Supporting Science, Benefiting Society

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Panelists at the Netroots Nation conference talked about how climate change, evolution, and pandemic flu exemplify the problematic relationship between scientific expertise, the public, and the machinations of those who deny and misrepresent scientific understanding.

Post by Rebeka Ryvola

CSW is at the Netroots Nation annual conference this week in Las Vegas from July 22 - 25 — a gathering of progressive voices working to bring technology to bear in influencing the public debate.  The conference is in its fifth year, and has enjoyed enormous success as a forum for thousands of progressive activists to exchange ideas and share strategies.  We’ll be reporting on the climate and environmental panels we attend and other discussions taking place. Note that keynote sessions and many panels will be web-archived at http://www.netrootsnation.org

As usual some major elected officials are appearing at the conference – this year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer – as well as speakers including AFSCME president Gerald McEntee, former Obama White House aide Van Jones, DailyKos founder Markos Moulitzas, and others. NN10 also has some excellent environmental and science policy and communication-oriented presenters. One panel I attended July 22, Supporting Science, Benefiting Society, featured Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, authors of the recently published book Merchants of Doubt (our CSW review will be posted soon).

The panel was focused on a common linkage between influenza, evolution, and climate change. In addition to Oreskes and Conway, epidemiologist/blogger Greg Dworkin and Josh Rosenau from the National Center of Science Education sat on the panel. The common link between the three issues – besides being areas with considerable ‘settled science’ in the scientific communities – is that they are somehow still being debated in public spheres as though they were matters of fundamental scientific uncertainty.

Oreskes and Conway spoke of climate change and the ongoing, seemingly never-ending struggle to persuade the public of what the science community accepted long ago: “Global Warming is a fact”, said Oreskes, and it has long been understood as such. She suggested that we seem to be no closer to a comprehensive climate bill than we were in 1988. Oreskes and Conway spoke about impediments to action on climate change, which include think-tanks that support free market ideologies, fossil fuel corporations, and irresponsible media.

Epidemiologist Greg Dworkin spoke about last year’s influenza outbreak, and said the same problem that exists with climate change understanding exists with pandemic education: While experts in the field are unanimous in their support for vaccinating to prevent potential outbreaks, the public remains confused about what’s best. Speaking about the H1N1 virus, Dworkin said that we “need to compare pandemics to hurricanes”: We need to prepare for possible outbreaks the same way we would for a hurricane; if an outbreak ends up being less severe than expected – as with H1N1 – it doesn’t make our preparations any less critical. He spoke about the need to be able to successfully counter “University of Google-types” that successfully spread misinformation.

John Rosenau from the National Center for Science Education spoke about the ongoing fight against pressure to require the teaching of creationism in public schools. Because some states are improving education on the origins of life while others are getting worse, Rosenau said it’s difficult to know if evolutionists are winning the battle. He said the opponents in his battle are similar to those spoken of by Oreskes, Conway, and Dworkin.

So, when it comes to important key scientific issues having to do with our health, education, and the future well-being of the planet, a key thread is that public understanding does not correspond to that of the scientific communities. Getting the public “in the know” is an ongoing battle on all fronts.

Oreskes said that in order for science to come out on top, we need to get better at communicating the science and combatting lies. On their part, scientists need to learn to draw a balance between doing justice to the complexity of their subject matter and making their work approachable.

[For an additional perspective on this communication problem, see June 30 CSW post: AAAS initiative, Chris Mooney paper ask: do scientists understand the public?]

She also noted that with the passing of climate communicator champion Steve Schneider, more scientists will have step up their game to reach out to the public. She acknowledged that scientists are occupied by their research and typically have little incentive to spend time making their work approachable to the lay-person. Here she noted that new priorities are needed in scientific institutions and science funding in order to promote more effective science communication.  She suggested that perhaps requiring communication training, with compensation, could be a step in the right direction.

Bloggers were also highlighted by the panelists as a key link between science and the public. Some science blogging, on the rise at the same time the major media have cut back on science writers, is already producing more reputable work than much of the mainstream media.

Oreskes noted that Andy Revkin of the New York Times has responded to remarks that major news sources no longer research science issues adequately by saying that journalists are faced with the “5 o’clock deadline”, and therefore have little time to do proper research. Oreskes argued that this is a cop-out; not only is proper journalism research not extremely time-consuming, but science issues are rarely the ‘breaking news’ that need rapid release.

Rosenau concluded by saying that the media need to snap out of their current love of controversy narratives when reporting on science. He used last year’s Gallup “Darwin’s Birthday” poll, which noted that “fewer than four in ten Americans believe in evolution”. Rosenau noted that that category was much larger than the fewer than two in ten Americans who said they didn’t believe in evolution. The rest of the population is in the sway-able middle. The poll result could easily have been stated as: “On Darwin’s birthday, less than a quarter of Americans don’t believe in evolution”. The media instead chose to spin it in a way so as to preserve an atmosphere of controversy.

More CSW posts from Netroots Nation 2010:

Al Franken: “Net Neutrality is the First Amendment Issue of Our Time”

Environmental Conflict and Climate Change: The Grassroots vs ‘Big Green’

‘Merchants of Doubt’ responsible for climate confusion - book review

Netroots Nation: On holding the Obama Administration accountable on climate and energy

Netroots Nation Day 2: Separation of oil and state

Earlier CSW posts:

June 11: Large, consistent majority of Americans believe climate change is happening, want government to act

June 9: New national survey: Public concern about global warming is once again on the rise

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