Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What are the topics?

Let's see, as I see it, these days there are three major political topics where science has been put on the defensive by non-scientific interests. The three types of enemies are primarily

1) Industries run by people who have a vested interest in seeing that their dangerous products being treated as the dangers they are.

2) Religious conservatives who feel that their worldviews are threatened by the epistemology of science.

3) Charlatans perpetrating out-and-out frauds on the public (see Wakefield).

oh, and

4) Jenny McCarthy

The primary fronts these days are

1) Evolution.

It's truly sad how evolution continues to battle against ignorance. I've had a student from a local high school tell me that he's not supposed to "believe in evolution". What do I do? The scientific debate on this topic closed over a century ago. It's not a topic where there's any more scientific doubt.

It's also a field where I have some professional expertise.

2) Global warming.

Here the opposition is largely driven by a small number of oil industry billionaires. Sadly, they believe their own propaganda about the problems that an excess of carbon dioxide can cause. The strange thing here is that the data is publicly available and incontrovertible. We have a wealth of data in terms of actual measurements of recorded temperatures, not to mention historical data from ice cores, tree rings, etc.

The strange thing here is how people seek out stories about why they should continue to adhere to their pre-conceptions rather than allow their beliefs to be changed by evidence. I heard a discussion, on Ira Glass's "This American Life" on NPR, between a leading climate scientist and a 15-year old girl who's a Glenn Beck fan.

After the scientist spent 15 minutes elaborating all the different kinds of evidence, the girl informed Ira that, no, she hadn't changed her opinion at all. She still had her intellectual blocks in place. After all, wasn't it colder during the Middle Ages? A complete non-responsive answer that ignored everything she had just been told but allowed her to make a smart-sounding argument, even though it was completely irrelevant.

Some people are just stupid. There's no way around it.

On to...

3) Vaccines (& autism)

Yeah, this one isn't being driven so much by industry or by organized religion, but rather by a small number of charlatans and frauds, supported by some wealthy idiots (like the aforementioned Jenny McCarthy). A number of science blogs, including the estimable Orac, regularly rip the anti-vaccine crowd to shreds.

I probably won't post much about this. See Landru's blog for more info.

Other science policy topics that need consideration include

4) the dangers of tobacco

an oldie but a goodie. But after a few decades of obstructionism the pro-science side of this debate clearly has an upper hand.

5) the dangers of genetically modified food

This is an issue where a lot of the opposition comes across as hysterical ('Frankenfood!') but the agribusiness concerns continue to show a blase attitude.

I don't know quite what to think here, but I have to wonder where the bees have gone.

and, of course

6) Energy concerns

Any kind of consumption of fossil fuels relates to global warming, outlined above. But there are other concerns, such as the pollution from oil spills. This is an issue where I wish I felt I could trust the nuclear power industry. But I don't.

OK, all for today.