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What does it mean that a nation is ‘Unscientific’?


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I first wrote and published this blog post on December 22, 2009. I thought I’d re-publish it here, on the new blog, in light of the recent discussion on the network about scientists communicating to the public (see Social Media for Scientists Part 1: It’s Our Job, Social Media for Scientists Part 2: You Do Have Time., Science communication? I wish it were that easy…, On Naïveté Among Scientists Who Wish to Communicate and Social Media for Scientists Part 2.5: Breaking Stereotypes). It’s long, so take your time, perhaps print it out or save on Instapaper if you have difficulty reading it all on screen.

If a publisher offered me a contract to write a book under a title that would be something like “Unscientific America”, how would I go about it?

I would definitely be SUCH a scientist! But, being such a scientist does not mean indulging in Sesquipedalian Obscurantism.

Being such a scientist means being dilligent, thorough and systematic in one’s reasearch. And then being excited about presenting the findings, while being honest about the degree of confidence one can have in each piece of information.

I was not offered a book contract, and I do not have the resources and nine or twelve months to write such a book. But in the next couple of hours days I will write a blog post (this one, I am just starting) thinking through the methodology I would use for such a project, musing about difficulties, jotting down notes and – this being a blog – asking readers for links to information that can either reinforce or challenge my hypotheses. So please follow me under the fold…..

Reasons and Goals and Target Audience

Why write such a book? What is the reason a publisher would want to invest in it? What’s the point?

I assume that the motivation comes from seeing a distressing world in which Global Warming Denialists, anti-vaccination mobs, Creationists, Animal Rights activists, opponents of genetically-modified food, and other anti-science forces are having far too much effect – most definitely a negative, potentially disastrous effect – on local, national and international policies. The book should be an exploration for the causes of such a situation and then should derive the possible remedies from the identified causes.

The authors of Unscientific America, Am I Making Myself Clear? and Don’t Be Such a Scientist are pretty explicit about the target audience for their books being scientists.

This implies (and the content of all three books supports this implication) that reaching the goal is in the hands of scientists ONLY (and implicitly out of jurisdiction of anyone else). But this implication should not be a starting point of the book. It is one of the several possible alternative hypotheses that the books should be testing, and the results of the investigation may or may not lead to accepting this result. Work needs to be done first.

Thus I would do the research first and only in the end, once I come to some conclusions, would I decide who is the most appropriate target audience, i.e., which groups of people have potentially the greatest power to effect change in a positive direction. Then I’d write a book specifically for them.

Definitions of Terms

For a longer piece of writing, like a book, it is essential to precisely define the key terms in the beginning and then to stick to those definitions throughout. Doing this prevents one from falling into a trap of shifting one’s working definitions from chapter to chapter because it’s easier (e.g., there is more information out there to discuss).

The key term for this project is the word “unscientific” (and its opposite “scientific”). How would I define it in the light of the Reasons And Goals I outlined above?

There are several candidate definitions that people explicitly or implicitly use in books, papers or blog posts on the topic. Let’s take a look.

1) An unscientific nation is one in which most citizens do not do well on tests of scientific facts.
2) An unscientific nation is one in which most citizens do not understand the Scientific Method and the way scientists really work.
3) An unscientific nation is one in which most citizens do not have trust in scientists, physicians and scientific institutions.

All three of these definitions are important and potentially useful for different projects. But are they useful for this particular project?

I’d say No. Why? Because the Reasons And Goals of the project are to figure out why some nations do not base policy on science. These three definitions focus on, I think, the wrong population: all citizens. And thus they are likely to come up with wrong solutions (better science education, better science popularization/communication, etc.). But it is not all citizens who enact policies. It is their governments who do so. So, for the purposes of my project, I would use a definition somewhat like this:

4) An unscientific nation is one in which the government is not Reality Based.

While it is unfortunate that countries are decision-makers on global policies, that is the reality right now and we need to work within a reality framework. There are also many other science-related policies that are not necessarily global but affect the lives, health and productivity of the citizens of an individual country, so the nation (aka it’s government) is, for now, the appropriate place to focus on.

And the project should also study the way the definitions 1 through 3 relate to Definition 4. And thus explore how other sub-populations outside the government (including, among others, working scientists), can influence the governmental policies.

Once decided on the working definition, I’d write it on a Post-It note and stick it on my monitor, always being reminded of it, not allowing myself to switch to any seductive alternatives.

Methodology

Governments are groups of people. Writing laws and enacting policies (and all the politicking and decision-making and horse-trading that goes into it) are behaviors of people. Thus I would study the behavior of governments using the demonstrably best framework for the study of any behavior – Niko Tinbergen’s Four Questions (PDF).

To refresh your memory, Tinbergen’s four questions are:

1) Mechanism:
- defining the behavior
- describing the behavior
- describing the underlying mechanisms of behavior at all levels of organization from molecules to neurons to organ systems to organisms to populations.

2) Ontogeny
- development of the behavior
- timing (during one’s lifetime or daily/seasonal) of behavior
- is the behavior instinctive or due to learning

3) History
- how and from what precursors did the behavior evolve
- was the behavior directly selected for or a by-product of selection for something else or a more-or-less random effect of genetic drift
- what kinds of environments have, in the past, resulted in the appearance of the behavior

4) Function
- is the behavior adaptive, maladaptive or neutral
- are there situations in which an adaptive behavior becomes maladaptive

Behavior of policy-making governments is a little bit different from the behavior of seagulls and sicklebacks, so I would have to rephrase some of these ideas somewhat, while keeping true to the spirit of the Four Questions.

The first two (mechanism and ontogeny) are also known as Proximate Causes, asking the How questions. The latter two (History and Function) are known as Ultimate Causes, asking the Why questions. Those who have studied the history of Behavioral Biology know that research projects based on Tinbergen’s framework are necessarily Integrative (asking the question from many angles at many levels of organization) and Comparative (asking the question from many related species).

Making an exciting finding in Drosophila melanogaster is not an answer to a basic biological question – it is a hypothesis that can only be tested by doing the same research in a bunch of other species. This can tell us if the finding is generalizable (thus fundamental) or is it just a quirk of Drosophila melanogaster.

Likewise, study of only one nation, e.g., United States, is not sufficient. Only a comparison with other nations can tell us if the analysis of the American situation is insightful for studying the question of “national unscientificness” or if it is just a unique quirk of this country alone.

Mechanism

Let’s start with the definition again: “An unscientific nation is one in which the government is not Reality Based.”

What does that mean? How does such a government operate?

An unscientific government is one that does not tackle the world as it is, but through wishful thinking and ideology. It is impervious to logic, uninterested in data and does not keep empirical knowledge in any regard. It prefers decisions made “from the gut” to those made by studying the world with one’s brain and devising realistic policies meant to fix real problems. It is essentially posturing (to voters, for example, as needed for re-election, or to political opponents, or to leaders of other countries) coupled with treating one’s own emotional problems (often related to power and a hierarchical view of the world). It usually but not always operates independently of any outside influences (voters, academics, media, etc.) because it can.

The flip side is a Scientific government. It is not necessarily scientistic or technocratic, just Reality Based. It attempts to figure out as best it can how the world really works, what is the real source of the problem, and what policy is most likely to fix the problem. Often this process entails getting information from experts on the way the world really works, which are often scientists. They will get the most reliable information, build the most realistic models, and figure out actions that are most likely to result in the solution to the problem. Such a government would not always follow exactly what scientists suggest – they are elected to their best in governing a country, so they will have to take into account other considerations, e.g., political consideration (can we sell this to voters), economic consideration (can we afford to do this) and foreign policy consideration (will we make some countries enemies if we do this). Thus art of the compromise comes in, but it is based on reality – it is not an ideological compromise.

And such a government does not just consult science, but acts like a scientist in a sense. A new law or regulation is not writ in stone, but is regarded as an experiment. Once enacted, the new policy is continuously monitored and measured for effectiveness and if necessary modified, replaced or removed.

Ontogeny

Let’s start with the definition again: “An unscientific nation is one in which the government is not Reality Based.”

How does a country get a government like this? How does a country get any kind of government? It can happen slowly (election, of succession of royalty), or abruptly (a coup or revolution or outside invasion).

Or, to be more precise, how does a country get its policies made?

What is really essential to bear in mind is the level of independence of the government – how much are they forced to listen to the voice of the people. An Emperor or King or Generalissimus does not need to listen to the people. He can make any laws or policies he wants. Some such dictators make it very clear that the punishment for even the mildest dissent will be painful (see Ceausescu for a historical example). Others are much better at using the power of the state, including the schools and the media, to get the population to love them and thus willingly support everything they do (see Tito for a historical example).

On the other extreme of the spectrum are countries in which elections are frequent and the voters have the power to remove one from the government pretty swiftly – the countries with perpetual ‘campaign mode’ in politics.

And there is an entire continuum in-between.

So we have two main players here: the government and the population it governs.

We have four possible combinations of ‘scientificness’ of the two players: scientific government + unscientific voters, scientific government + scientific voters, unscientific government + unscientific voters and unscientific government + scientific voters. In which ‘scientificness’ is used in the sense of “Reality-Based” for the government and in the sense of Definition 3 (trust in scientists and scientific institutions) for the voters.

And then we have the long spectrum of the influence of the population on the government ranging from zero to all.

If both the government and the voters are scientific, it does not matter how much the government has to listen to the voters – it will do the right thing.

If both the government and the voters are unscientific, it also does not matter how much the government has to listen to the voters – it will do the wrong thing anyway.

But if the government is scientific and voters are not, then it takes an independent, courageouos or strong government to do the right thing despite the will of the people.

And if the government is unscientific but voters are scientific, it takes a tentative, voter-dependent government in perpetual ‘campaign mode’ to be persuaded to do the right thing despite their own instincts and beliefs.

OK, this is a simple, two-element model. It is a scaffolding on which to build more complex yet more realistic models. Of course there are other players involved, those who can push either the government or the people in the direction of greater or lesser ‘scientificness’:

Industry – often new scientific data suggest that the industry needs to change the way it does its business, e.g., to reduce negative environmental impact, or to reduce negative health effects on their employees or customers. In a country in which the economic and financial systems are set up in a way that rewards only short-term profits (or worse, rely on bad proxy numbers like the value of stocks in the stock market which is, remember, the market of second-hand stocks traded by others, not by companies themselves), then the industry will have to resist Reality-Based solutions and will try to affect the governmental policies in that direction.

They can do that via lobbyists in some countries, or more directly (during a golf game with their buddies in the government) in other places. Or they can try indirectly – trying to persuade the people (if the people are deemed influential in that country) directly or via influence on the media (during a golf-game with the star TV pundit, or by building a PR machine – read that link!!!).

In other countries, though, the particular industry may be government-run, or may be persuadable by people or the media to quickly adopt science-based solutions without risking much in the market-place. It all depends on the way the economy is set up.

National Academy of Sciences and other scientific institutions (or even individual scientists) will have a much greater voice in the the policy-making process in some countries than in others. Where not having direct influence on the government, they may try to work indirectly, persuading the people via media or other venues.

Media is another important player here. It has the power to influence the voters, and also has the power to influence the industry leaders and the governments. How? The government thinks that the media presents the view of the people. The people think that the media presents the view of the government. The latter are, in many countries (most notably in the USA) correct. The media writes what it thinks the government thinks. And government reads the media to find out what the people think yet only finds the reflection of itself and is satisfied to find the will of the people so wonderfully aligned with their own. Add some PR machinery or direct money from the industry to the leaders of the media, and their interests miraculously become the “voice of the people” that the government will be happy to go along with. This is a short and condensed version of an important argument, to which I will return a little later (if you have the patience to read this post to the very end).

Religious organizations are a very powerful lobby in some countries, often, but not always, on the anti-science side of things.

So, it is a model with a number of players and in each country the power-dynamics between them are different: who can persuade whom, the final executor of the resulting decision of all these players being the national government which then, in cases like Climate Change or global pandemics, has to enter a higher-level field, negotiating with other governments which all have different kinds and intensities of fire aimed at their toes at home.

To summarize: the development and enactment (“ontogeny”) of policy decisions depends on relative power of various players, the key player being the government. The ‘relative power’, or ‘independence’ means ability to influence or overpower other players while at the same time being immune to the influence by the other players.

History

Let’s start with the definition again: “An unscientific nation is one in which the government is not Reality Based.”

So, if the ontogeny of each policy decision is dependent on the relative power and relative ‘scientificness’ of all the involved players, how does such a system, with those particular power-relations evolve, i.e., come to be over time? What kinds of events, or actions (by whom?), produce change in the system?

Who gets to be in the government? Who gets to be an industry leader? Who gets to be a talking head on TV? What are their backgrounds? Ideologies? Do they get better science education than the rest of the population or is the educational system equal for everyone?

Education – not just science education, but more importantly education that fosters critical thinking and openness to new ideas, is an important factor in developing ‘scientificness’ (in the sense of being Reality Based) in different segments of the society. Is there such an educational system in a particular nation? For all or just for the the chosen few (rich and powerful)?

Education is important, but not a be-all and end-all of it. After all, people have received PhDs in geology or evolutionary biology and still remained Creationists.

Ideological and religious background can trump all education, through mental filters of various kinds.

Does knowing scientific facts make one more likely to be Reality Based? Perhaps a little, but is it enough to spread through the population and lead to a strong pro-science voice?

Does understanding the Scientific Method make one Reality Based? Perhaps a little, but is it enough to spread through the population and lead to a strong pro-science voice?

Can the school have any effect on the level of trust one has in scientists and scientific institutions? Probably very little….

How much critical-thinking and scientific education of the population actually translates into reality-based policies enacted by their government is something that needs to be studied. I expect that this will differ between countries and will, in the end, not make much of a difference.

After all, tests of scientific trivia across many countries do not show great differences between countries (the results are pretty bad everywhere), yet the scientificness of their governments’ policies vary hugely.

Keep reading, I’ll explain why I think that a little later….

It is in the answering the History question (of the Tinbergen’s four questions) that the Comparative Method really comes to the fore. By studying a behavior across many species one can figure out if the behavior, wherever it occurs, is the result of evolutionary history going back deep in time, tracing back to some ancient ancestor of all the studied species. That behavior is than retained in all extanct species because it either remains adaptive or because, even though not very useful any more, it is not maladaptive enough to be selected against. And if it does disappear from some lineages, we can ask what environmental forces led to their disapperance (selection against it or random event). On the other hand, we can figure out if the behavior emerges independently, over and over again, in every species that finds itself in a particular environment – that tells us something not just about history but also about Function of that behavior.

So, focusing here only on the ‘scientificness’ of the United States is blind. One has to analyze a number of other countries, their current policies, their histories and how they got to where they are now. This is a big project, but I am sure that researchers in other nations have done studies of their own homelands and published their findings.

It’s just that we here in the US tend not to pay attention to those.

I do not assert that I have any expertise on the matter, but I can provide anecdotally a view from one other country as an illustration, and perhaps as a motivation to others to conduct relevant studies in various countries and then do head-to-head comparisons.

I grew up in Yugoslavia. It is several countries now, but culturally they are all similar so for the sake of this argument, I can pretty much use Yugoslavia and Serbia interchangeably in this example.

It was a country where garbage was on the streets. Black smoke was proudly emanating from the factory smoke-stacks. The patriarchal machismo saw Nature as something to be exploited and conquered.

I went to Serbia a few months ago. Belgrade is spotlessly clean and beautiful. What happened in the elapsed time?

First, there was a switch from socialism (though a strange, market-based socialism) to capitalism. Brand-new, still unregulated capitalism to which people are not used to (and don’t yet know how to play the game, or feel that it is not even ethical to try playing that game) breeds insecurity, which inflames nationalism and empowers religion.

Second, there was a decade of wars, and sanctions, and anti-government demonstrations not noticed by the West, and being a pariah, and being presented as criminals in the international press, and being a bargaining tool between the superpowers. And then getting bombed at the end of it all. And then the internal political fights and sending Milosevic to The Hague. With all that pounding over so many years, all the machismo is gone.

Look at these two guys:

They live in Eastern Serbia. The first thing they asked me when I got off the bus in their town (Milosevic’s hometown) was “are you one of those communists?”. I had to think fast: what communists – 19th century Marxists, Tito-era communists, Milosevic-style communists, current powerless/marginalized Communist party? Then I smiled – I realized they used the word “communist” as a synonym for “government”. I could say I was not and be true to it. They are anti-government royalists! They support the church not because they are very religious, but because it is the only institution that really cares about national pride of Serbs. They want a King not because they love the guy so much but because they cannot stomach the insecurity that comes with frequent changes in the government that naturally flow from having regular democratic elections. They crave stability (who could blame them after the crazy 1990s!), hopefully headed by an iron-fisted ruler who will sit in his palace, looking beautiful in his kingly dress, for decades without change.

If they lived in the USA they would be extreme Right, perhaps teabaggers. And totally anti-science on every issue from Climate Change to Creationism. A perfect example, seen in every country in the world, of the tension between city and country (that leads to so many wars!).

Yet, they are actually scientists. Furthermore, they are die-hard environmentalists. They do research on how to recycle some nasty industrial byproducts. And they made it their lives’ main goal to teach kids to think like environmentalists, with several projects involving local schools. For them, being an environmentalist and making and keeping Serbia clean and not contributing to global warming is a matter of national pride.

I am still kicking myself in the butt for forgetting my camera one day in Belgrade when I encountered a garbage can that had an inscription, in black marker (obviously written by a neighbor) appealing to national pride. It said something along the lines of “If you are a true Serb, you will not put recyclables in this trash can – the recycling container is in the back yard”.

Edit, October 6th, 2011: Bothered by this omission, when I visited Belgrade again two years later, and almost two years since I wrote this post, I made a point of going again to that part of town, walking up that street, finding that house, entering the hallway and taking the pictures – it says “Brothers Serbs!!!, do not throw trash bags and bottles into this can”:

Somebody, at some point over the past decade, had a great idea to harness national pride in the pursuit of environmental goals, devised a PR campaign towards that goal – and succeeded. I will have to figure out how that exactly happened. If I figure it out, I promise to blog about it.

Nikola Tesla being a Serb is a matter of national pride. The results of scientific research from nuclear physics to maize genetics are a matter of national pride. Petnica is a matter of national pride (which explained why the defunding of it was vigorously and successfully fought by the people). Being an intellectual, a prolific reader, and someone who can discuss Selfish Gene at the bar are matters of national pride. Serbs are supposed to be smart and educated. None of that anti-intellectualism stuff – we are Europeans with a long intellectual and scientific tradition.

Does it mean people are actually well educated in science? I am not sure what is the state of science education right now, but when I was in school there was TONS of science in the classroom – but taught as factoids. By the time I graduated high school I had behind me eight years of physics, eight years of chemistry, eight years of biology (also a year each of ecology, microbiology, molecular biology, botany and zoology due to my occupational tracking), eight years of geography (including basics of cosmology, geology, meteorology and oceanography), and twelve years of math. But we barely had any labs. And we never really tackled Scientific Method much. And we did not have it presented in any kind of historical or philosophical context. We did learn detailed biographies of Darwin and Tesla and Pupin and Milankovich and Pancich, but in a hero-mode of history. So, yes, we learned a lot of facts, and we learned to admire a few scientific geniuses (especially if they were from our homeland), but we did not really learn any critical thinking skills from it.

Thus, Serbs can talk at length about science, yet not always be critical about it. They fall oh-so-easily for scientific-sounding gibberish, from astrology to medical quackery, despite having a huge repository of science-trivia knowledge typical of Eastern European educational systems. They reject Creationism because Darwin is a hero and believing in evolution is a mark of an educated European (likewise for Climate Change – it is what educated people are supposed to understand and support, not fight against like the Troglodytes do), but they are not really able (like citizens of any country, really) to be fully skeptical of pseudoscientific ideas that sound scientific on the surface.

There are currently strong voices against getting vaccinated for swine flu. But the reasons are different than in the USA. The typical Jenny McCarthy autism-vaccine quasi-connection is not strong there. They reject the vaccine because it comes from the West. And West is always suspect. What is the Western interest in selling us the vaccines? Are they trying to poison us? Is it warfare? The scars are too fresh.

But then Dr.Kon comes on TV and tells them to get vaccinated and why they should do so. And they believe him (well, he is on TV all the time!). He is a premier authority on epidemiology there. And scientists there have authority. And they are trusted. Thus when the government wants to enact policies that are Reality Based and require the people to change their habits (as in many environmental issues), the government invites academics to speak and uses those academics as authorities they rely on for enacting such policies.

Last time I was there, I watched a long (2 hours long) show on TV that everyone was glued to. About swine flu and vaccines. Who was in the studio? Dr.Kon. And a few other physicians. And a bunch of medical students. The only person in the studio who was obviously uneducated and dumb was the moderator from the TV station (I later heard, from one of the participants, that she was even drinking during the breaks). No politicians. No representatives of politically-motivated nay-saying groups. Facts only wanted, thus experts only. And it was still a contentious and occasionally downright aggressive debate – experts debating fine points of timing of vaccines, how many, which kind of vaccine, who should get it first, etc.

And that kind of show is not unique there. Scientists, physicians, academics are often in the media, revered and trusted as relevant sources of expertise on the information how the world really works and what are the most likely actions that can potentially solve a problem. There have always been science and nature shows on TV and nobody ever thought that watering down the language was needed – the audience understood, or understood enough. And was fascinated. And believed it all. And loved it. And kept the love and reverence for science for the rest of their lives.

In a nation in which it is perfectly normal that the local drunk sitting at the bar is reading Feynman while drowning sorrow in slivovitz, where bookstores are full of books about science and nature (and philosophy! – it’s big there), where the media is full of science and reveres scientists (while the anti-science cranks are mostly ignored, never invited, or laughed at), where the government takes the academics’ word as law – is it surprising that people trust scientists and encourage the government to enact science-based solutions to problems even if they don’t truly understand them?

Both this year and last year when I visited Belgrade I gave multiple radio interviews (a few of those were hour-long) and a brief TV interview (where I met ubiqutous Dr.Kon who was also on the same show right after me). Thus I had a chance to chat with a lot of media people there and discuss the state of the media and journalism in today’s world.

Of course, as people everywhere are wont to do, they complained about the state of Serbian media. Did they forget the state it was in during Milosevic era? I tried to tell them how for me, looking from the outside, it looked perfectly good. I watched the TV there and noticed that TV anchors called a spade a spade and were very well informed about the issues they were talking about.

For example, back in 2008 there were many TV debates ahead of the elections. The anchor would not ask “Can you explain your economic plan?” in an open-ended manner, let the candidate trot our talking points and then, like Wolf Blitzer, say Let’s leave it there. They would say something like this “When one runs the math on your economic proposal, one finds out that it would lead to X number of jobs lost, X billion in lost revenue, X billion in budget deficit, and X percent of inflation. How can you propose such a destructive plan?”. When the candidate tries to weasel out, the anchor turnes to the opposing candidate and says “What do you think?” and gives him 30 minutes to actually DO the math on air, totally destroying the bad proposal, leaving the opponent to fume and the audience to laugh. Then she turns to that other candidate and does the same grill on him. One with a more reasonable plan that survives the math and on-air dissection wins. And probably wins the election. How it should be done. And – even when it comes to economics – Reality rules the day. Facts. Numbers. Logic.

So I would tell my media friends about it and say that is so much better than the US media. To which they laughed – “What US media? US does not have media!”. And then they would explain to me how in the US there may be something that superficially looks like media because it uses the same technological channels – the technology of TV, radio and newspapers. But that what goes through those channels has no resemblance to journalism. It is a combination of entertainment (bread and circuses for the masses) and propaganda for whichever President’s strings are currently being pulled by the military-industrial complex.

Ouch!

I guess looking from the outside, one is able to see more clearly….

From their point of view, US foreign policy is what matters. From that point of view there is not much difference between Republicans and Democrats – they are both involved in the American imperialist project (oops, “American interests abroad”). Remember that Bush Sr. screwed up the region at the time when it could still be saved, and that then Clintonistas came in, ignorant of the local history, geography and politics and did every single thing wrong there, prolonging the war by years resulting in many more dead, wounded and displaced, and ending up bombing Belgrade, while at the same time frustrating the opposition that was trying to get rid of Milosevic and could have done so years earlier if the Democratic U.S. president did not keep interfering. So, differences in domestic policy do not really matter for foreign observers. I guess Serbs were still hopeful, until this week, that at least Obama would be more reliable on Global Warming. Eh. But from their point of view, and rightly so, there is no real media in the US, at least not media that is visible by many Americans and potentially visible to foreigners if one searches really hard.

To summarize, Serbia has a population that possesses a lot of knowledge of science trivia, an honest interest in science, has no idea how science works, has no skeptical skills, yet reveres science and trusts scientists. It is a matter of national pride. And is not aligned with any particular ideology or political party. And it is something that is mirrored by and perpetuated, however imperfectly, by schools, media and government. Thus, despite the population being either scientific or unscientific, depending on which definition one uses (yes on being scientific if using definition #1, no if #2, yes if #3), the country as an entity that really matters here (definition #4) is a Reality-Based one and can easily be so as it is in sync with the voters and the media on this account. And can be so no matter which party is in power there. Most of the parties there (at least serious ones that have a chance of getting elected to govern) are Reality Based enough at least to know they cannot ignore science and reality with impunity.

I am sure my American readers have already done the comparative study in their minds while reading the case of Serbia above. And probably readers from other countries as well. Put your thoughts in the comments, please, so we can all learn more.

Function

Let’s start with the definition again: “An unscientific nation is one in which the government is not Reality Based.”

First question here is: is having a Reality Based government adaptive for the country? Does it do better than if it was not Reality Based?

Ahm. Look at the USA. Reagan years (trickle-down economics), plus Bush Sr. years (voodoo economics), plus Clintonite conservative triangulation followed by devastatingly dangerous Contract On America, and the final nail in the coffin in 2000-2008 with recklessly ideological bullying by the Bush Republicans. It is a testament to natural wealth and the robustness of the US economy that the country still exists and that we are not all literally starving in the streets. Any other country would not be able to survive 30 years of Fairy-Tales-based policy-making and would have been annihilated from within. Yet even America is hurting. Badly. Ask the Afghans and Iraqis.

Ask the tens of millions of poor, unemployed/underemployed and uninsured Americans. Look at the economic numbers. See the environmental devastation we produced.

Policy based on ideology and wishful thinking and “from the gut” is disastrous.

But, just because having a Reality Based government is adaptive does not mean it is a “natural state of things”, thus….

The second question: is the Reality-Based or Unscientific the default state for a nation?

That’s a question that can be thought of in terms of entropy (which of the two extreme states is lower energy, thus easy to attain, while the opposite state requires input of energy) or in terms of an adaptive landscape (which of the two extreme states is on the adaptive peak that requires climbing onto, and which one is in the valley).

In other words, is it natural for a country to be Unscientific and work needs to be done to make it Scientific? Or is it a natural state for a country to be Scientific and work needs to be done to make it Unscientific? This absolutely requires comparative study and a historical study.

If ancient state was Unscientific because there was no science and thus all the nations were originally Unscientific, did some nations become Scientific easily (it’s all downhill so just let it slide) or did it always require a lot of effort? What explains why some nations are still Unscientific, including the USA?

I do not have the answer to that question – it would be a part of the project of book-writing to study the issue and try to come up with an answer. But it is a neccessary question for this project. No prescription can be made without getting an answer to it first.

So, let’s for the sake of the argument assume that the “natural”, low-energy state is somewhere in-between the extreme states. As science progresses and governments want to generally do the best they can for their people, they more and more consult the “experts on reality” i.e., scientists and come up with more and more reality-based solutions.

There will be forces that try to speed up the process. And there will be forces that try to slow down the process. The rate of change will be a resulting vector or the sum of those forces. In each country those forces will have different indentities, strengths and directions, so the rate of movement and the trajectory of movement will be different.

What are some of the likely forces and their relative effectiveness? What factors will influence their effectiveness?

I already talked about Industry above so there’s not much new to say here. If, due to the economic and financial system, they have to pay attention primarily to short-term profits, they will be a force that slows down the process and will use direct line to politicians, or lobbyists, or PR machinery, or will try to
influence the media, whatever it takes to have their way.

Education is an important factor here. How much science is taught? How is it taught? Is the curriculum updated frequently to keep up with the advances of science? Does it teach trivia/facts, or scientific method, or critical thinking, or reverence for hero-scientists? Or does it consist of memorizing some ancient religious book? Who determines the curriculum – a national organization of educational experts, or a locally elected school board composed of who knows who?

While education in itself is no panacea, the populace that is well educated in science will be more receptive to scientific ideas in the media, will not need watering down of language when the science is presented in the media and, indirectly, may be more likely to support governmental initiatives that are demonstrably based on the best current scientific understanding of the world.

Organized Anti-Science Movements are usually allies of, or funded by, political or religious organizations. Thus, they should be treated as such, on a case-by-case basis.

The pseudoscience associated with the political Left is usually fragmented – each with its own organization – and has no influence on the Democratic Party in the USA or on much of public discourse. Chopra-style purveyors of NewAge spiritual woo don’t have any common interests with Animal Rights activists. On the other hand, anti-science movements of the Right are all parts of the same movement, coordinated with each other, and heavily funded by the same conservative network of rich organizations.

Creationists ARE Global Warming Denialists ARE opponents of stem cell research ARE Republican activists and elected officials. Their goal is not just blocking one particular area of science, but a much broader cultural rewinding of the clock. They are the key elements of the Republican party (what is left of it today), not just having an outside influence on it.

Religion tends to be, in most places, a force trying to slow down the progress. But we have to think about this smartly. It is not religion per se, it is religion used as a scaffolding for ideology, an excuse for ideology, and a symbol for rallying the ideological brethren.

Ideology is quite dependent on geography. Liberal ideology tends to thrive in big cities, where diversity of people and their beliefs breeds tolerance, where higher education is abundantly available, and where traveling is something that is done on a regular basis – seeing the world is a great liberalizer. On the other hand, small rural communities tend to be conservative because they are racially, culturally, ideologically and religiously homogeneous. The group cohesion is necessary for daily survival.

Outsiders are potentially disruptive and viewed with suspicion. They are The Other. To be scorned.

So, the more people move from country to city (as industrial revolution engendered) more they become liberalized and more they are likely to embrace reality. Those who stay in the country are more likely to stick to tradition (organized by the local religious institution) and resist disruptive change. If the rural folks perceive a science-based change in policy to be disruptive of their tradition, they will resist it (or, like my Serbian friends above, will embrace it for their own reasons, e.g., national pride).

So the city/country ratio of the country is an important determinant of the potential for a change towards scientificness of the government. Also, the relative voice that city and country have will be a factor. In countries, like USA, in which rural states and counties have disproportionately large representation in Congress, their negative influence on the movement towards Reality Based governance will be greater. In other countries, the intelligentsia that lives in the capital drives the policy and the rural areas are ignored.

Another problem with hiding an ideological resistance to change behind the skirt of religion is that in many places religion is a taboo topic for conversation, including in the media. Thus religion cannot be analyzed, questioned and criticized in public without a huge backlash. Any talk of it makes even some of the liberal seculars nervous who then try to advise the critics to abide by the tradition of silence and keep it quiet – a strategy that historically never worked and only emboldens the regressives to try harder to take control of the government and turn the country into a theocracy. Sunshine is the best disinfectant and cockroaches scurry off when you shine a light on them. Likewise, a silence about religion, and undue “respect” for religion just gives the cowards boldness to try harder to proselytize. Remember they are essentially cowards – afraid of everything new and unfamiliar. Cowards understand the language of force. They can recognize who has the balls and will run away if threatened (oh, sure, they will be yelling loudly while running away, but that can be ignored).

Even the most dry and technical analysis of religion tends to receive a very aggressive counter-response. Is it due to calculated resistance to criticisms that are seen as challenges to tradition, or an incredibly thin skin of the religious, or such a tight identification of the believers with their belief that they are incapable of seeing critiques of ideas as anything but personal attacks – I don’t know.

But as a strong factor slowing down progress towards a Scientific Nation, religion has to be openly analyzed and criticized. The topic must be made palatable to the media.

And even those liberal atheists who are uneasy, due to cozy yet traditional upbringing, with discussions of religion will have to get used to the fact that regressive, conservative religion has to be challenged in public. The faked “hurt feelings” of the religious should not be a consideration here – they need to hear the criticism (many will be responsive – they just never thought about it before, took it for granted because of the silence) and grow up to withstand it, or cower in the corner if they don’t like it, or break the shackles themselves. The super-religious will not be moved one way or another. Liberal believers have to be challenged: whose side they are on – reality or their regressive religious brethren? But fence-sitters are more likely (though they will take time, nothing instantly) to move away from religion if exposed to criticisms, despite the initial recoiling and distaste, than become more religious just because “those atheists are so uncivil”. It is ugly, and slow, but the net result is positive.

The Overton Window (illustrated) is an important concept to think about when discussing the struggle against conservatism dressed up as religion. And it is important to understand how it fits within the project of communicating science (important link) to the public. It is also related to the way we can work on changing what is acceptable to say in the media.

The struggle against religious digging-in-the-heels is a two-tiered project that requires two sets of people using two different strategies. One group uses gentle hand-holding tactics to help individuals cross over. The other group moves the Overton Window of what is acceptable to say by being very public and even harsh in their criticisms. The two groups cannot work without each other. The first group cannot start moving people over if there is no acceptable discussion of religion in the public and the media.

The latter cannot be successful if there are no troups in the trenches to hold the hands of individuals and bring them into the public square they prepared. And even the shouting matches between the two groups – the former trying to silence the latter – are actually good: the noise is also part of the moving of the Overton Window and making criticism of religion acceptable topic in the mainstream society.

In any country in which religion is a powerful force slowing down (or even reversing) the movement towards a Reality Based government, one has to have a counter-force: either a a well-organized or a loose secular/atheist coalition that has the courage to speak up and make possible the environment in which discussion of religion is deemed normal and respectable. I understand not everyone has the guts for this (how many death threats has PZ Myers received in his life?), but those who do should be applauded, not silenced. They are making a real and positive difference.

Scientists tend to be a force that helps usher a government toward becoming more Reality Based. The average density of scientific researchers per million of population is around 1000 (Source PDF). The highest is in Japan (a little over 5000 per million) and USA (a little below 5000 per million). That is a very small number. Consider also that only a very small proportion of researchers are in academia. In all countries most of the researchers are employed by the government, the military or the industry.

Only a sliver works in universities or in basic-science Centers or Institutes (where the currency are publications, not patents). And many have leaked out of the tenure-track rat-race and work as teachers, journalists, writers, press information officers, journal editors, museum curators, etc.

Thus the voice of the scientists themselves will always be small, even if all scientists get up in arms and organize and get really loud in demanding something. Some scientists are interested in doing their work and have no interest in any kind of activism or popularization or education. Others are interested in making sure funding keeps flowing. Others are interested in making sure that the published research findings are freely available to all. Only a small number of scientists are primarily interested in seeing research findings applied to policy, be it public health, or local environmental problems, or global problems like Climate Change.

So, scientists will always be viewed by the government as an interest group, a small and feeble one at that. Which is why the ScienceDebate2008 action was safely ignored, though it did have some small effects around the edges, probably not sufficient to affect election, though. And the group can certainly keep working on having the voice of scientists, unified, heard in the halls of power.

While scientists can be leaders, they cannot accomplish anything in politics on their own. They have to recruit millions of non-scientists to their cause if they are to be effective. To do so, they have to be trusted. In order to get trust, they have to defeat the forces that paint them in negative light – otherwise, the general population is quite inclined to view scientists with reverence for their intellect. The industry lobbyists and PR agencies have brought in (in the USA) the negative stereotypes of scientists as pointy-headed intellectuals whose only interest is personal wealth and destruction of free market. That’s BS and you know where that came from (tobacco lobby until defeated, then later the same PR henchmen now working for the oil/coal lobby), and you know it is not the case in most other countries. Re-read Chris Mooney’s Republican War On Science for a detailed history and analysis of the sources of anti-intellectualism and anti-science sentiment in America.

In a country with a decent general education, which includes some decent science education, there is no need to water down science for the audience. Serbs have no problem with scientific terminology on TV or in books. Those scientists who are not good at communicating tend to retreat into their labs and not attempt to communicate. Which is just fine. But many, perhaps most scientists are excellent communicators – they speak with passion and clarity and need no special ‘communications’ classes to get any more effective than they already are.

I organize ScienceOnline conferences every year. Scientists, either currently active in research or not any more, keep contacting me directly (or I hear about them from others who suggest I take a look at their work), asking to do a demo of their popularization activities. You have no idea how many scientists tweet and blog and make podcasts and produce videos, and do museum demonstrations, and do Science Cafes, and run local radio shows, and give public lectures, etc, etc. Thousands! And most of the stuff they produce is excellent! There are tons of scientists who are very active in popularization of science and are very good at it. And very effective for their audiences. We don’t need more of them. We don’t need them to learn how to become better communicators. What we need is to push their existing work onto unsuspecting audience that does not already flock to them. The “push” strategy in place of the “pull” strategy. Talking to the people who don’t even know they would be excited by a scientific topic, not just to those who actively search for them.

Saying that it is up to scientists to turn their government into a Reality Based one, that it is scientists who are inactive at communication who are responsible for the government being Unscientific, suggesting that all can change if only more scientists learned how to communicate better and then do it, in short the theses of Unscientific America, Am I Making Myself Clear? and Don’t Be Such a Scientist, are misguided at best. The scientists are doing their best already, a fantastic job actually, but their efforts are just a subset of a subset of a subset of a sliver of a side-show of a tangent of the solution to the problem. They are the only ones really on board in the USA right now and giving their maximum. How do we get others on board, too?

The very few scientists who are charged with actually lobbying the government in some way should get special training in how to do it. This has nothing to do with ‘science communication’ or learning how to become more exciting speakers. The chapter in Unscientific America about talking to politicians is the best chapter in the book. It explains what mistakes untrained scientists make when trying to persuade a politician. A very useful lesson. But it has nothing to do with having more scientists become better communicators. It’s a specialized task that requires specialized training for a very small number of specially chosen scientists. Perhaps the organization that got built around ScienceDebate can set up a training camp for those rare scientists who will be talking to politicians, whoever they are and whenever that happens. That can ve very useful.

Entertainment Industry is a special case. Back in Yugoslavia I had the pleasure of working with several film crews, some local, some international, as they paid to use our horses as props (or sometimes us as riders of those horses in action scenes). I have never met, in my life before or after, such an unbelievable collection of arrogant, ignorant Narcissists as the film crews, especially the directors (or other people supposed to be creative – folks in charge of technical or managerial aspects, e.g., the sound or lighting techs or the cameramen and even most actors tended to be quite normal). I was flabbergasted at the mere existence of such completely self-loving idiots, whose self-importance and over-inflated egos were based on nothing but hot air and some New-Age woo. But they certainly held themselves in high regard. They knew everything about everything and were never wrong about anything and got all pouty if contradicted (especially with facts). It was a nightmare working with such blowhards.

I was lucky never to work on a film in the USA, but from what I can see and read (and the results they put on screen), it does not seem like Hollywood is any better, perhaps worse. Sure, there are a few humble and educated exceptions, here as well as there, but they are rare – and they are too far up in the hierarchy for me, a mere mortal, to ever meet them and thus evaluate them in person. Don’t believe me? Just read this, this, this, this, this and this for the latest illustration of how they think and operate (lots of informative stuff in the comments as well). Gah! They don’t even know how idiotic they are.

Yet, the entertainment industry has a large effect on the perception of science and scientists by the public. And while they have their own mores and traditions that drive most of what they do, they are also a reflection of what the general society thinks. It is a two-way street, which gives one hope that even they can be reformed, with a lot of effort and time.

Remember that many scripts are proposed. Only a few are actually turned into movies. The decision as to what will get filmed rests on the movie moguls – heads of big studios. The smaller fish watch what the big fish do and try to emulate it next year. Thus our targets need to be the Big Producers and Big Directors, people who actually have influence on the movie industry as a whole.

How do we change the culture of Hollywood? There are many scientists who drop out of science careers. Some may be interested in a career in the movie industry.

Infiltrate!

The thing is, don’t be such a Randy Olson. When you go to Hollywood, don’t leave all your critical faculties behind. Do not accept the Hollywood voodoo. They have no idea, no matter how loudly they yell, about what they are doing. Really. They have no idea what really makes a good movie. Multi-million dollar projects were flops.

Tiny-budget independent movies became big hits. They are all winging it. There is no real system to their madness. Don’t believe it when they tell you otherwise.

The idea is not to infiltrate them in order to become yet another hyper Hollywood idiot. The idea is to remain who you are, unimpressed by the glitz, and change their culture from within. Use your science – do research on what works on audiences. Demonstrate how much more exciting is a story that stays true to reality than the one that just stays with old worn-out movie-making tropes. Challenge the old wrong ideas they have about “what works”.

And above else, keep your cool. The Hollywood crowd loves Randy Olson because he is such a stereotypical scientist. Unfortunately, he is uncomfortable in that role and eager to try to blend in with them and be deemed “cool” (which is the currency of Hollywood) instead of capitalizing on what he is – the brainiac at the table, the one they should all look up to for realistic, grounded advice. He is playing right into their stereotypes instead of busting them.

Now, I have never met Randy [edit: I have, briefly, since this post was first published], but he admits he is stiff and that he had to work hard on becoming a good communicator (and then through the camera lens, not talking). But he is an exception to the rule. I dare you to put me on stage or in front of a microphone – we’ll all have a lot of fun. I also don’t know why are Randy’s experiences with other scientists so bad.

Yes, I have seen some dreary science talks, but they were a minority. Most talks were fun, engaging, humorous, crystal-clear on the substance and joy to listen to. Perhaps my experience is unusual? Perhaps chronobiologists are somehow better speakers than other scientists (no, there are a couple of famously bad ones there)? Perhaps NCSU is a place where the art of giving oral presentation is much more strongly fostered than elsewhere (after all, an NCSU professor wrote the best book on the subject)?

Perhaps I saw all the best speakers in departmental seminars (and I saw 3-4 per week in 3-4 departments over ten years – that’s a lot of talks, but I guess I am one of those few irresistibly curious scientists) because we have a special culture of it? Or because I was on the departmental seminar committee for two years and myself picked the best? I doubt it. I think Randy just had bad luck. Or selective memory. Most scientific talks, no matter if the audience is the inner-most circle of the discipline or lay audience at a museum, are a blast.

So, scientists can be and usually are interesting and animated. What leads to the horrendous movies in the end is that it does not really matter what scientists say. Matt Weddell was quote-mined. It happens to everyone (not just scientists) when interviewed for a movie. The entertainment guy comes to you with a pre-set story, uninterested at all in changing it, and is fishing for quotes that are usable. If you say that something he wants to show is not true, he will edit the “not” out of your sentence and have you say it’s true. Too arrogant to even know they are being dishonest. This is the world they operate in. Better become media-savvy or refuse interviews. Being media-savvy, not falling into traps that the entertainments sets, is a completely different skill from ‘becoming a better communicator’. Scientists in general can talk great, but some how-to-deal-with-inherently-dishonest-media training is in order if one is to be interviewed for a documentary.

We as scientists will never be able to get millions of people to refuse to go see a movie just because we say it’s misrepresenting science. But we can start affecting the big studio moguls by working for them, or, like Jennifer and others are doing, giving them structured, correct and respectful advice. It will be a long uphill slog. But it can be done as a part of changing the broader culture. With little help from us, movie world will gladly follow the changes in the broader society if that means ticket sales.

But in the end, the entertainment industry is not a major source of pro- or anti-intellectual sentiment, or of scientific information. When you watch a movie you know it’s fantasy. Do you know how much people learn from a science documentary? Almost zero. You all remember Ida (Darwinius massilae), don’t you? When the paper came out I bought a shirt with a picture of Ida. I wore it around a lot. Many people I met in the street knew what it was….a fossil. At best a primate fossil. Seen “on TV the other night”. When asked to say more – nobody could. Nobody uttered the phrases “human ancestor” or “missing link” let alone any Latin. All they knew there was this fossil discovered and that it was beautiful and cool. Actually – a win for the science. They found something scientific to be cool. They were never going to or meant to learn any more than that. The documentary did its job: showed that science is cool. No more, and one should not expect any more. And if it was not “pushed” on the general audience everywhere (instead of just the History Channel which is “pull” method), nobody would have ever heard of it. From our perspective, it was a media circus (perhaps because we are not used to it). From the perspective of general audience, it was a small blip on the radar, but something that showed that science is cool.

So, I think that the entertainment industry tends to reflect the society. In the big scheme of things, they tend to be followers, not leaders. I’d rather focus energies on changing the society (and let the movies follow) than try the difficult struggle to change the movie industry first. It’s more cost-effective that way.

Corporate Media also differs from country to country.

In some places, the press is officially or unofficially owned, run and controled by the government. The ‘Government Knows Best’ press. It serves as a progaganda organ for the government, telling citizens (and other countries, which is usually more important) what the government thinks and does. That way people know what NOT to say in public if they want to avoid imprisonment. In this kind of country, the government is independent (belligerently so) and does whatever it wants. It can choose to be Reality Based or not while being completely impervious to criticism and uninterested in popular opinion. And people are unlikely to rise just because their opinions are ignored – they need to really hurt in order to revolt. And this may take decades of suffering.

On the other extreme are countries in which the independent press acts as an unofficial political opposition. It is the ‘Government is Always Wrong’ press. It does not represent the thinking of the government, but also does not represent the views of the broader population either, rather it represents a particular political view of the group (perhaps a political party) that de facto runs the press. This is a rare situation and does not last long – either the government goes down, or the press gets shut down and replaced by something more to the liking of the government. This is a theoretical case – anyone know of a real-world example of this?

In between the two extremes, there are media with various degrees of independence and various degrees of influence.

My constant criticisms of the press are really focused on the US situation only. This is because the US press is in a league of its own. It is not government-owned but acts as one and, more insidiously, pretends to be independent and “watchdog” while not being so. Worse, many people buy into that lie. How does that work?

The local and metro journalists take their cues from the D.C. press, the so-called Village. They trust the Villagers because they are “at the source”. Villagers rub shoulders with the politicians every day, get ‘insider’ information (often planted to them on purpose, but they are too giddy to notice) and act very wise in the matters of politics. This is what Jay Rosen calls the Church of the Savvy. They are buddies with the Democrats and the Republicans, consider both to be their friends and hear from both what their stands are on various topics. Thus they decide that whatever these guys say is within the realm of realistic. Everything else is not.

Even if they venture outside of the capital, when they hear people saying things that are not in their realm of possible, they dismiss it as ‘naive’ or ‘extreme’.

They are the keepers of the Overton Window, working hard on preventing anyone from moving it in any direction. They are comfortable in the status quo and hate change so they work hard on preventing change from happening. That way they keep all their politician friends.

They do not see themselves as judges of the veracity of claims – they make reality. They are just scribes – they transcribe what someone from the Left says, then what someone from the Right says, then stake their reasonable and realistic position smack in the middle (do they use the ruler and compass to determine exactly where the mid-point is?). Everyone outside of that middle is an extremist. And every idea outside that narrow domain is unworthy of mention. Like single-payer healthcare system – not savvy, not realistic (or so they determined in advance, thus not worth a mention, which then makes it unrealistic). Or WMDs being a lie.

Sorry, but the mid-point between a truth and a lie is still a lie.

Sometimes they encounter difficulties when trying their best to do the HeSaidSheSaid journalism. One side is so obviously right and the other so obviously wrong. What to do, what to do? Invent a new side, of course! Here is a great recent example: the GW denialists salivating over hacked e-mails were so obviously wrong (and morons) and the other side, the scientists and the Reality-Based community are so obviously right, the journos could not have any of that – that would be equal to conceding defeat. So they dug out from under some rock a completely irrelevant party – the Greens and environmentalists. Yeah, cool, those wackos can be portrayed as equally nutty as the GW denialists, thus the journos remain firmly in the middle, grinning smugly about their own wisdom. Oh, and the “middle-ground” they thusly discovered? It is suspiciously palatable to the anti-scientific forces of the oil/coal industry and their Republican marionettes. The savvy middle, yeah right.

Then the next morning, Washington politicians wake up and open their Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal to see what is the pulse of the nation.

They see that only the stances they are happy with are reported as being the discourse of the people. They go happily with their day. No challenge permitted.

In short, the US press acts as a barrier between the people and their government. They report to the people what the politicians deem reasonable (which would never change if left entirely to them – have you seen the average age of the US Senators?) and they report the same stuff to the politicians as the view of the people. No free exchange of ideas and opinions can pass through that barrier – the Villagers are keeping those gates closed and they decide what is and what is not “realistic”. When change happens, it is always because information bypasses the press. And then they are distressed and surprised. It’s hard work adapting to a new landscape, learning all over again who now supports what and reporting thusly.

Another reason they do this is because they are themselves not Reality Based. Unlike that Serbian anchor I mentioned above, they are incapable of doing the math and analysing a policy proposal themselves. All they are capable of doing is transcribing what various political spokes-persons say with no ability to estimate (let alone actually know) who is based in reality and who is just bullshitting them. Such ignorance is the source of their post-modernism – it’s all opinion to them, because they have no idea how to determine and assign a Truth value to any statement. “We report you decide” also means “we are too ignorant to decide for ourselves”. It also means “Truth is what we say it is, reality be damned”.

By actively preventing any change from occurring, and by staking their position as “realistic” although it is a mid-point between reality and batshit insane (thus keeping the batshit-insane ideas legitimized), the Villagers (and their followers in the provinces) keep the country from moving in the direction from Unscientific to Scientific. Always halfway to Reality-Based, never really getting there. The press is working mightily to make sure that never happens.

Prescription

Let’s start with the definition again: “An unscientific nation is one in which the government is not Reality Based.”

Focus back on the Government. It appears that, due to the Media, the US government is geometrically precisely mid-way between Reality-Based and Anti-Reality Based points. That is a pretty abysmal place to be, when you think about it. Far too far away from Reality-Based.

There are strong anti-Reality forces in the country: the Industry (because the economic system rewards only short-terms thinking), the Educational system (being determined on the local level), Electoral system (disproportionately rewarding the rural areas), Religion (unchallenged in its privileged position of being unquestioned), Entertainment Industry (which is just dumb), Republican Party (what is left of it now that the teabaggers aka birthers aka Palin-drones aka 26%-ers have purged it from the last human with a brain, but still not laughed out of court by the press), and the Media (which actively legitimizes insane views and prevents change).

The pro-Reality forces are much smaller, much less organized, much less funded, and all outside of the power establishment: scientists, good science teachers, good science writers/journalists, and vocal atheists. So how can such a small bunch break the gates and effect change? By recruiting more people and then making the government know what the will of the people really is. This means bypassing the media and, in the process, opposing all the other powerful players. It’s a dangerous game!

So how does one build a coalition, oppose the negative forces, bypass the media and talk directly to the government? In other words, how does one make it obvious to the government that their only option is to become Reality Based if they wish to get re-elected and remain in power?

First, one should identify the forces that are either purposefully trying to slow down or reverse the movement towards a Reality Based nation, or inadvertently helping such forces. Then do all of these:

1) Organized Action – build coalitions and actively oppose the anti-science activity, policy proposals, anti-science political candidates, etc.
2) Stick and Carrot – praise the people/organizations when they do something right, and slam them when they do something wrong. Make sure they hear it in both cases.
3) Punishment – organize boycotts of products, for example
4) Infiltration – reform the organization from within, making it more pro-Reality
5) Bypassing – build parallel organizations that do the job better, then put efforts into marginalizing the older, traditional organizations you are replacing

By using all of these approaches simultaneously, one can potentially win. How does one do all of that? It’s all about communication.

New Media

The ultimate target of communication is the government. One can get to it directly or indirectly.

You can go to WhiteHouse.gov or USA.gov or contact your representatives. Many are now on Facebook and Twitter – follow them and reply. Some employee there is probably tasked with reporting to the boss what the people are saying. Or go to OSTP blog – they are listening. Or to ExpertLabs (Anil Dash will be at ScienceOnline2010, specifically to get your feedback as to how to build and run that site to make it useful for the administration to get input from the experts).

Or you can go indirectly. Remember that the politicians, geriatric patients for the most part, get their ‘pulse of the nation’ by reading traditional media. If the message of

Reality is not fairly represented in the media, see the above five tactics. Praise the journos who do it right (directly or in various online venues). Slam the journos who do it wrong (they’ll burn, they’ll squeal, but most will learn their lesson). Infiltrate – become a journalist and do a better job. Bypass – build new online communications and media powerhouses. Those tactics are not mutually exclusive, they are complementary.

Sure, the governments (as well as other anti-Reality forces) are also aware of the new media channels and will try to use them for their own purposes. But there’s more of us. And we last longer – we don’t get elected for a few years, we breed. In the end, we’ll win.

Bad Guys TM also can use the Web for organizing, sure. But who has the advantage? The side that has a numerical advantage online. Remember that 26% of Americans are fundamentally anti-science. That means that 74% are reality-based, or at least amenable to intelligent persuasion. That is already a numerical advantage. Also remember that most of the anti-science forces are in the hinterland, where there is much less likelihood one can get online access (no cable, wifi or internet cafes out in the country), or have a computer or iPhone, or be mentally eager to start using such tools – a much more traditional society. That is also an advantage (for now, that will get erased pretty fast).

Getting a link from a Creationist site brings a few hits, an almost undiscoverably small number. Getting a link, even if just in a comment thread, from Pharyngula or Panda’s Thumb or RichardDawkins.net sends a humongous avalanche of traffic. While the Creationists may be having their own echo-chambers, our echo-chamber is much bigger, by being realistic it is much more likely to grow (and not be limited to the 26%) through new recruits, and will thus be potentially much louder and much effective in the long run.

How did those online communities (to take atheists as an example here) get to be so big? Before the Web, most atheists in the States thought they were alone, or in a tiny minority. Usenet newsgroups, forums, blogs, social networks revealed they count in millions – many, often pseudonymously at first, revealed online what they never told anyone before. This recognition engendered boldness. More people came out of the closet and told census workers and pollsters they are atheists. More became open about it in RL. Suddenly atheism is the fastest-growing religious self-identification in the country.

When media started discussing atheism as an emerging phenomenon by having two religious leaders discussing it in the studio (CNN), they got slammed so hard, they had to do another show and invite an actual atheist to it. The proliferation of books and blogs by vocal atheists made the topic acceptable in the public sphere. Media was forced to change to reflect this. Overton Window has moved. While Bush Sr. could say with impunity that atheists are not real Americans, his son, who is himself much more of a fundamentalist Christian, could not say that (or was prevented by advisors to say that). Vocal atheists, who found each other and organized online, engendered a large cultural shift.

The same can be done with a shift towards becoming a more Reality Based nation. It was especially disappointing to see that authors of the three books about science communication I linked to above, although three of them are bloggers, do not understand the power of the Web. You don’t need to have diligently read blogs, articles and books by Clay Shirky, danah boyd, Kevin Kelly, Jeff Jarvis, Eszter Hargittai, Dan Gilmor, Dave Winer, Theresa Nielsen Hayden, Jay Rosen and Scott Rosenberg to grok it.

Being a blogger for a few years and witnessing (and even participating in) numerous instances of the online community getting organized and effecting change (resignation or firing of officials, media mea culpas, passage or defeat of legislation, GOTW efforts, electoral results, etc.) should be sufficient.

When people formerly known as audience have communicaton tools at their disposal, they can communicate with each other (thus discover each other, agree on the goals, and organize action) and to those in power. When those in power become more afraid of us than of the CEOs or TV pundits, they’ll do their job for which we hired them.

Are we there yet? No, but we are getting there fast. In 2004, the existing handful of bloggers could not affect the results of the Presidential election. Already in 2006, they affected some mid-term elections. In 2008, online organizing was one important element of the Obama strategy to win. Locally, it can be even stronger. If you are running for office here in Chapel Hill, you better show up at Orange Politics. If you don’t (or worse, show up and be belligerent), your candidacy (and probably all future candidacies) is doomed.

Don’t judge a new communications ecosystem by its first unsteady steps. It will get there…. And sooner the worst of the traditional media goes under, sooner we can build a more modern media system in which it is much more likely that the participation of many people will ensure that the best expertise gets transmitted the broadest (techies are frantically working on better filtering tools, combining algorithms with human-curated recommendation systems) and that the best available information, as well as the will of the people, gets to its intended target, which is the government.

So, grooming a few more scientists to become a little better at talking about their research is a drop in the bucket of the solution. They are already excellent communicators and doing their maximum. It is a smart use of the new communication tools to find and organize non-scientists interested in a Reality Based government that will do the trick. Smart use of the new communication tools is necessary because the traditional communication tools – the media – keep the people away as passive observers. It is merely a method for people already in power – politicians, D.C. pundits, lobbyists, industry leaders, religious leaders, etc. – to send signals to each other.

Which is why the media in the USA is as it is – designed to exclude the people.

It will be a hard, uphill battle against very rich and powerful interests, but it can be done – there’s more of us, and we now have a way to communicate with each other and to those in power. Let’s use that new ability to make a Reality Based government here. And in other countries citizens will do the same as well.






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  1. 1. knightshold 5:08 pm 10/6/2011

    A very large problem for scientists when communicating with the public is the urge to downplay the confidence we have in our conclusions. Take the case of the effect of CO2 on climate, and the role of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. A scientist might be 99.99% sure that the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere has been rising for the past century and acceleration its rate of change. He might be 99% sure that this is causing dramatic changes in climate. He might be 90% sure that the source of the increase is anthropogenic. However when asked by a reporter whether he is sure that increased burning of fossil fuel is causing climate change, he will answer “Well, we cant be absolutely certain!” The result is that respectable news sources like today’s Wall St. Journal report that the science of “global warming” isn’t settled.
    We need to formulate ways to deal with such situations. When I was a Scientific Officer @ ONR, we made great use of the National Academy to settle such issues, but that approach was lengthy & costly. I think the Academy should set up ad hoc committees that communicate through conference calls & email to reach consensus on issues like these. The funds would come from the Office of Science & Technology. As in the case of regular Academy committees, membership would be limited to scientists best respected among those doing research in the areas. The climate and CO2 is just one politically charged issue. One could come up with a fairly long list of hot issues, like fracking and its environmental effects, if any.

    Link to this
  2. 2. jmac 2:54 am 10/7/2011

    You said:
    “On the other extreme are countries in which the independent press acts as an unofficial political opposition. It is the ‘Government is Always Wrong’ press. It does not represent the thinking of the government, but also does not represent the views of the broader population either, rather it represents a particular political view of the group (perhaps a political party) that de facto runs the press. …. This is a theoretical case – anyone know of a real-world example of this?”

    Now that you ask, yes, Australia!
    70% of the press here, and a lot of the electronic media, is controlled by Newscorp (Murdoch) and they have taken a virulent anti-AGW stance as the current government tries to introduce a carbon tax as a first step to head towards an emissions trading scheme. (It won’t be enough to have any substantive effect on CO2 emissions, but it’s a first political step in that direction).

    Here’s an example though of the problem with journalists who aren’t sufficiently trained in the scientific method. The excerpts below are from the ABC (Australia’s BBC)’s excellent investigative journalism program “4 Corners” (sorry, quoting in full to give some context and emphasis added by me):

    MARIAN WILKINSON (to Tony Abbott): Is that a problem for the alternative prime minister to share a platform with people who do believe that scientists in the CSIRO are part of a conspiracy?

    TONY ABBOTT: Look, obviously I can’t speak for other people’s views. I can only speak for my own views and for the views of the Coalition that I lead.

    Now the CSIRO obviously has a position, it’s A POSITION THAT IT ARGUES FOR in good faith and good luck to them.

    MARIAN WILKINSON: Do you endorse the CSIRO position on this issue?

    TONY ABBOTT: Well, I accept that climate change is real, that humanity makes a contribution and that we should have a strong and effective policy to deal with it.

    MARIAN WILKINSON: But Abbott’s own parliamentary secretary is a vocal advocate for climate sceptics.

    CORY BERNARDI: I stand with the mainstream of Australia. The mainstream of Australia do not buy the lies and the disingenuous statements that are being peddled by people who seek to profit from this whole climate change hysteria, and that means that’s the Government.

    It’s a lot of these green groups that have been discredited. It’s the paid mouthpieces of the Government…

    MARIAN WILKINSON: What about the CSIRO or the Australian Academy of Sciences?

    CORY BERNARDI: Well, th-this is this is the issue. There are lots of different organisations that will take different positions on this, but what I’ve found invariably is that those – or not invariably, there may be some exceptions – but the majority of those that ADVOCATE the catastrophic, you know, anthropogenic climate change position are funded by governments.

    WTF!! This is where we needed the journalist or somebody to explain that scientists don’t “advocate”, they claim and support their claims with data, test them with arguments or alternative interpretations. And that likewise AGW is not a “position”, but also a testable and supported (i.e. simplest and yet-to-be-falsified) theory.

    We have a long way to go.

    Link to this
  3. 3. bigbopper 3:17 pm 10/7/2011

    Nations are led by politicians, most of whom tend to be lawyers. Both these professions are based on “spinning” situations to gain an advantage. The situations are not necessary real in the sense that the physical universe is rea, as they may be mostly just people’s opinions about things and how they’re going to vote, etc.

    So our leaders tend to look at everything in this light, including physical reality. But you can’t spin physical reality. There’s only one, and it exists independently of us and of our opinions of it. So any policy or decision whose success is based on the extent to which is recognizes and copes with physical reality requires discarding the “spin” approach to things. The challenge is to teach politicians and lawyers that spinning doesn’t work in this arena.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Bora Zivkovic 8:53 pm 10/7/2011

    Preponderance of lawyers in the government is characteristic of some countries, e.g., USA. But many other countries are led or have been led by economists, scientists, poets, philosophy professors, soldiers, etc.

    Link to this
  5. 5. bugmagnet 2:34 am 10/9/2011

    @ knightshold

    I think you were pretty much on point except for this:

    “The result is that respectable news sources like today’s Wall St. Journal report that the science of “global warming” isn’t settled.”

    If you aren’t aware, for a number of years now WSJ has been a subsidiary of News Corp, just like Fox News… and for a while has stopped being respectable source of news hence their “take away message” from scientists regarding global warming is no surprise.

    Link to this

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