Yes, it has come to this : the prestigious scientific journal Nature mentions, by name, Limbaugh, Fox News, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, as concrete threats to the American scientific complex, and hence threats to the future prosperity of this country.

I almost don't want to weigh in on this ( all sides have committed errors ), but the fact that one of the most prestigious scientific journals is listing enemies by name clearly signifies at least one thing : the relationship between science and society is deteriorating.

Some time in the past, I'm told, Americans respected science. It let us end WWII brutally and concisely, and got us to the moon before the Soviets. What is different today, that the public no longer respects scientific evidence for making informed policy decisions ?

It also seems to me that complaints about liberal bias in science have a very simple solution. If you think science is too liberal, get off your political stage, get a doctorate from a reputable research institute, and do some quality peer reviewed science of your own. Science doesn't really care that much about your politics. One of my more excellent mentors, who taught me about the Fourier transform and various image processing algorithms, was politically conservative. This was absolutely no barrier to his ongoing stem cell research. So, my more conservative friends, rather than complaining about the inherent liberal bias in science, why don't you come on over and learn some rigorous scientific reason and help us out.

p.s. : the comments on that Nature opinion piece get, predictably, a little crazy. "La République n'a pas besoin de savants, uniquement d'équité" .. oh dear, has it really come to this again ?


  1. Populist bashing of scientists is nothing new. The Cold War boost to physics and aeronautics research was followed immediately by an anti-military science backlash associated with the peace movement. But while the Right's attack on science is bad for America, I have little sympathy for the argument Nature advances.

    The core of their argument is that demagogues have lead the population away from the truth. Scientists a pure caste, insulated from the world, devoted to truth.

    But this is not true: Science is a contested process of creating new facts, not the transfer of an objective universal truth. Scientists want to be treated as authority figures without accepting the social responsibility (okay, the symbolic blame-eating) that is associated with authority.

    Scientists live in a universe of objective fact, but Rush et al, and most of America, do not. The factual basis of Nature's editorial is irrelevant, and its symbolic basis is weak. The requirements of truth and PR may be mutually exclusive, but right now, science is ceding the battlefield with barely a fight.

  2. Nature has been running more controversial opinion pieces lately. In general, I think they make the journal look petty, but I can't completely dismiss them.

    I'm not exactly sure what the argument is. The article seems to be advocating something along the lines of "anti-science populism is blocking very reasonable reforms in policy based on established data".

    Perhaps the article is out of line, in attacking specific individuals and institutions and blaming them for the political obstruction, but is the aforementioned argument ultimately true ?

    Perhaps it is simply bad form for Nature to touch politics at all.

  3. So, scientists want authority without responsibility, and they view themselves as the elite, above common society ?

    I'm not sure thats true. Science seems to be characterized by old, tenured, defenders of established doctrine, and young folks working very hard to revise established doctrine.

    If it is true, then what alternative model is better ? If you want to complain that liberal elitists are trying to scientifically justify their radical socialism, but at the same time can't understand why we use drosophila in genetic studies, then ... no, you are not qualified to critique science.

    There is abundant internal controversy and competition within science to keep the truth close at hand. And when people screw up [ahem-Hauser-ahem], they are not without accountability.

    I don't really know what you mean by "symbolic basis"

    Honestly, I think that Nature editorial is completely fair. I also think its tone and topic might have been beneath the status of the journal, and may have been counterproductive. Scientific American contains regular opinion pieces criticizing religion, and the right. I don't think they do this because they are elitist bastards, I think they do this because they are genuinely dumbfounded by the ongoing behavior of a large sector of the human race.

    So you say that science is ceding the public relations battlefield without a fight ? I'd say everyone is trying as hard as they can, but scientists lack the ability to empathize with, and hence communicate to, this tea-party populist movement.

    so... then, biff, how would one mount a better PR offensive ?

  4. Just to make it clear, I am not anti-religion. I have some very nice and reasonable religious friends, who, like me, think some large sector of our population has .. shall we say, departed severely from consensus reality.

  5. Agree with all of the above. I'm just being tetchy and STS. :)

    On further thought, this editorial might not be so bad. The audiences are people who read Nature (scientists and science fans), and people who might read a popular press piece saying "Scientists call out Glenn Beck." With that audience, a call to action is a good idea.

    The problem is that whatever rhetoric is used, it must mobilize scientists without identifying them with a political ideology, (unless they're willing to risk the defeat along with that ideology). It's hard to find something better than Nature's anti-conservatism, but we must also stop condescending to people on religon, so we can mobilize them on more important environmental issues.

    I wish calmly pointing out the conspiratarian conservative worldview actually worked.

  6. Rather than have Nature writing more shrill articles, dignifying Glenn Beck & Sarah Palin with a response, we should just get Tina Fey to write some more raps -- in retrospect, it seems to me that that did far more for Obama's campaign than anything Obama did.

    There is clearly a breakdown of the public debate over Science policy, when the nonexperts with no background to speak of are able to critique and cast doubt on the true experts. The proper weapon to fight stupidity with is parody.

  7. I don't see any way for non experts to easily distinguish between the medieval priests or alchemists who are talking bullshit to preserve authority, or the genuinely helpful scientist that tells you to do things you can't derive on your own.

    Unless we can think of a reliable demonstration that could prove experts aren't just advancing a hidden global conspiracy, I don't see any way to win this PR battle.

    I can write a parody where the world is so dumb they are watering their plants with Gatorade, and everyone is mocking the one person of average intelligence who points this out (Idiocracy). Or, I could write a parody in which medieval alchemists and priests keep the surfs complacent through obviously ridiculous lies, by modern standards.

    The only way non-experts can distinguish between the two scenarios is by asking themselves "am I better off by following these leaders".

    Evaluation of this statement is absurdly difficult. For one, its basically impossible to run a control group with social experiments. Maybe I can say "the peasants in the next village revolted, and now they have an awesome democracy", but the same intentions applied again might lead to a military dictatorship.

    I'm told, in the US, that the standard of living has been approximately stagnant since the 1970s. Assuming this is even approximately true, a large portion of the population is going to be saying "no, I am not better off by following these leaders".

    ok .. now what ?