There is a wonderful post by Dr. Peter Gleick in his blog City Lights which I highly recommend. The subject, generally, is the use of fear mongering to destroy civil and rational discourse.
Dr. Gleick suggests that we need to filter out the fear mongers. I believe that the challenge posed by individuals like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the other pundits who spew vitriol into our public discourse is not in how we shut them down, but rather how we make them irrelevant.
We live in a country that treasures free speech. But when we have a right to a thing, it means someone else has the obligation to provide it to us. Your right to free speech is my obligation to let you speak, no matter how much I disagree with what you have to say. And that is a good thing. Both history and the modern world are replete with examples of countries and societies that don’t have a right to free speech. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in such a country.
So, given that we can’t – and shouldn’t – shut them up, how do we combat fear mongers? The answer is, of course, education. It is a truism that fear is bred from ignorance. The current healthcare debate provides the easiest example – death panels. Former Governor Palin stated publically that the healthcare reform plan being considered by Congress contained a provision wherein people would be denied healthcare by a panel of bureaucrats based on their “level of productivity in society.” Palin famously labeled these panels “death panels” causing an enormous public uproar. Because, let’s face it, few congressman much less their constituents had actually read the various reform proposals floating around Congress. Anyone who has knows that there was no actual basis in fact for her statement. (For an analysis of the issue see here.)
Ignorance creates the opening for the less scrupulous, and those who are less concerned with accuracy, to stir the pot. Science is particularly vulnerable to fear mongering because many scientific disciplines are complex and beyond the experience of the average person. This makes people vulnerable to fear mongers. And it is a vulnerability that is exploited ruthlessly by politicians and pundits of every stripe.
Thus it is critically important that the scientific community not only expand the boundaries of human knowledge and understanding, but also that they bring the rest of us along on the journey. Scientists, particularly in America, must become better at making their knowledge and discoveries accessible to the public.
Let the fear and hate mongers rant. And an educated public will meet their fear and hate with the only response it deserves – laughter (I happen to think Glenn Beck is hilarious).