Monday, December 11, 2006

Small Groups Needed to Solve Problems in Science and Society

Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

But where are these small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens confronting the really large problems facing science and society in the 21st Century: climate change, loss of biodiversity, diminished natural resources and the challenges of sustainable development in a shrinking, hungry planet, to name a few?

Although such small groups are constantly forming around us, and many of them are fully engaged on parts of the puzzle, somehow, with respect to these systemic problems as a whole, they fail to coalesce, gain traction and drive change.  Why?

Friday, December 1, 2006

Public Attitudes about Science in the UK

The following list was published in the third report of the House of Lord's Select Committee on Science and Society. It was published in 2000 but it still rings true today.
  • The perceived purpose of science is crucial to the public response.
  • People now question all authority, including scientific authority.
  • People place more trust in science which is seen as "independent".
  • There is still a culture of governmental and institutional secrecy in the United Kingdom, which invites suspicion.
  • Some issues currently treated by decision-makers as scientific issues in fact involve many other factors besides science. Framing the problem wrongly by excluding moral, social, ethical and other concerns invites hostility.
  • What the public finds acceptable often fails to correspond with the objective risks as understood by science. This may relate to the degree to which individuals feel in control and able to make their own choices.
  • Underlying people's attitudes to science are a variety of values. Bringing these into the debate and reconciling them are challenges for the policy-maker.

COMMENTS from the original blog

2006-12-01 12:47:40 stefano
Would Americans Hold the Same Attitudes
I wonder, for example, if Americans have the same degree of trust in science?  Is American science seen as independent as that of the UK?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Linnaeus Was a Scientist, not an Activist

On November 18, 2006, Nell Boyce filed a story on the origins of the name ‘mammal’ on NPR. She suggested that Linnaeus may have picked the name to promote or encourage breast-feeding and that although “there were other scientists trying to promote alternative terms”, somehow the male-dominated society of Science adopted the Linnaean term not to further the systematic study, organization and naming of life, but instead to keep women at home, to prevent them from working and voting, repressing women of the 18th Century.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

What is a Mammal?

I just heard a piece by Nell Boyce on NPR.  It was great radio and mostly good science. But it wasn’t very good History.  I definitely learned more about mammals.  I was intrigued with the story of the word itself, so interested, in fact, that I listened to the story several times and conducted my own research.  But ultimately, I learned more about how the preeminent naturalist of the 17th Century fails to measure up to 21st Century standards of political correctness than I learned about what science was really like back then or what it is like today.  And in so doing, it probably deceives the reader about what the process of Science is really like more than it enlightens.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Fallacies in the Science and Religion Debate

One of the things I would like to do with this blog is to watch the raging debate between Science and Religion carefully for erroneous characterizations or fallacious reasoning.

In particular, I am interested in ways that each misrepresent the "other" in the debate. It serves us well as observers in this dialog to repeatedly ask the question "how do we know?" Not all Scientists but certainly some of the most visible regularly succumb to the straw-man fallacy by trivializing religious institutions, beliefs and practices and then demolishing their stereotypes.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Science Communications Services Useful but Not Enough

The two clearinghouses for science news – EurekAlert! in North America and AlphaGalileo in Europe – provide a useful service to the news establishment, science publishers and scientific research institutions. However, adding no additional context to the underlying journal articles they cover, they do little to enhance the quality of the news they report or address the real gap in the public’s understanding of science.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Contradictions in Public Attitudes Towards Science

Is anyone else concerned with the apparent contradictions in the list of public attitudes from the Third Report of the House of Lord's Select Committee on Science and Society?

I often wonder if we don't do science a disservice by "selling" and "promoting" science with its many applications.   On the one hand, society wants to have a clear understanding of the value of basic research.  Science needs to have a clear purpose in the public's view to justify the expense and attention it demands.  Yet, at the same time, the closer basic science moves towards applications, we sacrifice scientific independence, objectivity.  To be sure, the benefits of technology accrue to science;  but, on the other hand, so do the costs.  That public funds are being used to foster innovation and stimulate the private technology economy is both good and bad.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Beyond Technology and Business; Things that Matter

It was 2004.  I had three successful startups behind me and each one was more fun and more rewarding than the one before.  So why not ‘do’ another software startup?

Good question.

Well, from sometime in high school and throughout my undergraduate years at Dartmouth, I had been interested in History, specifically the History of Ideas, Civilization and Technology.  I wrote an honors thesis on the connection between Renaissance Art and the origins of Capitalism in Northern Italy.  I always read a lot but over time I began reading more about Natural History and Biology.  Connecting the evolution of human consciousness and social behavior with History, civilization and culture was inevitable.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

John Durant and MIT's Science, Technology and Society Program

I met Dr. John Durant, Adjunct Professor in MIT’s “Science, Technology and Society” program (or STS) and Director of The MIT Museum.  He delivered a paper and led a colloquium entitled “What Role for STS?” on Monday the 16th of October, 2006.

This was a perfect event to attend.  I was very interested myself in seeing what role they thought such a group or program should have within an institution like MIT.  In the process I hoped to pick up a bit of history of the field, some important terminology, names, titles and even what you might call, the “Big Questions” in the field.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Richard Nelson and Moose in Alaska on NPR

I just listened to this super piece on NPR by Richard Nelson about moose in Alaska.  I was on a bagels run so I missed the beginning.  But I stayed in the car for about 5 minutes after I got home so I could hear the end of it.  It was a classic NPR moment: I was transported by radio from our driveway in New England to someplace in Alaska.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Meeting Alan Templeton at Wash U

I met Alan Templeton on Sunday at my father’s birthday party.  He is the Charles Rebstock Professor of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.  We had an interesting discussion about his work and my interests in Science and Society despite the short time and my urge to follow a number of really, really interesting tangents.

Most of our conversation was concentrated on his work with collared lizards in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri.  Apart from being very cute, these lizards are interesting because, together with several other rare species of plants and animals, they live in a cool and rare habitat in the high Ozark Plateau called a ‘glade habitat.’  Although I am not sure I really understand what it is, it sounds a bit like islands of isolated desert with thin, poor topsoil, exposed rock, grasses, and some shrubs separated by dense hardwood forests with thick undergrowth. It seems that this glade habitat is shrinking, a series of isolated and geographically discontinuous, small islands where both plants and animals loose genetic diversity and face extinction.  Wildfires played an important role in maintaining this habitat historically:  the “islands” were larger, connected by migration corridors and surrounded by a savannah landscape, much more open than the Ozarks we see today.

Of course, I asked him my question:  “How do you know?”

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Thoughts on Mello and Fire's Prizewinning Work and Media Coverage

Craig Mello and Andrew Fire were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in Biology yesterday, October 3rd. At first glance, the coverage seemed wonderful.  But as I thought about it in more depth, it seemed symptomatic of the divide between Science and Society on so many levels.

Welcome to 'How Do We Know?'

Hello.  My name is Steve Quatrano.  Welcome to one of my personal websites.  It is an experiment serving several purposes at the same time.  The objectives of this site called "How Do We Know?" include:
  1. Exploring the History and Philosophy of Science;
  2. Understanding the relationship between Science and Society;
  3. Investigating the proposition that stories about scientists, the History and Philosophy of Science can help non-scientists understand Science better;
  4. Searching for large problems involving conflict, complex systems and several disciplines at the intersection of Science and Society;
  5. Discovering individuals and organizations who are working on these kinds of problems with related strategies;
  6. Engaging a community of both scientists and non-scientists in a public conversation on these subjects;
  7. Learning I might be able to help, leveraging my own experience as an entrepreneur, management consultant, software engineer and teacher;
  8. Documenting my experiences.

Mello and Fire Win the Nobel: But How Do They Know?

Craig Mello and Andrew Fire were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in Biology on October 3rd, 2006. At first glance, the coverage seemed wonderful.  But as I thought about it in more depth, it seemed symptomatic of the divide between Science and Society on so many levels.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Back from St. Louis

I am just back from our weekend in St. Louis.  I will be posting blog entries on my meetings with Dr. Alan Templeton and Dr. Garland Allen later this week.  Stay tuned.

Belief in War Affects Belief in WMD's

I noticed a little note in the August 7th edition of Time Magazine.  In a 2005 poll, 36% of Americans believed that Iraq actually had weapons of mass destruction prior to our invasion in 2003.  And when surveyed again this year, 50% believed they had WMD’s.

My question is this:  what evidence has been presented in the past year that can account for these differences?  To the people who changed your minds:  what did you learn in the past 12 months?  How do you know what you know?

Saturday, October 7, 2006

Started Consilience by E. O. Wilson

Fabulous.  Exactly what the Doctor ordered.  It's all about the unity of knowledge, a kind of grand unified field theory not only for the natural world but for the human experience.   What ambition!

And it's totally grounded in History, tracing the ideas from the emergence of Science and the Enlightenment to the present day.

Interface between (or Intersection of) Science and Society

Here is a short list of the problems we encounter at the interface between science and society.

  • Public distrust of science and technology:  is it really good for us?
  • Scientific community isolated, marginalized, elite
  • Reductionist science, specialization makes it difficult to understand
  • Difficult to communicate uncertainty and risk
  • Volume of information, pace of discovery, rate of change overwhelming
  • As relative understanding and trust decline, public reliance on science and technology deepens.
  • Decline in public funding of research matched by increased private, commercial funding compromises independence of science.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Evidence of Poor Public Understanding of Science

From ABC News site:

Science advocates said the American public shows a poor grasp of science when they engage important issues like stem cell funding or global warming. They said there aren't enough qualified American technicians to help turn basic science into marketable products.

A 2002 survey by the National Science Foundation found that half the public didn't know that electrons are smaller than atoms or that dinosaurs and humans never walked the earth together.

That's because science education for most children is second-rate, especially between kindergarten and 12th grade, said science advocates. Below-average students study "pond biology and old science," Miller said.

"We see a lot of kids dropping out of science and not studying it," said education professor Richard Duschl, of Rutgers, who used to teach high school.

Some research has indicated that American science students rank worse than students in many other countries. Foreign universities in Europe and elsewhere are already challenging this country in attracting some of the world's best scientists.

About This Site

This website is an experiment, a work in progress.

In some posts, I would like to document my experience engaging scientists and non-scientists alike in my exploration of Science and Society.  I intend to write very personal and anecdotal stories of the people I meet and my thinking as it evolves in my blog.

But I will also write more edited “stories” and post some “reference” pages reflecting my current thinking as patterns emerge and it becomes clear how I will focus in the next few months.

I have no idea where this website will wind up:  it probably depends a lot on which direction my research takes me.  For the time being I can say with some certainty that the number of visitors to my site are very, very low.   However, in the coming months I would like it to become a place where the people I meet — scientists and non-scientists alike — can follow these discussions: how we know what we know; how that insight might be useful to improve communication between scientists and the lay public; and finally, how such a public conversation might improve the standing of scientists, scientific evidence and scientific methods in our society.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Website opened

I did it.  I decided on a theme and a name.  Hope it works.  This is the beginning of a frightening, stimulating, completely open-ended process.  Who knows where it will lead?