Scientists Are Not ‘The Man’

23 Nov

Rob Beschizza at Boing Boing points a critical finger at the mainstream media for not challenging what Daniel Engber characterizes as a “willful” manipulation of words by politicians, like Senator Marco Rubio or President Barack H. Obama, to appeal to competing constituencies within even their own parties and those contested by both parties.

You know how some media love “he said, she said” journalism? The kind in which any issue, no matter the facts or relative degrees of extremism, is narrated in perfect equilibrium between two opposed, yet indistinguishably-intractable sides.

False equivalence should be a dodge journalists can recognize and challenge in their sleep. If for no other reason than that the current need to create false debates about economic issues, like tax increases vs. deficit reduction, makes debate tedious, why can’t journalists reveal an enthusiasm for controversy? But, both Obama and Rubio reveal what’s wrong with even combating illogical inferences and ignorance with even the laudable sort of information and appeals to the economic value of science to the economy Phil Plait so ably and admirably performs.

‘I’m no scientist.’

Both Obama and Rubio used that line, which is troubling enough. Driven by a media that cannot challenge false equivalences, the average person is seething with contempt for authority figures, in this case, “scientists”. Anti-establishment sentiments are an American tradition, from the Hells Angels, to the various empowerment movements of the 60s and 70s, to the Occupy movement. Evangelical Christians also voice their contempt for secularism, and in American history, nearly every current denomination was once rebelling against a more established organization or a political authority. Americans like to rebel, and in 2012, every generation has a cultural vocabulary from which to express dissatisfaction. Science, a vocation and organization whose avowed mission is to ascertain truth is the ultimate killjoy, the ultimate square, the ultimate mind-sucking villain.

People don’t like science for the very reason science exists and is so vitally needed. Science challenges us, as Michael Shermer has argued, because humans are pattern-seeking animals whose brains lack a baloney detector. People don’t like to admit they are often wrong – or in the case of this blog, I don’t get enough comments to challenge me. Scientists are the villains who try to slap us gently with pretty pictures of galaxies and the unavoidable realities about the diseases in our bodies. We need to get beyond lumping science into campaigns against “The Man”.

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