Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Challenge of Science and Civic Engagement

Many of the most complex and serious issues facing society today have significant technical and scientific dimensions: how to manage climate change, public health, loss of biodiversity, and dwindling natural resources, to name a few. These are not just technical or scientific issues, however. These are fundamentally social, political and economic problems with substantial ethical, moral and cultural dimensions.  Answers to these challenges require judgment, values and priorities in addition to empirical observation, experimental evidence, quantitative models and methods.

But no matter how you look at it, despite their utility in policy-making, the "hard sciences" are not always applied.  But why?  Although this is complicated and, for sure, there are many other factors, it's pretty safe to simply observe that, at the moment, scientists and their work are somewhat isolated from popular culture and the domain of policy decision-making.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Cockburn Publishes Attack on Greenhouse Warming Theory

Alexander Cockburn published a story on Counterpunch today called "Is Global Warming a Sin?" attacking the theory of global warming. Initially the argument seemed somewhat personal and political but also cogent and founded on legitimate data and observations. However, after rereading it and looking for criticism -- especially of the arguments he raised that seemed original and missing from the mainstream debate -- cracks in his argument started to appear. And the closer I looked the more I realized that it's pretty sophisticated politically but really inadequate with respect to what I am beginning to expect of science journalism.

Despite the weaknesses of article, however, it is a great opportunity to understand the anatomy of a cultural and political attack on science itself.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Approval from Department of Commerce Required for Science Communications

The Union of Concerned Scientists has published a very simple review of new Department of Commerce policies regarding the communication of science to the public and has provided links to letters written in protest of these polices and the policy itself.

These are remarkable documents. On the surface, they appear to guarantee the "open dissemination of research results." However, upon closer examination it’s quite clear that scientists are actually required to seek approval from the Department of Commerce for any scientific communication.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Marine Protected Areas (MPA's) Not Growing Fast Enough

Erik Stokstad wrote in today’s Science NOW Daily News that we are not preserving marine biodiversity fast enough. According to Stokstad, Scientists meeting at the World Conservation Union (IUCN) believe we need to accelerate the creation of marine protected areas if we want to preserve marine biodiversity and move towards more sustainable modes of development.

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, the signatories of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) agreed that: 10% of the offshore regions controlled by individual countries (economic exclusive zones) and 20% of the world’s oceans would be protected by 2010. But Louisa Wood, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, has found that the total protected area would have to double every year for the next three years to meet that goal.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

How Exxon Spent $15 Million to Create Confusion and Dissent in Global Warming Debate

The Union of Concerned Scientists has published an powerful and compelling report on exactly how Exxon spent $15 Million with dozens of shady organizations appearing to produce legitimate science and policy reports in order to discredit the real science behind global warming. It’s 60-some pages but really impressive in its attention to detail.

Most of the report is focused on the elaborate web of organizations, associations, think-tanks and consultancies Exxon has funded to create the impression that there is a large, heterogeneous group of informed scientists who disagree on the basic facts and theory of anthropogenic climate change.  They have documented a deliberate attempt to manufacture a controversy in science when, in fact, there is none.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Einstein on the Difference Between Science and Art

Apparently, Einstein wrote:
"Where the world ceases to be the stage for personal hopes and desires, where we, as free beings, behold it in wonder, to question and to contemplate, there we enter the realm of art and science. If we trace out what we behold and experience through the language of logic, we are doing science; if we show it in forms whose interrelationships are not accessible to our conscious thought but are intuitively recognized as meaningful, we are doing art. Common to both is the devotion to something beyond the personal, removed from the arbitrary."

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

TOS Education and Public Outreach Guide

The Oceanography Society has published a very useful guide to public outreach written specifically for scientists.  It agrees in principle with most of my own findings and might be a very valuable resource.

You can check out their site at http://www.tos.org and the guide is found here:  http://www.tos.org/epo_guide/index.html.

TOS Education and Public Outreach Guide

The Oceanography Society has published a very useful guide to public outreach written specifically for scientists.  It agrees in principle with most of my own findings and might be a very valuable resource.  Check out their site and their guide.

Brain Physiology of Love and Sex

Elizabeth Cohen posted this story on CNN about what cognitive scientists are learning about love.We exchanged a few emails on the subject so I figured I'd take one of them and post this blog entry.

Cohen wrote, “In a group of experiments, Dr. Lucy Brown, a professor in the department of neurology and neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, and her colleagues did MRI brain scans on college students who were in the throes of new love.  While being scanned, the students looked at a photo of their beloved. The scientists found that the caudate area of the brain -- which is involved in cravings -- became very active. Another area that lit up: the ventral tegmental, which produces dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter that affects pleasure and motivation."

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Some interesting websites on Science and Society

Report from the House of Lords Committee on Science and Technology.  An excellent assessment of the situation, analysis of root causes and recommendations for the future.  Published in 2000.

An interesting site by Bonnie Bucqueroux, who blogs about current threats and how we can respond at the personal and policy levels.  Great use of video and YouTube.

 There are dozens of Yahoo! Groups organized around energy issues.   Is it better to start a new group or join some other ones?  Or perhaps both?

Warning or Alarm

 NASA GISS Surface Temperature Analysis
The debate over Global Warming is a perfect example of how the integrity of scientific evidence and the credibility of science itself has been compromised in a highly divisive and partisan debate over policy.  The most visible proponents of each side present themselves as experts, present their own facts and ignore or undermine the facts of their adversaries.  Common ground based on accepted scientific evidence and practices disappears along with deliberative, public dialog.  Positions harden.  Real uncertainty and risk remain but disappear from view.  Subtleties are lost.  The public struggles to follow the debate and is mystified, confused.

Advocates on each side focus on short term benefits and political results.  Longer term education -- and a deeper public understanding of the issues -- is compromised.  When the public hears experts disagree they loose confidence in both sides.  Science and technology as a whole are diminished.

Debate of the the Nuclear Industry in the 1970's and 80's was another perfect case with similar consequences for science and technology.  The history of CFC damage to the ozone layer is another more recent example.  It is particularly tragic because now that we know that the alarm was real, that the intervention worked and that it was commercially very successful, the issue has passed from public view and science has missed the opportunity to regain lost ground.

Along the same lines many lessons have been learned from the disastrous limits to growth debate.  Yet in part because of the evidence collected in the process there is tremendous support for environmental protection, conservation and smaller family sizes throughout the industrialized world.  But the role played by scientists (not activists) in this global social movements and their contribution to what is now called sustainable development is still not universally acknowledged.

Lots of work has been done under the heading of Science, Technology and Society (STS) and the Public Understanding of Science as well.  One example of a comprehensive study is The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. Their |third report contains tremendous analysis of the tension between science, technology and society as well as what we can do about it.  (John Durant of the MIT Museum was somehow involved although I am unclear on his official role).

Warning or Alarm

The debate over global warming is a perfect example of how the integrity of scientific evidence and the credibility of science itself has been compromised in a highly divisive and partisan debate over policy.  The most visible proponents of each side present themselves as experts, present their own facts and ignore or undermine the facts of their adversaries.  Common ground based on accepted scientific evidence and practices disappears along with deliberative, public dialog.  Positions harden.  Real uncertainty and risk remain but disappear from view.  Subtleties are lost.  The public struggles to follow the debate and is mystified, confused.

Some interesting websites on Science and Society

Report from the House of Lords Committee on Science and Technology is an excellent assessment of the situation, analysis of root causes and recommendations for the future.  Published in 2000.

Strategies for Survival is aninteresting site by Bonnie Bucqueroux, who blogs about current threats and how we can respond at the personal and policy levels.  Great use of video and YouTube.There are dozens of Yahoo! Groups organized around energy issues.

Is it better to start a new group or join some other ones?  Or perhaps both?

Friday, March 2, 2007

The Challenge of Science and Civic Engagement

Many of the most complex and serious issues facing society today have significant technical and scientific dimensions: how to manage climate change, public health, loss of biodiversity, and dwindling natural resources, to name a few. These are not just technical or scientific issues, however.  These are fundamentally social, political and economic problems with substantial ethical, moral and cultural dimensions.  Answers to these challenges require judgment, values and priorities in addition to empirical observation, experimental evidence, quantitative models and methods.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Brain Physiology of Love and Sex

Elizabeth Cohen posted this story on CNN about what cognitive scientists are learning about love.

http://www.cnn.com/2007/HEALTH/02/14/love.science/

We exchanged a few emails on the subject so I figured I'd take one of them and post this blog entry.

Cohen wrote, “In a group of experiments, Dr. Lucy Brown, a professor in the department of neurology and neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, and her colleagues did MRI brain scans on college students who were in the throes of new love.  While being scanned, the students looked at a photo of their beloved. The scientists found that the caudate area of the brain -- which is involved in cravings -- became very active. Another area that lit up: the ventral tegmental, which produces dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter that affects pleasure and motivation."

"Dr. Brown said scientists believe that when you fall in love, the ventral tegmental floods the caudate with dopamine. The caudate then sends signals for more dopamine....  The more dopamine you get, the more of a high you feel" similar to the effect of cocaine on the nervous system.

The physiology of sex, on the other hand, appears to be quite different.  Cohen explained, “In studies when researchers showed erotic photos to people as they underwent brain scans, they found activity in the hypothalamus and amygdala areas of the brain. The hypothalamus controls drives like hunger and thirst and the amygdala handles arousal, among other things.  In the studies of people in love, 'we didn't find activity in either,' according to Dr. Fisher, an anthropologist and author of Why We Love -- the Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.

Let’s examine their findings in more detail and ask some questions.  First of all, how do we know the students they selected were actually in love?  And how do we know that looking at pictures of your beloved evokes the same response as love?  And finally, can we trust their conclusions?

This kind of questioning is a huge part of science.  Is the methodology valid?  Scientists are skeptical.  Unfortunately journalists are less so.  They rarely discuss questions on the methodology of the study or delve into the philosophical underpinnings of the conclusions and report on how scientists challenge one another.  Would that be boring?  Maybe.  But without that discussion, how do we know, really?  And I wonder if you could make it interesting....

In their search for a juicy story, science journalism is often guilty of exaggerating the claims or conclusions of the scientists themselves.  For example, in this case they might have concluded that brain region A was activated when the subject studied images of X while region B was activated when images Y were projected to the subject.  This deductive reasoning is solid:  if A then X and not Y.  If B then Y and not X.   It’s what makes reductionist science work.

But that’s not where it ends.  A good paper might cautiously extend limited conclusions like these beyond the scope of the experiment back to the considerably more complex “real world.”   The synthesis of these results with lots of other experiments on mind, brain AND body systems is actually inductive reasoning.  These results together with lots of other results might support (and do not contradict) a proposed model that accounts for the mechanisms of perception and other kinds of cognitive behavior.  We can’t say that the model is right.  We can only say that it has not been disproved yet.

Naturally, we would have to find and study the original paper to be sure of this.  But it does serve to illustrate this point:  reporters typically skip this intermediate step making it seem like the experiment is deductive reasoning about the real world.  It is not.

Implicit messages and omissions are another problem with scientific journalism.  Cohen wrote, “By studying MRI brain scans of people newly in love, scientists are learning a lot about the science of love: Why love is so powerful, and why being rejected is so horribly painful.”  To the romantic reader, lover of poetry, art or music perhaps, claims like this imply much more than is actually intended by the scientists themselves.  Knowledge of physiology tells us nothing about the subjective  experience of love at all and certainly can’t help us answer questions like “Why should we experience such feelings?”

Reasonable, well adjusted scientists are well aware that the model of the mechanism is interesting but totally distinct from the experience or the meaning of the phenomenon.  E. O. Wilson would suggest that’s exactly why science and literature and art and music are complimentary or even 'consilient' inductions insofar as they 'jump together' and reinforce one another.  It is assumed by scientists. Perhaps we should make it explicit for the rest of us as we ask, "but how do we know?"