Science Advocacy

I’ve always been really interested in Science, and while my career has taken me to Computers and software in particular, I still try to keep up on, at least in a superficial sense, what is going on in scientific research. In the last few years, this has involved getting a crash course on modern evolutionary theory, since my wife is a researcher in that field, but more than that, it’s a topic that (miraculously) has been the topic of an increasing debate in the last few decades, so evolution is something that anyone with an interest in science should at least have a basic understand of.

Today, at least in the United States, there seems to be a war on science, at least in the public eye. We have scientific principles that have decades of evidence and research backing them up, that some people claim is simply wrong, even though their entire argument is based on the fact that the body of knowledge can’t yet explain everything. We have states that have passed laws to counteract scientific consensus.

Maybe ‘war on science’ is too conservative a claim. This is pretty much a war on common sense at this point.

But, when you look at the scientific community, it’s clear why these problems exist. Scientists suck at selling their ideas and work to non-scientists, hell explaining can be a challenge for these people. But, I’ve talked about this before.

This is about the need for advocates. If not the scientists themselves, those of us who follow what’s going on in scientific research, and who are willing to take the time to learn things well enough to explain them. We need bloggers and podcasters and everyone else to take the time to have reasonable discourse with people who deny scientific consensus to find out why, and respectfully inform people why the consensus is what it is.

The scientific community has, regrettably, lost it’s two greatest advocates to the public in the last fifteen years, and both died very young. Stephen Jay Gould is responsible for a large body of modern evolutionary theory, from punctuated equilibrium to heterochrony and beyond. By all measures, a highly accomplished scientist. But more than that, he was a prolific writer of material that could be marketed to non-scientists, he spent a lot of time on television from the 1980s on, including a guest spot on the Simpsons. Now, he’s been criticized by some in the scientific community for not always presenting the cutting edge of evolutionary theory to the public, but it’s the nature of science to disagree with one another. The main thing is that Gould was able to address the issue of evolution intelligently, and approach-ably to the general public.

And then there was, arguably, the most famous astrochemist who ever lived: Carl Sagan. Sagan took the sort of advocacy that Gould was doing to a whole other level (or actually, Gould never quite managed to reach Sagan’s level of advocacy), including the often rebroadcast PBS series, “Cosmos”, where Sagan talked to people about the origin of life and the universe. He appeared with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, and was recently the subject of an xkcd cartoon.

Sagan, if only for his advocacy, is a legendary figure in science, and one of the best advocates that science has ever had, and we’re desperate for a new advocate. I leave you with this mash-up of footage from Sagan’s “Cosmos”, and hope that we’ll see that advocate soon.

This video, and others are courtesy of the The Symphony of Science.