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Thursday, July 22, 2010

LIVE from Las Vegas: Science, the truth, and the fiction that surrounds it

We live in one of the greatest technological ages in the history of humankind. Even as recently as eighty years ago, the things that the average ten-year old can do were inconceivable. Yet, our distrust of science and its findings seems just as high as it has ever been. Why that is (and how do we change it?) was the fundamental question that this Netroots Nation panel set out to answer.

The panal opened with Dr. Greg Dworkin, who reviewed the H1N1 pandemic flu crisis and the public's continued mistrust of vaccinations.

He began by showing a picture of a woman sneezing and challenged the audience to look at the photo and question the need for preventive care.

Yet many people continue to disregard the advice of the scientific and medical communities, in part because they are told not to by great scientific minds like Glenn Beck. Unfortunately, this has resulted in preventable outbreaks of disease, like the spike in whooping cough, which caused six infant deaths in 2006.

A lack of education is one of the reasons why these issues continue to persist, and that's what the next speaker — Josh Rosenau — spoke specifically about. He says we need to ensure that evolution is taught in our science classrooms.

Surprisingly, in many areas of the country, that's not happening.

I myself was not taught evolution until I started college.

In an age where so many advances are being made in biology, medicine, and genetics, it's critical that we at least teach the theory of evolution to young people. People can decide for themselves what they want to believe about how our world came into being. That's their right in a free country.

Not teaching our kids this fundamental concept is a mistake. If we're not teaching science in our science classrooms, how are we going to lead the world in the environmental revolution? Or any other future science-driven revolution?

But our challenge goes beyond strengthening education.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, who followed Rosenau, have written a book called Merchants of Doubt, which looks at how big corporations have tried to discredit the actual science behind the climate crisis and the toxicity of tobacco,

Naomi listed four key problem area: (1) money, (2) ideology, (3) scientists, and (4) media. The last two stood out to me.

As far as scientists themselves go, what really matters is not so much what they are doing, but how they do it. Many scientists are uncomfortable in the spotlight, and are not attention seekers. They also rarely receive training in media and public relations in the course of their own studies and research.

And of course, the media itself is a major problem.

Naomi Oreskes explained that while researching their book, they discovered that sixty to seventy percent of Americans believe global warming is real, and a little over fifty percent believe that humankind is the cause. Yet repeatedly the American people are portrayed by the media as uninformed and unwilling to consider change.

While this is happening the media continues to suggest that there is a war going n in the scientific community about the issue, even though a consensus was establish decades ago and has been reaffirmed every decade since.

While presenting the climate crisis in this fashion may make the issue more exciting, it is extraordinarily misleading and makes it more difficult to achieve change.

The panel's message boiled down to this: To solve problems like the climate crisis, we need well educated scientists and centers for scientific research.

Erik Conway put it best: "Physicists discover fundamental laws about our universe and engineers take those laws and make useful things from them." Useful things like computers or smartphones, which is what you're using to read this very post.

And we all need to remember that investing our common wealth in scientific research isn't just good for people and the planet. It's good for business, too.


Blogger dinazina said...

Excellent summary.

You remark that eighty years ago, things the average ten-year-old can do were inconceivable. I'd say 40 years ago many of these things were inconceivable, except to science fiction writers and other futurists. Any many of them focused not on global communication and networks, but instead space travel, transportation and such.

And 30 or 40 years ago, few would've predicted that teaching evolution would be "controversial" in the U.S. and opposed by powerful religious elements. The Scopes "monkey trial" of the 1920's was supposed to be the last stand of that battle.

Keep it up! I wish I could be there listening to experts on the subject.

July 23, 2010 6:07 AM  

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