Monthly Archives: November 2010
It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a good ol’ fashioned argument, would it? Chris Mooney and Martin Robbins have gotten into a public turkey-throwing match over their defense and assault, respectively, of the Geoffrey Beene Rock Stars of Science campaign. If you’re reading this, or if you can click that link, you know what the campaign is all about.
So why the animosity? Chris is an official ambassador of the campaign, and he has likely invested a lot of time to its (hopeful) success. Martin is an Englishman who thinks it’s a pile of rubbish, and said so. I don’t know whose side I am closer to being on. There’s lots of problems with the campaign, but I don’t think Robbins gets to what they are at all. Let’s see who gets the drumstick:
1. What the hell is it for? The RSOS website says “Our most brilliant scientific minds are dedicated to finding cures for the diseases that threaten our future, and America’s most celebrated Rock Stars stand behind them.” First of all, the rock stars are standing in the foreground of most of the pictures. That aside, what is the point of this campaign? Chris claims that it puts scientists “on the radar” of the American public. Robbins says it’s like “a puppy trying to hump a leg,” full of effort, but not likely to do much good.
I say it’s really neither. Is this a charity by Geoffrey Beene? Is it a hospital ad? Cancer awareness? Nothing about these pictures gives a GQ reader any idea of what they are looking at. So it’s some Dr. Something they’ve never heard of standing next to a famous person they have heard of. It’s publicity for the scientists, but that assumes that a GQ reader finds the 12-point font, types in the URL on their computer, and takes the time to figure out just what these pictures mean. Not one single thing on those pages really differentiates it from a car or watch ad, which there are 50 pages more of in an issue.
Robbins wins here, in that the promotion of science and scientists is not accomplished by printing pictures of them next to more famous people. RSOS made an ad, and it’s about as sticky as one.
2. Why GQ? Who knows? You’d have to ask Geoffrey Beene. My guess is something to do with existing advertising contracts with a certain large men’s magazine by a certain men’s fashion company, but that’s a guess. Over at gimpyblog, the demographics are analyzed:
Your average GQ reader is 33.4, with ~1/3 over 34. They have a 55% change of being white, a 71% chance of being college educated and have a median income of $81k, putting them in the wealthiest 18% of the population.
Making science cool to educated, white men with high incomes. Not really a demographic that struggles in an unequal society.
Robbins touches on this by asking where the beardless, perhaps more female, maybe post-doc (ha!) scientist stars are. Wouldn’t they satisfy the GQ readers a bit more? Maybe, but first answer “Why GQ in the first place?”. Neither win this, because gimpyblog takes the rug out.
3. Is science really cool? This is my favorite part of the argument, so far. As an example, Robbins uses a moon exploration photo featuring an Apollo-era rover and lander. He adds:
This is a picture of two spacecraft on the moon at the same time, taken by astronauts who have walked from one to the other. If you don’t understand why this is one of the coolest things you will ever see, then you really aren’t cool, in fact you’re the opposite of cool. You are to cool what Dan Brown is to literature.
. . . to which Mooney responds:
To which the American public responds “!#$@^ you, I liked The Da Vinci Code” and returns to watching Dancing With the Stars.
While most intelligent humans agree that Dan Brown is the McDonalds of literature – easy to consume, simple, and usually immediately regretted upon finishing – guess what? Most Americans do not think science is cool. Go ahead, go outside and ask 10 of them, heck, ask 100. Sure, I don’t imagine that most people would say “science is uncool, I hate it, and I hate your scientist face”. But science is not cool to most people in the same way that making a soufflé isn’t cool to most people.
Think about it. Take someone who has already been bitten by the bug of cooking. For a person who brings an established interest to the table, the magic and delicacy of constructing a delicious, airy castle out of merely eggs, structural support and heat is cool. But to Joe Public? Not interesting. Same goes for Robbins’ example. That picture is cool to someone who regularly analyzes the feats of space travel, who possesses a wondrous respect for the accomplishments of humankind that allowed us to walk and drive on the moon. To my friends outside of science, it’s a picture of an astronaut. That’s it. You don’t get to discount them simply because they don’t bring a Scientist’s Club card to the table.
I think Mooney almost misses it too, though. Because while he is right that most Americans would be more interested in Dancing With The Stars than would get all Bieber-feverish over a picture of two vehicles on the moon, more people would be interested in Dancing With The Stars than would even pause on the RSOS campaign. It is not inherently cool. It, too, requires a certain established interest to be meaningful.
Mooney gets the point here, though, for understanding that cool isn’t a reflex response to science. Robbins had to use a paragraph explain why his photo should be so cool, and he also hates you if you don’t get it off the bat.
4. Does this campaign change any of #3? I have to argue no. If I didn’t read both of their blogs, and I didn’t know this campaign existed, I would flip past it in a magazine. And I am in the demographic and I ooze interest in science! I have read papers by most of the scientists featured! But it doesn’t fail for me because science should be inherently cool. It just doesn’t convey its message, and it doesn’t connect science to anything at all. As my friend JL Vernon points out:
. . . if you want to put scientists with rock stars, perhaps the next stage should be actually putting the science on display rather than unrelated scientists. I’d like to see the actual scientists behind Rock ‘N Roll represented in the ads. What is the science of electric guitar? Who invented the amplifier and what kind of science is necessary to put on a rock show? Who are the scientists behind Bret Michaels’ youthful looks?
That’s where the cool is. Show readers why these scientists relate to something else that they find cool. Relating them visually to a celebrity in a photograph does nothing but confuse them, or worse, make them ignore the effort outright. Sadly, a GQ ad spread isn’t going to be a very good venue for this.
Given an opportunity, and a context that rings true to their own lives, laypeople can find science cool on even the smallest scale. Context could be some other interest they have, some demographic they relate to, visual appeal, art, even sex. But RSOS will probably not succeed because it doesn’t create that context. Celebrity is not automatic context unless you are selling something, and there’s nothing for sale here. Except ad space for Geoffrey Beene.
Final score? It’s a tie. Mooney is right that Robbins can’t claim science’s divine right to cool. Robbins is right that the message is lost, and could have been done in a better way. But since he called Chris names, and doesn’t even celebrate Thanksgiving, Mooney gets the drumstick!
Final thought: I sincerely hope that any impact assessments of the campaign prove me wrong, but I am not holding my breath. And I don’t know what the right campaign would look like, but this isn’t it. Hopefully this can be used as a learning experience for all.
GOP Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) is disgusted with his party’s attitudes toward climate science, and he isn’t gonna take it anymore. This is big news coming from the Republican party. The only problem is that Rep. Inglis was defeated in a primary battle months ago and is closer to packing up his office than he is to passing any climate legislation. What’s worse is that this statement came during a ceremonial farewell speech of sorts in a House subcommittee meeting on climate change, not during the campaign. Here’s the highlights of the transcript:
Your child is sick — this is what Tom Friedman gave me this great analogy yesterday — Your child is sick. 98 doctors say treat him this way. Two say no, this other way is the way to go. I’ll go with the two. You’re taking a big risk with those kids. Because 98 of the doctors say, “Do this thing,” two say, “Do the other.” So, it’s on the record.
And we’re here with important decision to be made. And I would also suggest to my Free Enterprise colleagues — especially conservatives here — whether you think it’s all a bunch of hooey, what we’ve talked about in this committee, the Chinese don’t. And they plan on eating our lunch in this next century. They plan on innovating around these problems, and selling to us, and the rest of the world, the technology that’ll lead the 21st century. So we may just press the pause button here for several years, but China is pressing the fast-forward button . . .
They plan on leading the future. So whether you — if you’re a free enterprise conservative here — just think: it’s a bunch of hooey, this science is a bunch of hooey. But if you miss the commercial opportunity, you’ve really missed something . . . I’d encourage scientists who are listening out there to get ready for the hearings that are coming up in the next Congress. Those will be difficult hearings for climate scientists. But, I would encourage you to welcome those as fabulous opportunities to teach.
It’s clearly a tragedy that not only did a statement like this come far too late to make a difference, but the man who made it was essentially run out of his party’s tent on a rail – a rail one can only assume was excavated from an abandoned coal mine in West Virginia.
I think that here are some real positives to be taken from this swan song, though. First, this is a GOP member who maintained a 93% rating from the American Conservative Union. There are likely many more bona fide members of the Republican party out there who strongly support climate science consensus, although hopefully they will not also need to be on their deathbed to make it known. There are considerate, intelligent conservatives in our nation who see this as a serious threat to our national well-being, do not pander to the extremes of their party, and want to take action (or at least support scientists).
Furthermore, the approach that Rep. Inglis takes with this statement is not as a simple appeal for science, or as a doomsday scenario on the effects of climate change. He actually suggests his critics go ahead and dismiss the science for a moment, to focus only on the “Free Enterprise” and economic aspects of this battle. He explains (correctly) that China is not waiting around for us to take the lead in green technology and the energy economy of the future. They are building a building in a week while we are still arguing about the blueprints, so to speak. China is a nation that spends $12 million an hour on green energy, and Rep. Inglis is right that they will eat our lunch and then sell it back to us.
Taken together, I think that statements such as this one should help shape the future of climate science policy, at least in front of a split Congress. Rep. Inglis’ final warning to climate scientists is a prescient one, and the battles in GOP-led committees are sure to be comically frustrating for defenders of sound science. And although I wouldn’t support playing the “pretend the climate science is hooey for a moment” game that Rep. Inglis invokes, shaping scientific arguments with elements of free enterprise and a healthy dose of Chinese economic alarm-ringing shows promise. Of course we don’t know how this statement will resonate with the surviving GOP members (my guess is about the same as a fart resonates in church). But this man is a staunch conservative, and it got to him.
So there’s hope, and climate scientists should have much more than their bar graphs ready.
(above video from Think Progress)
Just a couple tidbits to follow my post yesterday about Bill Nye fainting at USC and the Bystander Effect. A Tumblr follower of mine was in the audience during the whole episode, and this is what she had to say:
Everyone just thought at first that it was a joke. Every other word from his mouth that night was a pun or joke of sorts, and so I thought he was making a slapstick joke about gravity, or something like, “This is such a good idea that it just knocked me out!” It wasn’t until he stood back up, asked how long he had been out for, and was leaning against the podium for support that I realized he was serious.
And after everyone realized that he actually did pass out and it wasn’t part of his act, there were several people who helped him, offered him a chair, and medical help was indeed called.
The ushers had to make him stop his presentation and go get checked out by the EMTs; he didn’t want to leave the stage.
Out of the 1,000+ plus audience member who were in the auditorium, only 7 or so were in the front row on the side near him, and so the ones who were tweeting were likely in the balconies or not in a practical position to help.
Anyway, hopefully we’ve all gotten the incendiary quote-usage out of our system (I’m looking at you here, LA Times).
Let’s take a chill pill, folks.
Legendary TV science personality Bill Nye gave us all a bit of a scare when he collapsed during a presentation to a few hundred people at USC on Tuesday night. Apparently, Nye was weak due to exhaustion and a busy day’s schedule of various media appearances. According to Twitter accounts, he was (ironically) discussing gravity at the time of his fall.
When this news broke last night on the LA Times’ “LA Now” rapid news blog, included was a quote from an audience member named Alastair Fairbanks:
Nobody went to his aid at the very beginning when he first collapsed — that just perplexed me beyond reason. Instead, I saw students texting and updating their Twitter statuses. It was just all a very bizarre evening.
Because this is news on the internet, this story was picked up this morning by various other news outlets in order to fill their content streams while finishing coffee, and this quote made into a vast majority of those secondary reports. Again, because this is news on the internet (with comment submission forms!), people pounced upon this quote as a sign of the slow demise of our culture and humanity. People texting and tweeting instead of helping this man . . . how could they? Some choice reactions, just from the LA Times comment section (other news outlets showed similar reactions):
-If that report is true that students were more preocupied to text their buddies about the incident than offer a hand of help. My goodness, how far have we digress as a society. speechless
-Our society is failing miserably….
-That’s what America has come to, it is more important to update twitter and facebook about something than to actually get in there and help… truly sad
-No one went to his aid? What’s wrong with you people out there in California? Are your minds numb to compassion?
Now there may be plenty wrong with people “out there in California” , but this has little to do with it. Even today, tweets were tweeted that focused not on the fallen Nye, but on the reaction of the audience. (I had an exchange with @PMJaniszewski about that message there, so he gets what I am about to explain).
Twitter and Facebook seem to be increasingly convenient targets for some who feel our social interactions have become cheapened and disconnected thanks to social networking. What we witnessed in the case of Nye, though, is not the fault of social media. Rather, it is a well-documented phenomenon termed The Bystander Effect.
Anyone who has taken emergency preparedness classes or CPR training will be familiar with this aspect of human behavior. In my Eagle Scout training, we were taught that in case of emergency where medical help is required, never say into a crowd “Hey, someone call 911!” You point a person out, ask their name, and direct them to call 911. A trained responder is educated to not only take the initiative to give aid, but also to break through what social psychologists call “the bystander effect”.
First demonstrated in the late 1960′s, the bystander effect is based on two underlying tendencies of humans in crowds. First, people observe the reaction of those around them to see if others are taking action. Next, based on another behavioral model called diffusion of responsibility (this might seem familiar if you’ve ever been assigned to work with a group of 20+ people on a project without direction) , an individual assumes that someone else has already done something. You may have even done something similar if you ever witnessed a car accident, assuming those involved would call the police. Tweeting and texting had nothing to do with their inaction, other than to give their idle hands something to do to pass the time. Or maybe they were making “Nye-agara Falls” jokes on Facebook.
These behaviors aren’t conscious choices, they are just herd mentality manifesting itself at very inopportune times. I am no social psychologist, but I would argue that someone sending a Facebook update when something like this happens is actually proof that social media are a blessing in this situation. Imagine an audience frozen in fright as an armed gunman walks in the auditorium. A tweet or two could go a long way in an emergency.
Famous examples exist where idle bystanders have led to great injury. The New York subway system had to invest in an entire campaign to urge riders “If you see something, say something!” It’s unfortunate that no one jumped right on stage and fully triaged Mr. Nye, carting him off on a litter fashioned from auditorium chairs lashed with shoelaces. But that’s what crowds do in emergencies, they freeze. Twitter, Facebook and text messages had nothing to do with it.
At least tomorrow there will be something else to complain about on the internet, right news commenters?!
Like many Americans who tend to vote more blue than red (okay, I can’t remember when I ever supported a GOP candidate, but that’s beside the point, at least in this case), I was disappointed by Tuesday’s election results. I certainly wasn’t as disappointed as I could have been (had there been a GOP Senate takeover), but it was as frustrating a shitshow of economic angst as I’ve ever seen. Moreover, the GOP was able to extend that wave of voter anger to gubernatorial and state lege elections, and they now hold 24 governorships and 54 state legislative chambers around the country.
This wasn’t exactly a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to polls for the past few months, and I certainly wasn’t shocked when I read those numbers Wednesday. In regard to science education, though, something that happened in Texas did shock me. Two moderate and well-qualified educators (Judy Jennings and Rebecca Bell-Metereau) were soundly defeated in State Board of Education races by conservative candidates (they also happen to be Democrats). After
months years of shenanigans rarely found outside of a gypsy carnival, apparently Texans felt it appropriate to reward the conservative bloc of the SBOE by electing Republican candidates.
The circus antics and ideological battles of the Texas SBOE are well documented over the past few years, and they were certainly highlighted with the recent battle over the teaching of evolution in science classes. Having sat in on those hearings, and as a scientist, it was abundantly clear how little regard was paid to the opinions of educators and experts when it came to deciding how our children would be taught. Certainly, when fallen chairman/dentist/non-teacher Don McLeroy was defeated by a primary challenger this year, it seemed that a moderate tone could shape the next incarnation of the board.
Now, full disclosure – I met defeated Democratic candidate Rebecca Bell-Metereau, and I have publicly stated that she is not only intelligent and respectful of science, she is a super nice person. So I am biased. But her wonderful persona is not why she should have been elected (trust me, nice people have no place in a SBOE hearing). Her experience as an educator and her defense of evidence-based science curricula is, however. It is now unlikely that there will be a serious challenge or re-analysis of either the social studies or science standards in Texas. This means that students in Texas will likely have to continue discussing the “strengths and weaknesses of evolution” an idea that, in addition to being absolutely meaningless, has been refuted to the nth degree by expert scientists and educators.
Some have said that this SBOE election sent a message that Texans don’t want Dunbars and McLeroys deciding their children’s education. I disagree. In a race where most people are simply ignorant (sorry, but most people just don’t follow this level of elections) of who they are voting for, they will choose the party they are most comfortable with. It’s nothing new in SBOE races, and this year was subject to the double-curse where being a Democrat in Texas was on par with having three heads and a Communist party membership card.
Now we have a GOP trifecta controlling Texas politics (Governor, House and Senate) and redistricting is right around the corner. All 15 SBOE seats will be up for election in 2012, and something tells me that the lines aren’t going to be drawn in a more friendly manner the next time around. I don’t mean to say that a GOP SBOE member can’t be a sensible defender of evidence-based science education, but when the most extreme elements of a party become its most powerful ones, the calculated moderate is the first casualty. Any additional anti-science energy directed at Washington (ahem, climate science hearings, anyone?) will certainly make the problem worse here at home. So you’ll pardon me if I don’t do cartwheels for the immediate outlook for science in Texas schools.
It’s going to be a long battle in the next couple of years to ensure that qualified educators and science supporters continue to have a place on the board, that the opinions and recommendations of scientists actually make it into education standards (shocking concept, no?) and maybe even that being a Democrat in Texas becomes something less than a diagnosis of political leprosy. It’s your kids’ future . . . just once try to put the right people in charge of it.