Michael Stebbins is not gonna take it anymore.

stebbins3cbook.jpg Sex, Drugs & DNA: Science’s Taboos Confronted; Michael Stebbins (Macmillan)  Credit: Mark Weiss

Michael Stebbins warns that in his new book he has tried to deal with science and health issues as though he were haranguing you at a party. Then he’s off, careering through the treacherous territory that is US science policy in 2006. From cloning to bioterrorism and evolution to sex ed, Stebbins, director of biology policy for the Federation of American Scientists, tackles them all with brio. What follows is just a warm up.

Why did you write this book?
I was pissed off. After [9/11], the rhetoric and the bullshit started getting to me, and then it started to affect science in such a horrible way that I just had enough. This book became an experiment. I decided to see how people would respond to a ranting polemic about science, from a scientist’s view.

What do you hope to accomplish?
For a lot of these science policy issues, there is no single answer, which is typical of science. So, getting across the fact that there’s so much that we don’t know, and that the policy and rhetoric don’t reflect that—is really important to me. What’s even stranger is that where science really does know what’s going on, for example with evolution, the denial of fact is absolutely crazy. So I also want the reader to get the sense that it’s time to take people who are denying scientific knowledge and rub their noses in it, like a dog that just piddled on the floor. They’re hurting our education system and the tone of discourse—and they’re in absolute denial that science and technology drive our economy.

Your tone is frank and language aggressive—some would say abrasive. Do you worry about alienating the very people who stand to learn something from you?
I’ve thought about that. You can say that I’m preaching to the choir, but the choir isn’t even singing—or at least not singing loud enough, because I can’t hear them. Do I worry about increasing the polarization? Yeah.

stebbins3cportrait.jpg Michael Stebbins   Credit: Mark Mahaney

It’s striking because science should unite; it needn’t be a partisan cause…
But that’s what conservatives in this country have done. They’ve turned it into some sort of war. And the heady days of science in the ivory tower are over. It now requires scientists to actually speak up.
 
That leads to my next question. You write that “scientists are not equipped for or generally inclined to form aggressive, rhetorical grassroots campaigns.” How, then, do they combat such well-armed opponents?
I think scientists have to start posting things on their web sites, writing to newspapers and to their representatives. There’s a massive scientific community out there, and it only takes a couple of pit bulls to really scare people. If I’m going to act in that role, others have to step up and do the same thing. Once an entire community is doing it, I don’t think you’re going to see the chilling affect that people are afraid of. Anyway, at some point you just have to say, “Screw it. I have to get involved.”

There was a recent briefing to members of Congress and their staffers on “how science works.” What else can be done to improve scientific literacy in government?
There are three things. First, they really need to establish a body that gives Congress unbiased scientific advice. Reestablishing something like the Office of Technology Assessment would go a long way to getting us policies that really work for the US. Second, you would be shocked to know the number of staffers who work on health and science issues who have no understanding of science. So they have to start hiring people who have a background in these areas. Number three is that we really have to fire the people who are not doing their job the way they should. One of the things I’m putting on my web site, SexDrugsandDNA.com, is a hit list—Congressmen who have said and done things that are antithetical to what we understand from science. I’m going to list what they’ve done and said, and call for them to be voted out.

Who will top the list?
Our patron saint is Senator Rick Santorum from Pennsylvania for his endorsement of the teaching of intelligent design, and subsequent flip-flop on it once the federal court ruled the Dover school board’s policy on ID unconstitutional. His hypocritical stance on medical malpractice caps, in the wake of his wife’s half million-dollar lawsuit, and many others, puts him at the top of the list.

What else have you got planned?
I’m going to suggest that the US sell Kansas to Iraq (or to anyone else who wants to buy it). We’ll have a flyer, which people can download, that will list the contact information for key people in Kansas, if others are interested in asking questions about intelligent design and evolution.

I see you haven’t lost your sense of humor in spite of everything.
The book and the website are supposed to be fun and funny. Humor is essential to getting people to understand and remember things. The people who have made some of the greatest contributions to change in public opinion have been comedians.

Are you optimistic about change in the near future?
Absolutely. I’m looking forward to the mid-term elections, and even if that doesn’t go well, I’ll still be an optimist. I really believe in the scientific enterprise. We have a great opportunity now to make things better, or at least to turn them back to a time when we were more concerned about our future.

Originally published May 15, 2006

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