Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Peter Gleick and “The New McCarthyism”

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).


  1. Hi, Alex.

    Great post - thanks. I wish I had as much faith in the "public" as you do.

  2. There will always be those who refuse to accept anything other than their own preconceptions about the world regardless of the evidence to the contrary - look at our last president and vice-president for a perfect example.

    But I do have faith that the average person can understand the facts as long as they are presented in an accessible format. The problem is that most professions have their own languages which are the functional equivalents of secret handshakes. You have to be "in the club" to understand what anyone is talking about.

    My own profession is the perfect example. Lawyers speak in "legalese." It is english, but it's also almost incomprehensible to anyone who didn't go to law school (funnily enough first year law students are the most likely to drop legalese into their everyday conversations - as if they are showing off their new membership in the club). And that is a terrible shame given the important role of the law in our daily lives.

    Science is no different. But again I believe the public is interested and willing to learn. Proof of that lies in the success of books like "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking. Complex cosmology isn't something you would expect to fire the imagination of the common man (or woman). But Hawking made the topics accessible to the average person, and the result was a book that sold more than nine million copies.

    In the context of water, we need "A Brief History of Water". (We could also use "A Brief History of Climate Change" while we're at it.)

  3. To me, partisanship is a far more serious problem than fear. And this post provides an example. Why no mention of Bill Moyers or Kieth Olberman? Or Sen. Kennedy (see e.g., speach about Judge Bork)? Why make an allegation about President Bush? Can it really be true that he could never accept anything but his preconceptions? I doubt it. And it appears that the blogger has merely demonstrated his own bias in making a statement like that.

  4. (Because I have been accused of bias here I feel it necessary to disclose that I am an independent, with democratic leanings on social and environmental issues. On fiscal issues I lean conservative.)

    It's a fair point that I beat up on Republicans in this post. But while I certainly agree that there are those on the left who are no less guilty of distorting the truth for its own ends (and I said as much in my original post "And it is a vulnerability that is exploited ruthlessly by politicians and pundits of every stripe."), over the past several years it has largely been the right that has resorted to the politics of fear.

    So...am I biased? Bias is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary (4th. ed.) as, among others, "A preference or an inclination, especially one that inhibits impartial judgment." I stand accused of bias with respect to my (admittedly) cheap shot at former President Bush and Vice-President Cheney.

    I certainly don't think my judgment in making that statement wasn't impartial – but I suppose everyone thinks they are impartial whether or not they really are. Other than my say-so however, I think the only way to evaluate the statement is to see if the opinion has some rational basis.

    Of course I am sure there are situations where Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney were confronted with evidence contrary to their preconceptions - and that they changed their opinions as a result. But I was, as I hope is clear from the subject of the post, talking about non-trivial matters and science in particular. And with respect to those I think my opinion is reasonable. What’s more, in the area of science, there are about 15,000 scientists who agree me.

    In 2004 the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report titled “Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science.” One of the central theses of the report was the censorship of scientific information that the administration considered threatening to its own philosophies. (see page 2 of the report) Since its publication, the report has garnered support from more than 15,000 scientists. So, while the statement was probably a little too broad, in context I think the opinion was both reasonable and defensible.

    To address the more substantive issue raised in the post about partisanship, I agree that it is a serious problem. And one that both sides of the aisle are guilty of. But what is it? When I use the term “partisan politics,” I think of politicians who vote along party lines solely for the reason that it is the party’s position. But the electorates who put most of our politicians into office have been effectively radicalized by the primary process and the gerrymandering of voting districts across the country (both Democrat and Republican districts). That makes it very hard to get a moderate voice elected to Congress. Fixing those problems however would require the kind of bi-partisan effort that Congress may no longer be capable of.