Update: If you would just listen to the facts…

Janet Raloff, a friend of mine and a senior editor at Science News, has weighed in on the topic of how scientists can communicate effectively with the public on divisive issues such as climate change. In her May 29 online article, Climate skepticism not rooted in science illiteracy, she reports on an interview with Dan Kahan of Yale Law School, one of the authors of the Nature Climate Change article I cited in my previous posting. Raloff explores several approaches to interacting with a polarized public in her May 30 follow-up article, Depolarizing climate science.

What comes through most strongly in these articles is that divisions occur when scientific findings have a direct relevance to things that affect us every day, or findings that could make significant changes in our everyday lives. As far as I know, The Heartland Institute has not posted any billboards comparing people who believe in black holes or the law of gravity with Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. We accept these things because we can do so without making any changes in our daily routines.

Raloff cites political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who states that some of the most science-literate critics will listen to experts only to generate compelling counterarguments. What’s stopping climate scientists from doing the same thing — listening to the most rational, articulate deniers and opponents of climate change legislation in order to scope out what matters most to climate change deniers and formulating compelling counterarguments of their own?

Disruptive innovation is another possible approach — one that sidesteps the battleground altogether by providing people with alternatives that they adopt readily because they see a clear benefit to the new technologies. After all, no one waged a political war against paper phone books, wristwatches, or the Sony Walkman, and yet those things have almost completely fallen out of use by Americans under the age of 30, in favor of smartphones, smartphones, and smartphones. The main problem with this approach is that disruptive innovations are notoriously unpredictable. We cannot guarantee the timely arrival and widespread adoption of any particular form of alternative energy or resource-conserving capabilities.

So for now, we are stuck with learning to talk to each other. Which is something that we needed to do anyway.

No Scientist is an Island

Albert Einstein Memorial

Bronze statue of Albert Einstein at the National Academies building in Washington, DC. Photo by Nancy McGuire

The myth of the lone scientist working tirelessly into the night in his converted garage lab is compelling, but fictional (at least over the last 100 or so years), according to the panelists at How to Save America’s Knowledge Enterprise, a May 21 symposium sponsored by Future Tense (a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate magazine).

Take some of the iconic figures of science and technology: did they work alone?

  • Thomas Edison directed a research laboratory with as many as 200 researchers.
  • Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard worked out of a garage, but they were working under a fellowship from Stanford University, under the mentorship of Prof. Frederick Terman.
  • Albert Einstein was on the faculty at Princeton University.
  • The Manhattan Project is remembered in terms of a few of its most famous scientists, but at one point it employed roughly 130,000 people.
  • Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, benefited from knowledge he gained building mainframe computers at Hewlett Packard. He and co-founder Steve Jobs were members of the Homebrew Computer Club, a source of encouragement and inspiration.

My previous employer, High Performance Technologies Inc. (now a part of DRC) was the administrative partner in a consortium involving academics from Stanford University, Morgan State University, New Mexico State University, the University of Texas at El Paso, and the Army Research Laboratory. Army researchers drew on the academics’ expertise in high performance computing, and the academic researchers gained an opportunity to work on solutions to a set of real-world problems, with a defined group of end users.

Before that, I worked at the Office of Naval Research, which funds the Naval Research Laboratory. Even though the Navy has its own corporate laboratory, it still funds hundreds of research projects in academia and private industry. Why? Because the broader pool of expertise brings in novel solutions, and researchers working in academia and industry see problems from different angles than researchers in a government laboratory.

But that’s just applied science, you say. True, these projects tend to be very goal-focused. But even for purely basic or theoretical science, collaboration provides insights and ideas that transcend the limits of the lone scientist’s imagination. Not only that, but there is just no substitute for validating one’s theories against facts in the real world.

The panelists at Monday’s symposium agreed: research is not a solitary pursuit, but rather, an ecosystem — a densely linked network of scientists, engineers, and end users who constantly provide each other with feedback and new capabilities.