Scientists And Public Discourse

As I’m a software developer I follow several big names of the trade, one of them being Robert Martin.

Yesterday one of his tweets caught my attention:

@badastronomer @absolutspacegrl @rationalists Snide political innuendo is unworthy of scientists. Honor your profession by speaking plainly

Which was a response to the following tweet by Phil Plait:

Via @absolutspacegrl: MT @rationalists: Santorum won 11 states. Remember that when you wonder why America ranks 27th in math and science.

Essentially a slap down of Santorum, his supporters, and the social/political environment it creates. I have no problem with a scientist commenting on politicians and issues that impact what they do. Which I tweeted to Robert Martin:

.@unclebobmartin Strange how scientists aren’t allowed a shot at a science denier. But Santorum is allowed to smear their professions/work.

This led to a small exchange of ideas on the subject between Martin and me. He even wrote an article which gives a good insight in his position and why he has a problem with scientists responding in such a way.

However, I have a few issues with points made in his article. And as I promised him a more detailed explanation of my tweets it presents a good opportunity to clarify my position on these matters.

So lets start with the following part of his article:

What did @Rationalists tweet mean? Was it a dig at Santorum himself? Was it a dig at the 11 states that he won? Was it a dig at republicans in general? What?

For someone who follows the political discourse on environmental/science issues it would be immediately obvious that this tweet was a dig at Santorum, his scientific stance, and the level of understanding of scientific matters among his voters (I’ll get to this in a minute). With a big reference to the undermining of science education currently underway in the U.S.

The latest example of these attacks on science education is the so-called ‘Monkey Bill‘ (in reference to the Scopes trail) which passed into law on the 10th of April in Tennessee. It is another example of a ‘teach the controversy’ bill that will allow creationism and other non-scientific subjects/arguments into the science classroom.

This legislation specifically names biological evolution, the chemical origins of life and global warming as controversial topics. And dissenting views should be treated respectfully.

Politicians that use this type of language often don’t accept the Theory of Evolution. They are trying to get their personal views taught in the classroom, no matter if it is backed by scientific evidence or not.

This undermining of science education is what the tweet was referring to.

Was Santorum somehow anti-science? In what way? What science does Santorum reject? I understand he wasn’t a big fan of climate change, but then, lots of real scientists, and science-minded people have their doubts about that too.

Yes, Santorum is very anti-science. In the sense that his own views on scientific issues rejects any evidence to the contrary. For example it is well known that he rejects the theory of evolution and has often suggested that other “theories” or “evidence” should be allowed in the classroom.

However his remarks on Global Warming make this even more obvious:

Santorum: Global Warming Is 'Junk Science'

A plethora of known climate science denier talking points showing he has no understanding of the science involved. Unfortunately Martin also thinks there is a ‘controversy’ surrounding Global Warming (for which I do not blame him, there is a lot of misinformation on the subject in the media).

However if you ask “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?” to scientists who actively publish research on climate change the overwhelming majority will answer with yes. In fact, 97% of those scientists agree with this statement.

Response to the survey question "Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?" (Doran 2009) General public data come from a 2008 Gallup poll.

There are some very vocal critics, and so-called sceptics, active in the media but they do not represent what scientists know and understand of the subject.

In any case, if you have doubts about climate change does that mean you are anti-science in general? Does that mean you don’t accept F=Ma? Does it mean that the children living around you will rank low in math and science?

It is possible that republicans living in those 11 states disagree with Santorum on science issues but _do_ agree with him on other issues of policy? Does one’s acceptance of republican fiscal policy (for example) mean that you are anti-science in general and that the children living around you will do badly on math and science tests?

I’ll make this very clear, as I’ve never said much on this topic, rejection of Global Warming as a fact, and that humans are the main cause of it, does not mean you are anti-science in general. Neither does having doubts on the subject mean you are anti-science in general.

Depending on your behaviour towards scientific findings and evidence surrounding Global Warming you can be anti-science, but it doesn’t mean you will reject for example the Theory of Evolution.

And depending on your awareness of the science involved, and concerns of scientists, it might not rank high on your political spectrum. So it might not be a deciding factor for how you will vote.

However, it is often the case that people who vote for Santorum have similar views and positions on scientific subjects. Not all of them will, but a significant part has. Often you can find a cause for this in the level of scientific understanding, and education received, among this group.

Another big factor seems to be the idea that to deal with the issue of Global Warming interfering with the market is necessary. Something a lot of republicans are vehemently opposed to. This might go hand in hand with a political stance that a small government is better than a big government, and the idea that you need big government for dealing with Global Warming.

These political stances might entrench you so much that you will reject scientific evidence, refusing to listen to experts, while preferring the few remaining dissenting voices no matter what (who may, or may not, have valid criticism).

There is a serious problem with accepting scientific theories among Republicans, which is recognized by fellow party members. However it is not restricted to the republicans, and being republican doesn’t make you anti-science. I cheered for Jon Huntsman when he spoke out for some sanity. But sadly he received a lot of flak for that from fellow party members.

But none of those arguments are really germane to the issue. The real issue is that a scientist should deal in facts, not in innuendo. For a scientist to sink to the level of a political hack is unfortunate at best.

I didn’t expect Dr. Plait to respond to me. He’s got better things to do. I expected to be ignored. But I guess I got under his skin a little, because he blocked me . Wow! I guess he doesn’t mind dishing it out; but he ain’t gonna take it from the likes of me.

The explanations and examples that I provided are just a few of the political issues surrounding scientist and their research on Global Warming. It goes a lot further than some odd remarks or incorrect scientific positions:

Perry suggests global warming is a hoax

His manipulation of data is in direct reference to the Climategate non-controversy. Every scientist and organisation involved has been cleared of any scientific wrongdoing. However this has not stopped politicians from smearing the scientist involved, to this day the very same accusations are thrown at these scientists.

Nor has it stopped organisations and prosecutors to sue scientists, the biggest target being the scientist Michael Mann. He has been the target of lawsuit after lawsuit concerning his research. Yet his research has stood the test of time and has been confirmed time and time again.

These false accusations, unfounded lawsuits and smearing of scientists and their professions is not acceptable. And is the reason I don’t have trouble that scientists speak their minds now and then on these issues and the worst offenders.

But there is a double standard in how scientists are treated compared to their detractors. Scientists aren’t allowed to speak their minds or take a well aimed shot. They almost always get criticised for it.

Yet their opponents are not held to the same standards. They are free to smear and misrepresent scientists. No matter the language or claims used, it doesn’t get much attention. Nor is there an undignified response about the language used or the lies told.

This is unfair towards scientist who are the target of this and they should be allowed to give a well deserved slap from time to time.


Update 18 april 2012:

The NCSE uploaded a presentation about this very subject to their YouTube channel. Anyone interested in some more context and details on these science bills well find it well worth their time.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.