What Kind of Accountability Does the Public Expect From Science?

Climate change is an endlessly useful example for examining issues of public science, and it was Jasanoff’s preferred case study in her talk that I discussed in my previous post. As I noted there, the notion of a constitution is an important aspect of Jasanoff’s views on public science, according to which the rights and responsibilities of expert institutions – in particular their accountability to the publics they serve – are clearly outlined. One of the broad problems Jasanoff identified in the public aspect of climate change is that scientific institutions, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (arguably the most important of all institutions regarding climate change – the largest in any case), do not have explicit standards of accountability. Continue reading

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Some Thoughts on Jasanoff, “Science and Reason in the Public Sphere”: Symmetry and Realism

Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of hearing Sheila Jasanoff give a talk as part of York University’s STS Program’s Seminar Series, in which she spoke on the subject of “Science and Reason in the Public Sphere.” For good reason is she one of the more prominent scholars in STS. I have seen Jasanoff speak once before and have read a variety of her works, and overall, she strikes me as a careful, measured, and eminently reasonable scholar.

However, I find myself at odds with various aspects of her work, especially the broader ways she conceptualizes science, its public role, and “our” relationship to it as STS scholars, and a lot of these issues were prominent in her talk. What follows is not meant to be a rigorous critique, just a general reflection, or perhaps, that convenient way of deflecting criticism and meandering around ideas, a “provocation,” about some of the broader problems that I think surround these topics. Indeed, none of these issues are uniquely specific to Jasanoff, they are broad issues that permeate STS. Mostly, they are just things that I found myself thinking about while listening to her speak, which is testament to the fact that she gave an excellent talk.
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Why Don’t Climate Sceptics Actually Fund Research?

I have had many people tell me that I should read more George Monbiot, because I would really like him. Apparently we have similar ideas. Regretfully, I’ve never actually read anything he’s written until I was sent this piece. And I do like it. (A little too punchy and not enough parenthetical asides for my taste, but still good.)

In it Monbiot reflects on the staggering amount of money that’s been poured into (mis)information campaigns aimed at fostering scepticism among politicians and the general public about human-caused climate change. What’s more unsettling, argues Monbiot, is where the money is coming from and how it is being transferred. Continue reading

Scientism May or May Not be the New Creationism

In a recent article on the Scientific American website, science writer, (pop)-psychologist, and general “skeptic” Michael Shermer argues that Liberals are “at war” with science. Ignoring the preposterous war cliché that pervades silly writing about any sort of apparent disagreement, Shermer’s argument is supposed be novel and interesting because it is presumed that it is common knowledge that Republicans (Shermer’s argument is American-centric) have a general disregard, if not disdain, for scientific truth, while there is an attitude of superiority amongst Democrats because, contrary to Republicans, they give science its duly deserved reverence.

Don’t be too smug, says Shermer. While not as bad as Republicans, Democrats are in some regards a bunch of science haters:

The left’s war on science begins with the stats cited above: 41 percent of Democrats are young Earth creationists, and 19 percent doubt that Earth is getting warmer. These numbers do not exactly bolster the common belief that liberals are the people of the science book. 

Admittedly, to some the 41 percent of Democrats being young-Earth creationists is a little surprising, considering the way that evolution vs. creationism debates are framed in the United States. In any case, let’s leave this aside for the moment and consider the second statistic that Shermer provides. Citing such a relatively low degree of scepticism amongst Democrats as evidence for a proverbial “war on science” reveals much about Shermer’s totalising view of science, his completely unrealistic expectations of public understanding of science, and I would argue, his wholly inaccurate and generally problematic conception of belief acquisition. Continue reading

Making Sense of Junk Science Reporting

If you’ve read a few of Heather Mallick’s columns in the Toronto Star, you’ll know that her writing is often characteristic of the triteness and superficiality (masked by an air of folksy-wisdom) that one finds in many newspaper editorials (perhaps the same can be said about my writing).

The superficiality is certainly understandable – most readers of editorials get bored after about a thousand words (if not less) – brevity and conciseness are the name of the game in newspapers. Indeed, prolonged analyses of current issues and ideas have little place in most of the mass media – asides from the average reader’s attention span, there seems various other intersecting reasons for this (television and radio are structured by time restrictions; magazines and newspapers are limited by the contraints of space; propaganda is more effective as sound bites; there is arguably a lack of a general culture of critical reflection that would be amenable to sombre and thorough analyses, etc.). Continue reading