Science Divisor

So anyways, I was reading Chris Mooney’s essay “The Science Adviser,” about the poor luck Jack Marburger has had so far (getting appointed after the President had already made a host of bad decisions, having to defend said bad decisions, etc.) and what the next Presidential Science Adviser will have to do. One item from the second page warrants a discussion of its own:

Or consider another idea for elevating the science adviser position—and making it relevant to the modern media age: why not name a true science celebrity—a Steven Pinker, say, or an E.O. Wilson?

Are we worried that Pinker might sabotage the President’s information on math education for little girls? And OH NOES! What if the Science Adviser converts the President to TEH GROUP SELECSHUN?

. . . Sorry.

Continuing onward, then:

The latter presents an intriguing choice both mediagenically and politically. With his most recent book, The Creation, the Southern-born Harvard biologist has sought to reach out to evangelicals and stoke their nascent concerns about preserving the environment. At a time when the science world finds itself riven over just how far to go in advocating atheism and secularism, Wilson represents a less divisive approach, one with far broader appeal.

I wonder how “riven” the “science world” really does find itself. Yeah, I’ve got that scarlet A on the sidebar of my blog, so I know I’m automatically disqualified from talking about this, but still, let’s try to get a little perspective: you’ve got a handful of people saying one thing, a handful of people saying something else, and everybody else just hunkering over their lab bench and hoping their grants get renewed. Maybe “science world” isn’t the best term to apply here; “fractious cabal of science popularizers” might be a better descriptor.

But anyway, just how un-divisive is E. O. Wilson, really? First of all, he’s an environmentalist (no duh), and any environmentalist appointed to any position in government will draw the wrath of half the punditocracy (no duh, squared). Second, even if Wilson can reach out to people who like green trees and clear skies and furry animals, what about the stem cells?

Third, how trustworthy a person appears depends not just on what they say, but on where they stand in relation to one’s social group and hierarchy of authority. Even two authoritarian followers will clash with one another, if they are plugged into two different authorities. Just imagine how the chorus of the Right would treat Hillary Clinton, say, if she parroted the Right’s own talking points. Closer to the issue at hand, consider the case of “creation care,” the term employed by Evangelical Christians who have taken up environmental causes. Is simply doing a find-and-replace on your speeches good enough to make you a trusted friend of the creation-care family? Not according to the people close to the situation. Speaking “evangelicalese,” says Jim Jewell of the Evangelical Environmental Movement,

means politicians are talking about their own personal faith in some way. But they don’t hit on the political issues, like a pro-life platform, that have been important to evangelicals over the years. And when a politician just uses words to connect with the public, people will eventually find out that the candidate’s platforms are not really in line with what they believe.

As Blaine Harden of the WaPo discovered back in 2005,

evangelicals themselves — not such groups as the Sierra Club or Friends of the Earth, with their liberal Democratic baggage — are the only ones who can do the persuading.

It’s easy for an intellectual to see only the words on the page; the temptation is then to believe that a rearrangement of words will produce a friendlier message. But we see every day evidence that human beings are not so rational, that divorcing the content of a message from the speaker requires practice (else why would anyone attack evolution by smearing Charles Darwin?).

MORAL: Don’t expect to find a mediator.

POSTSCRIPT: If you ask me, the most mediagenic science communicators around these days are folks like Natalie Angier, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Danica McKellar, Phil Plait and Carl Zimmer. Which would you send to Washington?

POSTSCRIPT 2: Well, we certainly can’t rely on Mike Gravel to be our mediator. Just look at what this carbon-tax-advocating, stem-cell-supporting, Democrat of French-Canadian descent says about creationism:

Oh God, no. Oh, Jesus. We thought we had made a big advance with the Scopes monkey trial . . . My God, evolution is a fact, and if these people are disturbed by being the descendants of monkeys and fishes, they’ve got a mental problem. We can’t afford the psychiatric bill for them. That ends the story as far as I’m concerned.

It looks like Richardson has disqualified himself, too.

(Tip o’ the fedora to Phil Plait.)

10 thoughts on “Science Divisor”

  1. The idea of a science popularizer as Science Advisor to the Prez has its appeal. In a perfect world, I would love to see Timothy Farris in some kind of role, as he has both public and private sector experience, a broad knowledge and appreciation for science and the ability to communicate both to the public and academia.

    Having said that, let me lay it on the line here. Independent, thoughtful men and women who are career scientists or better-known for science popularization are probably not the best choice, because they will have already said or written things which are impolitic or easily misrepresented.

    E.O. Wilson is one of my heroes, but the moment his name is floated all the sociobiology crap will be sifted through to find examples of alleged racism, etc. Besides, Uncle Eddie is a little long in the tooth.

    No, what you need is someone who has achieved in science, but who switched to bureaucracy and who has some understanding of the weight lifting and making nice-nice that gets science funded in the first place. In other words, someone like Glenn Seaborg or, dare I say it, like a Frances Collins. Or, if you prefer an astrophysics type, a Daniel Goldin, a France Cordova, a George Blumenthal.

    I invite comments!

  2. So how much trouble would I find myself in if I chose a science fiction author as science advisor? David Brin would be at the top of my list. Name recognition, hard-science Ph.D., quite a track record in trend prediction, hell of a public speaker, and curmudgeonly enough to tick off everyone, if not evenly.
    Yeah… not a chance…

  3. Brin would be a good choice.

    I hear he’s hellishly busy these days, though, trying to write more fiction, so he might not be eager for a new time commitment. ;-)

    By the way, Phil Plait has turned the job down, saying “I’d keep telling them the truth!” It’s too bad: he’s always impressed me as a good writer, a clear explainer and a quick learner, and he’s carried himself well on radio and in video.

  4. Hey, I would like to have Brian as a Science Blogging Advisor, too. But do we also get to select a Math Advisor? Cause that’s exactly where I would put Danica McKellar. She walks high school students through math problems on her website. She teaches girls that math is not a bad thing to know. I don’t know, I just like her.

    For Science Advisor I don’t think we need to be so circumspect as to mollify the religious, but Neil DeGrassie Tyson has a great TV personality and shows his understanding of many fields of science through his own Nova program. Mikko Koichu has a bit of star presence. Lisa Randall. There are a ton of great people out there who could fill the role in a White House receptive to science advice.

    But we don’t get to vote, do we?

  5. You guys are too kind; I don’t think I said anything substantially different from what’s already been said elsewhere. If I were to take such a position, though, you’d have to come along with me, Blake.

  6. Why should it matter whether the Science Advisor is an effective popularizer or not? The position is ostensibly about advising the President on scientific matters – if a candidate can do that well, who cares whether they can talk to the public?

  7. Snarky response:

    Why do I agree with Chris Mooney when he says, “Any successful science adviser must also be a skilled communicator on behalf of science, to the president but also to the media and the general public”? Because it’s probably harder to explain science to a politician than it is to explain the same science to your average high-school student.

  8. What I just don’t get here: Is EO Wilson a “science celebrity”? Has anyone ever heard of him? Chris Mooney, the Framing Science Guy, and Seed talk about EO Wilson a lot, but I’ve never heard EO Wilson’s name mentioned by anyone other than those three sources and I’d personally not heard of him before the Framing Science Guy started talking about him. No idea who Steven Pinker is either. I’m sure that Wilson’s scientific work was important, but the thing is, that’s not what “celebrity” is about. For these purposes, “celebrity” means that non-scientists have heard of you.

    Am I just really out of it, or is it really the case that the main basis for EO Wilson’s “celebrity” at this point is Nisbet&co’s frequent advocacy of him?

  9. I’d heard of him, and actually met him, but I’m not a representative sample of the American public: colleagues of mine have done research in the evolution of altruism, so Wilson is kinda my colleague-once-removed. He’s probably one of the better-known names within evolutionary biology these days, but I doubt he has a decisagan of name recognition outside the scientific community.

    Now, I don’t think “celebrity” is an essential qualification for the job we’re talking about, but your point is taken.

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