Illustration: Mike Pick
Earlier this week, Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer, two of the most prominent personalities on vlogging platform Bloggingheads.tv, left the network in protest of the site’s apparent coddling of creationists. (Each provided a heartfelt explanation of their respective decisions, here and here.) The online science communication community is now beginning to sort out what this falling-out means for engaging the public on controversial topics. But one thing is clear: The “framing wars”—where the ideal ratio of accuracy and accessibility for instilling scientific literacy has been fiercely debated—continue to rage.
The conservative columnist Mickey Kaus and Robert Wright, the author of the recently released The Evolution of God (which we reviewed here) founded Bloggingheads.tv. Each day, the site hosts a video discussion between two commentators or experts on all manners of topics. “Science Saturdays” have become one of the best chances for a science communicator to get more than 30 seconds of screen time without blowing something up or having a cute animal in tow.
Zimmer and Carroll have both taken issue with a series of unscientific discussions the network has hosted. A “Science Saturday” featuring Paul Nelson, a young earth creationist, and Ronald Numbers, a historian of science and religion, was the first strike. The second was a Wednesday edition with Michael Behe, a leading proponent of intelligent design, and James McWhorter, a linguist. There was no third strike: After a contentious conference call between Zimmer, Carroll, and Wright, the bloggers announced their decision to quit forthwith.
This whole kerfuffle can be interpreted as just another round of the “accomodationists” vs. “non-accomodationists” battle; whether it’s useful for scientists to engage with, some would say “pander to,” non-scientific nonsense, such as the belief that the Earth is only a few thousand years old. But despite the resulting rhetorical fireworks, we rarely get to the point of why we care whether the average person knows this or that scientific fact.
Obviously, many of our pressing political issues have scientific components, and to make informed decisions and assess public officials on these matters, citizens need a modicum of knowledge. But this is predicated on the idea that the scientific validity of the arguments on either side of these issues is relevant to their decision making, something that is far from self-evident. Call it truthiness, or ask What’s the Matter with Kansas?, but the possibility that some people might simply not care about the facts cannot be ignored.
And as misinformed as the US population is about evolution, the knowledge gap surrounding climate change is considerably more relevant to our current political discourse. It is also a perfect example of where the validity of a paper, model, or theory is simply irrelevant to much of the opponents of prevailing scientific thought. Such a stance is proudly on display in Jonah Goldberg’s latest op-ed “Global Warming and the Sun,” but you may want to skip right to the vicious, point-by-point demolishment of his pseudo-argument on The Way Things Break.
For Goldberg, the perceived economic downside of mitigating climate will always trump the mere fact that failing to do so will kill us all. Hitting him, or his ilk, with a scientific-fact stick is not going to work. Those facts are, at best, a distant second from other concerns. The only way to combat that kind of active know-nothingness is to nip it in the bud; get as much scientific engagement as possible, as earlier as possible, and instill it as a value that people will nurture themselves. And while debating someone like Behe may have as much utility as debating crackpots like the Timecube Guy, taking oneself out of part of the media landscape because others aren’t playing fair doesn’t rectify the situation; it exacerbates it.
Goldberg, like Behe, has contributed to Bloggingheads.tv, but his main gig is as an op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He has proven time and time again that his arguments are about as serious as the idea of irreducible complexity. (His bestselling book posits that liberals are the true heirs of Nazism because Hitler was, among other things, a vegetarian.) I would hope that great science communicators like Zimmer and Carroll would not opt out of LA Times’ editorial pages for fear of being associated with him. We need all the help we can get in just getting our love and respect of science into the public sphere.
Case in point: Tuesday’s report from the Royal Society on the prospects of geoengineering. We took note when the American Meteorological Society made a similar statement—that geoengineering was a last resort that nevertheless needs to be examined now—so when the top science body in the UK puts out a 98-page report, it’s worth a deeper discussion.
For now, you’ll have to make do with the initial newspaper coverage, which couldn’t quite pin down the story. Take this pair of headlines: “Royal Society warns climate engineering ‘could cause disaster’” (from the Times) and “Investment in geo-engineering needed immediately, says Royal Society” (from the Guardian).
Fortunately, Nature blogger Geoff Brumfiel has compiled a handy reference guide to the coverage. And while the headlines may have missed capturing just what the Royal Society was proposing, the articles are, in his opinion, “pretty accurate.”
Speaking from experience, headline writing can be tough. There are conflicting desires to be funny, enticing, and to actually capture what the attached article is about in a half-sentence. Take this one, on perhaps the most popular science story of the week: “We’re all mutants, say scientists.” Images of ninjutsu-practicing anthropomorphic turtles or a cigar-chompin’ Canadian Wolverine notwithstanding, such a statement is the genetics equivalent of “The sun is hot and bright.”
But as in the case of geoengineering, the stories do mostly capture the essence of the Current Biology paper on which they are based: We finally have a good picture of what the human mutation rate is. Knowing that every person is born with about 100 mutations can help people understand how evolution is possible; having that as a baseline lets an appreciation for science holistically grow. Would a headline that was both more accurate and more boring really be better? Only if science communicators are satisfied with preaching to the choir.
This is not so different from the dilemma raised in the case of Bloggingheads.tv. Not that having a little fun with a science headline is the intellectual equivalent of Behe spouting a demonstrably untrue story about the mathematical impossibility of beneficial mutations. But it does speak to the level of strictness science communicators are comfortable with as part of the public discourse.
Loosening up those standards doesn’t have to mean putting politics or entertainment before science, just recognizing that the latter is an often-necessary consideration in getting science in front the people we are actually trying to reach.
Originally published September 4, 2009