Thursday, August 22, 2013

Congratulations, We're Getting Nowhere

The New York Times published a letter by a scientist about science literacy today. It is a prime example of how to waste words in a public forum. The author talks about how we've gone backwards (with a 2% change in a statistic, which has got to be within the error bars), says God and science don't conflict and then implies that God and science do conflict, insults creationists without making any distinction between the many varieties, and throws in climate change just in case any minds were still open to slam them shut.

It's preaching to the choir, and the comments bear this out. 90% are empty "you go girl" affirmations of scientism echoing the author's statements and 10% are empty, defiant "I'm a creationist" negations of everything the author says. (At least stubborn denial is interesting.) The "needle" gauging belief of NYT readers did not budge. This just gave them a chance to yell at each other.

It's kind of funny to be saying popularization is what science needs when your very writing style is 1.) boring and 2.) polarizing at once. At least Sagan was never boring. But, honestly, what is interesting or even new in this essay? It gets us nowhere.

When a scientist praises the Manhattan Project without any of the self-reflection of the destruction that project resulted in, then that scientist is indulging in nostalgia and idolizing science. Oppenheimer realized the double-edged nature of science right away with his "I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds" remark. Every scientist after him has to acknowledge the same.

This essay is venting without nuance, and it only makes things worse. I say that as a scientist lucky enough to work with the beauty and strangeness of the natural world every day. This is a noble and fascinating calling, so when you write to a public audience, make sure you get that across. Instead, we have a political screed, dressed up in a lab coat, arguing against political screeds. Oy.

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