December 10th, 2010
White, Democrat and logically impaired — that’s the public image emerging for science thanks to three articles in the past month. What’s most devastating is these articles are not the sort of right wing smear campaigns that are easily dismissed. To the contrary, they disparage the profession of science with the tools of science: logic and facts.
THE BEARER OF BAD TIDINGS. This is Dr. John Ioannidis. He does meta-research on the field of biomedical science. He goes to medical science meetings and tells the scientists their profession is awash in bad practices. And they love him for it as he is enormously popular as a speaker. I asked a group of epidemiologists at a conference I was attending last month whether the Atlantic magazine article’s portrayal of him as such a superstar was overblown. They all shook their heads no, saying, “The guy is truly amazing.” But he’s also the grim reaper for the profession of science. Just look at those eyes that seem to say, “You folks got a problem.”
“This is not a smoking gun. This is a mushroom cloud.”
That’s a brilliant quote. It really is. Had it been said by a major politician during the Watergate scandal it would be to this day a part of the common vernacular. Maybe it still will be.
It was said by Dr. Pat Michaels, noted climate skeptic at University of Virginia and member of the IPCC, in response to the first news of the Climategate theft of scientist’s emails. It was met with scoffs by the scientists who were busy at their blogs trying to say the emails were a tempest in a teapot. I don’t think any of them would be so dismissive today.
It was indeed a mushroom cloud. Michaels pegged it right. Jon Stewart chided the science community, Bill Maher just a couple months ago showed he had bought the FOX News version of scientific dishonesty (when there was none), and the lasting impression for the public was that the scientists “got caught” doing something wrong (despite at least 5 investigations have shown they DID NOT).
CHOP, CHOP, CHOP …
Now, the profession of science, that for starters has a fundamental problem with social skills, is not only being laughed at — it’s now being chopped at with hatchets. Keith Kloor started assembling the pieces of this science public image disaster yesterday with a discussion on his blog Collide-a-scape.
The first, and I think most devastating, chopping came in October’s issue of The Atlantic with a stunning article titled, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science.” Just give that title some thought for starters. They are talking about a profession — science — where the ONLY thing that matters is truth and accuracy.
If you wrote an article titled, “Corruption, Damned Corruption, and Politics,” all it would get is chuckles. The same for policeman, immigration officials, drug enforcement departments. The idea of dishonesty in those professions is laughable. Even journalism. But science? It’s currency is information. Without honesty the entire profession has NOTHING.
So that first body blow is now followed this week in the New Yorker with a second haymaker to the noggin in an article titled, “The Truth Wears Off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method?” Do you see the key word there — “The Truth.” Do you know what’s at stake with that word? Everything.
And now from a different angle comes a third punch to the gut with Slate pointing out that the entire profession of science is overwhelmingly Democrat in political persuasion, and distressingly white by race. The latter observation comes as no surprise to me — all you have to do is look around at science meetings. Enough said.
WHADYA GONNA DO?
In 2006 I released a movie titled, “Flock of Dodos,” in which I began raising these questions about the public image of science. The movie culminated with my soundman asking a table of 8 professional scientists what they were going to do about their profession being under assault. Their answers sounded like a bunch of confused children and basically amounted to, “We don’t know, this isn’t fair.”
That seems to be response of the entire profession now. No clue of how much they are now being dragged through the mud. No clue of what the consequences of such a lack of awareness of public image will mean. And no clue that there is a mushroom cloud billowing into the sky.