This is a series of posts inspired by the talk that Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum gave at the Beyond Belief conference "Candles in the Dark".
I wrote about that presentation yesterday, discussing two errors that I see in the ways some people talk about promoting science. The two propositions that I argued against are:
We need to make science relevant to people's lives.. Science is already relevant to people's lives. The degree to which they do not recognize or appreciate that relevance is responsible for countless deaths and a great deal of human suffering every year. The task is not to make science relevant, but to teach people of a relevance that already exists.
Science questions are relevant, but most political questions are not science questions.. Every political question is about making choices. The only institution with a proven track record for being able to predict the results of one’s actions is science. Science – or evidence-based predicting – is relevant to all political questions.
So, the question is: How are we going to get people to do a better job of applying science to these policy questions, so that we can get better results?
Answers to these questions can be categorized into two types; supply-side reforms, and demand-side reforms.
A supply-side reform is a reform that follows the model, "If you build it, they will come." It says that if you create a supply of scientifically relevant facts, people will flock to it and consume all that is available. Supply-side reformists say that we need to focus on supplying the people with a better understanding of science, the scientific method, and the conclusions that scientists have reached.
This is actually the practice, if not the philosophy, of the Science Network – the people who put on the Beyond Belief conference, and who post the videos on the web for all to see. They are attempting to engage in supply-side reform by supplying the world with the thoughts of those who come to the conference.
Typically, I consider supply-side reform to be a waste of time. Supply-side reform is like trying to push a cooked strand of spaghetti across the floor. Pushing does not do any good – the spaghetti simply twists and distorts itself, resisting any attempt to actually move it across the floor. That is, until the end that one is pushing on becomes the front piece of the spaghetti strand, and the action one is engaging in switches from being the push (supply-side) end to the pull (demand-side) end of the spaghetti.
Mooney pointed out that major news organizations are closing down their science and technology departments. They simply do not report on science and technology any more. Now, if supply-side reform had any merit, then the fact that there was once a supply of science and technology reporters means that the types of reform Mooney was talking about should have already taken place. The media was, once upon a time, supplying the public with more and better technological and scientific understanding of the world. But supplying scientific and technological information isn't enough.
In fact, supply-side reform is a waste of time.
Where there is a demand for science eduction, it is good to have somebody around ready to meet that demand. However, the success of a supply-side project rests in having a demand to be met.
I will have more to say on demand-side reform in my next two posts.