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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Post by : Vijayalakshmi Kalynamaran edited by Henderson

When scientific issues that directly affect human lives – climate change, vaccination and nuclear waste- are discussed and decisions have to be made at the political level, there are times when scientists encounter resistance from members of the public who oppose the scientific basis for political action.  Why is this?  What is it that makes the non-scientist think that the scientific data is wrong, or that we should not take actions based on their findings?

One can think of the public’s lack of scientific knowledge or the inability of most scientists to effectively communicate their work to non-scientists, but recent findings have uncovered another reason, one that may not be as obvious as these two seem to be.

An article published in last year’s Washington Post looks at the reasons why people oppose scientific findings based on studies conducted by several U. S. organizations.  One of the main reasons people oppose scientific findings?  Because of their personal political views.

When the Pew Research Center conducted a poll of sentiments on the issue of global warming, it revealed that college-educated republicans are less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate science versus democrats or independents.

Research also shows similar findings when raising questions dealing with vaccination or nuclear waste storage. So, for highly controversial subjects as these, it seems that politics comes first.  Providing more information to groups does not appear to change their over-arching political views about the subject.

What these findings do provide scientists is information to approach the issue of opposition to science-based findings in a different way.  And it means that one of the first steps in presenting science would be to understand the underlying reasons for opposition.

What are the motives behind the opposition?  On the surface, a scientific explanation of the effects of global warming should be acceptable to the majority of the public.  The consensus espoused by the vast majority of the scientific community, including the IPCC,  should be enough to “seal the deal” for real conversations about actions to combat global warming.  In a perfect world, these explanations would move the public and policy-makers into action.

But the world is not perfect and the political views of the public, fortified by their legislative leaders, has more to do with their ideas than that of scientific consensus.

So what is the next step? Listen to the public. Yes, scientists should engage the non-scientists in a conversation, in–depth exploratory conversations, not involving debates.

This strategy has shown great promise in dealing with nuclear waste management in Canada. The nuclear management organization engaged the public in a conversation regarding the nuclear waste storage and listened to them for 3 years. The organization also promised that it will not dump waste on the community without its consent. As a consequence, even the critics engaged in the conversation were supportive of the efforts to come up with possible solutions of nuclear waste management.

This is just one example of how engaging the public in a constructive dialogue is the key to understanding.  As scientists, policy-makers, and the public learn to be more receptive of messages from each other, there will be many more.

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Post by Minna Krejci

This is a new one: the newly crowned Miss USA calls herself “a huge science geek.”

The "geeky" Miss USA 2011 (http://scienceblogs.com/deanscorner)

And there is at least some evidence that may back her claim.  In preliminary questions as part of the Miss USA competition, she supported teaching evolution in public schools — one of only 2 of the 51 contestants that did — by saying,

“I was taught evolution in high school.  I do believe in it.  I’m a huge science geek…I like to believe in the big bang theory and, you know, the evolution of humans throughout time.”

Later, on-air, she apparently also gave a “complex” answer regarding the question of legalizing marijuana (medically yes, otherwise no.)

Are things looking up for the next generation of geeky girls?  Will girls be less afraid to show their smarts, no longer fearing that it might make them less “cool”?  Even Miss USA geeks out about the Big Bang!

Of course, we should also consider what the standards for “geekdom” are these days.  It sounds a bit like Miss USA (Alyssa Campanella, from California) puts the Big Bang theory in the same group as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny – things to believe in because it’s fun to believe in them, not necessarily because the science points to them.  (I hope that’s not really the case, but you never know.)

Hm… I just searched for “the Big Bang theory” on Wikipedia and was directed straight to an article about the sitcom.  Not even a disambiguation page first!  I’m honestly not sure what to make of that.  While it’s great that science is creeping its way further into the entertainment industry (which is obviously highly influential), I hope that the actual science doesn’t get watered down during the process of making it accessible to the public.  We want simple, not simplistic.

"The Big Bang Theory" (http://whosnews.usaweekend.com)

Back to the Miss USA pageant (not to be confused with the Miss America pageant, by the way).  Campanella wasn’t the only smarty pants competing this year.  Nicole Poteet, a radiation protection engineer with an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, represented Virginia in the competition.  And what does she have to say for herself?

“Don’t tell anyone, but deep inside I’m kind of a dork.”

If Poteet’s a dork and Campanella’s a geek, dorks and geeks have sure come a long way from what I remember about high school!  Here’s to hoping that they’ll serve as good role models and help motivate and encourage tomorrow’s female engineers and scientists.

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Post by Minna Krejci

I first learned of Yucca Mountain when I was in college.  But it wasn’t a discussion about politics amongst friends or a presidential campaign that introduced me to the topic, and to the controversy.

It was a class, on materials science and engineering.  We were discussing corrosion, and my professor was a corrosion expert who happened to be involved with the Yucca Mountain project.  He was part of a team that was investigating the role of engineered barriers in waste isolation — in other words, they wanted to see how the passing of time and changes in the environment would affect the ability of a waste canister to completely contain radioactive waste.  It was an interesting problem in science and engineering, to consider what could possibly happen over time… and to design materials that would be resistant to forces that threaten to degrade the canister, potentially allowing hazardous radioactive waste to leach out into the surrounding environment.

And what did they find out?  I’m not sure how far they got, because the funding to develop the Nevada site as a repository for spent nuclear reactor fuel and high level radioactive waste was cut a few years later (in 2010 I believe).  Many Nevada residents and politicians opposed the project, partially because they felt it was unfair to have other states’ waste dumped in their state, and also due to safety and environmental concerns.

Although extensive scientific studies consistently showed Yucca Mountain to be a sound site for nuclear waste disposal, the Yucca Mountain repository program has been marred in political controversy since the site was selected in 1986.  The recent Fukushima incident in Japan has reignited much of the controversy surrounding the program’s termination, as a reminder that storing nuclear waste at nuclear reactor sites (as is often currently the case) may not be the safest option, and a viable alternative to the Yucca Mountain repository project has not really been identified.

What I find to be one of the most interesting (and disconcerting) aspects of the whole situation is that science and politics don’t seem to be getting along terribly well.  For example, a report released in April 2011 by the United States Government Accountability Office states that the project was terminated based on social and political issues, and not due to technical or safety issues.  At a hearing yesterday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko came under attack regarding his role in the death of the program: according to Representative Joe Pitts, “It appears that Chairman Jaczko has let politics trump science here, that he’s manipulated the process.”

There is no doubt that social and political issues are important in a case like this, and scientific results certainly can’t be considered in a vacuum and in the absence of other such considerations.  The tricky part is incorporating the scientific, societal, and political issues into the decision-making process in order to come up with a solution that appears to have the most merit overall.  Science tends to show up in political arguments fairly often these days — but are the politics supporting the science, or is the science supporting the politics?  It makes me nervous to hear statements like “politics trump science” — are politics and science competing?

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Post by Minna Krejci

A few weeks ago, Discover’s Science Not Fiction blog explored the hidden message in Pixar’s films:

“The message hidden inside Pixar’s magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood. In whatever form non- or super-human intelligence takes, it will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right. If we can live up to this burden, humanity and the world we live in will be better for it.” –Kyle Munkittrick on Science Not Fiction

One of the Pixar examples given as evidence was The Incredibles, which shows how human enhancement to beyond the human norm can lead to revulsion and alienation reactions.  The lesson, according to Munkittrick: “…human enhancement does not make you inhuman – the choices you make and the way you treat others determines how human you really are.”

We’ve always been interested in ways to improve our minds, bodies, or abilities.  But what happens as new technologies increasingly allow us to push the limits of our abilities to beyond what is “normal” for our species?  Do we limit human enhancement for fear of “enhanced” individuals acquiring an unfair advantage (in work, school, politics, athetics, etc.)?  Do we avoid regulation to retain our personal freedoms and rights to improve our own minds, bodies, and lives?

In a report funded by the National Science Foundation, the Human Enhancement Ethics Group discussed these kinds of issues in the form of 25 questions and answers regarding the ethics of human enhancement.  I recommend taking a look — it’s an interesting and relevant read, considering that we are already seeing these kinds of debates with respect to cognitive-enhancing and performance-enhancing drugs.  Is it ok for students diagnosed with ADHD to take stimulants to correct the “attention deficit,” but not ok for otherwise-normal students to take stimulants to help them focus better when studying for exams?  Where do you draw the line between what supplements/drugs athletes can and can’t take to improve their performance?

It sounds like we’ve got a lot of “why does he get one and I don’t” and “why can’t I use it just because she doesn’t have one” to look forward to…

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Post by Ruthanna Gordon

On-line and interactive is an interesting way to learn about science. But it can also be a useful—if uncomfortable—way to do science.

When most people think about science, they think about lab work: setting up equipment, running experiments, and gathering data. But science is also what happens afterward. Once data is collected and written up, the research usually undergoes peer review. This is not a complicated process. Journal editors send an article out to other researchers (usually 3), and ask them to comment on its merits. Reviewers can ask for further explanation, or additional studies to rule out competing explanations for the findings. Sometimes they decide that the study wasn’t sufficiently well-done to share with the wider public at all; more often they demand changes that make for stronger, if somewhat delayed, published work.

The Peer Review Process

Many researchers have questioned the peer review process. Reviewers may be biased, positively or negatively. They may miss problems because they are caught up in the excitement of an interesting finding, because they are distracted by their own studies, or because they are fitting the review into 37 free minutes at 2 AM. As Winston Churchill said of democratic government, it’s the worst possible system, except for all the others we’ve tried. But the collaborative hothouse of the internet opens up new possibilities.

These possibilities were highlighted late last year, when NASA-funded scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon announced her discovery of arsenic-based life in a California lake. This work had undergone peer review and been published in one of the world’s most prestigious journals, then brought to public attention amid intense hype. Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues were somewhat startled to find their work subjected to an informal, and often snide, supplement to the original review—but with dozens of well-informed reviewers rather than a handful.

Arsenic-Rich Mono Lake, Source of the Controversial Bacteria

There is an excellent overview here, but in brief: several scientists criticized Wolfe-Simon’s methods and measurements, questioning her conclusions. She, and NASA, responded by suggesting that the peer review process was not only important, but the only legitimate venue for scientific critique. They dismissed the input from blogs and Twitter—on the basis that it occurred on blogs and Twitter. And they used the journal’s prestige as a defense against the very real questions of fact raised by their critics.

There’s always some tension between science and scientists. Science works by constantly seeking evidence against claims, accepting only those which are supported by the observed state of the world. Technically speaking, every experiment should be a whole-hearted attempt to prove that one is wrong—because one can only be sure of being right when that disproof fails. Scientists, however, depend on rightness for their livelihood and reputation. If you successfully disprove all your hypotheses for several years, universities and grant-givers consider you a failure. Furthermore, scientists are human, and we like to be right.

The peer review process is intended as a counter to these human tendencies. It is not the only one possible: any expansion of informed debate and criticism is good for science. That the criticism is informed—that it comes from people who understand and are involved with the field in question—is important. That it come from a traditional venue is not. Online forums provide a rich environment for discussion, facilitating a more collaborative and extended critique than was previously possible.

Some scientists take deliberate advantage of 2.0 review. A few journals print any paper that appears to have valid methods, with review as an ongoing and public process. Other sites are devoted to “post-publication peer review.” Although these methods have their weak points, they have the potential to fill some of the gaps in the more traditional system. And as these innovations become more familiar, one hopes that more researchers will welcome them—and that their research will become stronger as a result.

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Post by Henderson

Whew!

There is so much science and technology news out there, it is literally making my head spin.

In recent news, AT&T is buying T-Mobile USA (good news for iPhone devotees, bad news for relatively cheap service), the NRDC found 42 disease clusters in 13 states, and the Tennessee House of Representatives passed a bill to teach creationism alongside evolution.

While each of these stories is monumental in its own right, the two biggest stories may have been buried with all the coverage of the impending government shutdown.  FYI, it didn’t shut down — but the next two stories were major reasons why there was so much contention about the budget in the first place.


#1:

On Thursday, in a 255 to 172 vote, the House of Representatives decided that the E.P.A. does not have the right to regulate emissions coming from industrial facilities.  A slap in the faces of the Supreme Court and the Obama Administration in one vote.

Background:

2007: In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court found that carbon dioxide and other emissions are “air pollutants” as defined by the Clean Air Act.  Therefore, the regulation of these emissions falls under the jurisdiction of the E.P.A.
2009
: Congress passed the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill.
2010
: The E.P.A. released new rules requiring that new or upgraded facilities use the best technologies for controlling the release of CO2 into the environment.

Central to the Obama Administration’s environmental policy is the curbing of greenhouse gas emissions and moving the US in a more “green friendly” direction.

Sources have said that the legislation won’t pass.  Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) has done his best to block this in the Senate, and President Obama has stated that he would veto any such legislation that passed his desk.

What is most important is the rhetoric coming from opponents of greenhouse gas regulation.  Texas Republican Ted Poe defended the bill by saying that the “E.P.A. is on a mission to destroy American industry.”  Really?


#2:

On Friday, the House of Representatives voted to overturn the F.C.C.’s net neutrality rules passed last year.

The rules prohibit phone and cable companies from favoring or discriminating against Internet content and services, including online calling services such as Skype and Web video services such as Netflix that could compete with their core operations. They require broadband providers to let subscribers access all legal online content.”

At issue is one question: who has the right to regulate the internet?

Furthermore, with regulation, what does it mean to sustain an open and free internet?

Check out FCC Chairman’s Julius Genachowski’s discussion of a free and open internet:

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