What's driving lack of respect for scientists?
Public intellectuals are being badly treated by some of us, Rosslyn Beeby writes.
National Science Week kicks off this weekend, and all power to it. Now in its 14th year, the event claims to be one of Australia's biggest festivals with more than 1000 events across the country, from science-inspired comedy to serious stuff such as medical research, robotics, chemistry, astronomy.
It's a lot of fun, and science certainly needs a user-friendly public profile these days given the anti-science backlash occurring in some sectors of politics and the media.
In the United States, radio talk show host and political commentator Rush Limbaugh told listeners science is now "a home for displaced socialists and communists". Funny? Not when this is the country's highest-rating talk show and Limbaugh, a college drop-out and former top hits disc jockey, can command a $400 million media contract.
Consider the case of Arctic wildlife biologist Charles Monnett, who faces a US federal investigation for reasons that still remain unclear. The investigation is possibly linked to a scientific paper he co-wrote in 2006 about polar bear drownings, climate change and melting sea ice. The US Interior Department's Office of Inspector General has grilled Monnett about the article (the transcripts are online) and whether the account of four drowned polar bears after a storm in the Beaufort Sea was "scientifically sound" and even purposely skewed. The investigation has been denounced as "a witch hunt" and waste of taxes by the public service watchdog, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Could there be a connection between Monnett's investigation and a recent US federal court decision? The court backed a finding by government scientists that global warming threatens the survival of polar bears. Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled a decision by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to place the bear on the endangered species list because of melting sea ice "was rational given the facts and best available science".
In Australia, a posse of shock-jocks and media commentators - as well as politicians - are taking aim at scientists. "Tim Flannery - Professor Bullshit" screamed a blog headline recently doing the rounds via email. Only last week, a Sydney shock-jock was all a-flurry about his discovery that Professor Flannery lives (has done for well over a decade) in a house on the Hawkesbury River. The Australian newspaper took up the issue, publishing a Google Earth image of the location. A news report headlined, "Do as I say, not as I do: Flannery's all at sea", tried to link prior comments Professor Flannery had made about climate change and sea level rise with his home.
Is this how Australia treats it public intellectuals? Is this the future that awaits school children dreaming of a high-achieving career in science? Speak up on matters of public importance, make a commitment to public education - heck, be voted Australian of the Year and publish several award-winning science books - and your reward could be thuggish trashing of your reputation and invasion of your family's privacy.
What's fuelling these attacks on scientists? The global science journal Nature has suggested it's driven by "a suspicion of elites and expertise" mixed with religious anti-Darwinism and hostility to any form of government regulation. The journal points out that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, is just one timely reminder "of why the US government needs to serve the people better by developing and enforcing improved science-based regulations. Yet the public often buys into anti-science, anti-regulation agendas that are orchestrated by business interests and their sponsored think tanks and front groups."
In 1996, Scientific American journalist John Horgan published a book titled The End of Science, Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age in which he claimed the "great era of scientific discovery is over". He coined the term "ironic science" to describe research which, in his view, "resembles literary criticism in that it offers points of view, opinions, which are, at best, interesting, which provoke further comment. But it does not converge on the truth."
Basically, he's arguing scientists engage in research they know can't be empirically tested or proved to be true, even if they claim otherwise for the sake of appearances. Or in the parlance of shock-jocks, science is based on a lie. It's trumped-up trickery.
Greens science spokesman Adam Bandt warned this week that Australia risked becoming "a nation of pissants" if we continue to wind back support for science. He pointed out the Federal Government's contribution to research effort had fallen from 22.6 per cent of total expenditure in 2000-01 to 12.3 per cent in 2008-09. "It is not enough to profess a support for science, research and innovation unless we are prepared to back it up with funding," he said.
And with public respect for our scientists.