tramping in the Rockies with Indian settlements all around instead of the High Sierra where occupation was purely seasonal.
So today, as many trumpet how important science is as a practical matter, don’t forget that science is a human endeavor, and there is real gratification in learning the origin stories that make us what we are.
GG doesn’t really need to review such a prominent movie (particularly a movie that was based on a non-fiction book that hadn’t even been published when they were filming), but there are some points he’d like to make (aside from recommending both movie and book).
The movie focuses on one particular moment in time for the black women computers (yes, it was a job before it was a machine) of Langley around the time of the Mercury program. As such, the movie rearranges many of the events documented in the book into a shorter timeframe (for instance, Mary Jackson’s long hikes to the segregated bathroom in the early 50s-and her angry tirade leading her to work in the wind tunnel group-were transferred to Katherine Goble in 1961, who had in fact ignored the absence of a Colored bathroom in her building by simply using the nearest available women’s room). It also seems to amplify the racial tensions within Langley (especially with the supervisor of the white female computers and the flight engineering group) compared to the book’s broader view of Langley as more of a refuge from the Jim Crow Virginia these women lived in outside of work. These cinematic choices are not bad, and the movie does more or less convey the barriers the women faced and overcame. This does make the movie more coherent than the book, which probably needed a bit more development time, because the narrative thread in the text gets tangled from time to time. So it is a feel-good movie about the unjustly oppressed getting at least some justice based on a groundbreaking book that is long overdue.
GG’s point is that this is also a cautionary tale, and this is clearer in the book than the movie. The book (unlike the movie) addresses the educational barriers these women faced, both in being black and female in the south. By focusing on the few who had the combination of luck and skill to succeed, both the movie and book bury the fact that this means there were many others with less luck but, probably, equal skill whose contributions were never made because of discrimination. A point too rarely made is that discrimination not only hurts those discriminated against, but it denies the rest of society the contributions those victims could have made. And although the overt legal discrimination of the past is gone, the continued dearth of minority faces in science in general and in the earth sciences in particular suggests that some styles of discrimination remain. Because of that, we are poorer as a discipline.
Well, GG is hoping that AGU gives him an opportunity to move back into science discussions, but one last thing (let’s hope!) from the election before we make that move. Professors are always looking for lessons in the real world to carry to their students, and GG thinks there is a pretty good one in Trump’s victory. We might someday thank Donald Trump for the campaign he ran, not so much for the policy outcomes but for the lesson that the American republic is not immune to demagoguery.
Many op-ed types wrote immediately after the election that disappointed voters should not equate Trump’s victory with Germany in 1932, when Hitler was elected to the post of Chancellor. They claimed that the U.S. had far stronger traditions and rules against the kind of arbitrary power Hitler eventually used. GG sort of agrees, but for different reasons. While we might have things like the Constitution and more than 200 years of tradition, we also have in the Presidency the kind of power that Hitler did not have until Hindenburg’s death in 1934. No, the telling difference is that the demagogue Hitler had truly evil intentions, hatred and revenge stoked his ambition; the demagogue Trump seems to have been mostly motivated by narcissism and might well have started his campaign as a means of getting free press for his businesses (heavens knows there were times his campaign stops seemed more like infomercials for a Trump property).
Time will tell whether Trump’s Presidency is a success or not, but he has established a blueprint for those with more malice to gain control of government. Lying, expounding on conspiracy theories, name-calling, fear-mongering are all in the playbook. All of this has kicked around at times in American history, but never to the point of this level of success. The question for America will be, how do we respond? Do we continue down this road, eagerly eating up the most salacious rumors that appeal to our gut, thinking the worst of some of our fellow citizens? Or do we find out how to reward leadership that acknowledges reality and makes promises that can, at least, be guiding stars for policies when in office?
If we inoculate ourselves against false news and rumor, if we determine to marginalize the aluminum-foil-hat tendency both in the public and in ourselves, we might have reason to celebrate Donald Trump, not necessarily for what he does as President but for what he taught us as a candidate. If not, we will rue the day others learn more from Trump than we have.