There is a hauntingly dystopian headline in the September issue of Harper’s Magazine: “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school.”
According to the article itself, the dehumanizing element of the school system (especially universities) is actually its focus on producing businesspeople and “ensuring that the United States does not fall from its privileged perch in the global economy.” But “nothing speaks more clearly to the relentlessly vocational bent in American education than its long-running affair with math and science.”
The problem with that relationship, according to the essay, is that the sciences are unlikely to produce “the kinds of citizens necessary to the survival of a democratic society”—which is to say, those who stick up for democratic as well as personal values. Because the sciences try to explain the material world rather than how one should behave in it, they are “often dramatically anti-democratic,” the argument goes.
The essay, by University of Chicago English professor Mark Slouka, might seem like an embittered defense of the humanities. Perhaps it is. One could easily argue that the sciences are, in fact, quite effective at teaching students to value human life and the natural environment. Slouka’s characterization of the sciences as having an “obsessive, exclusionary, [and] altogether unhealthy” relationship with the educational system seems especially overwrought. (At one point, Slouka himself admits the risk of sounding “either defensive or naïve.”). Nonetheless, the assertion that the sciences “have no aptitude for,” or “connection to,” democracy is worth contemplating.
Consider, for example, Rajendra Pachauri’s recent statement that he supports a goal of stabilizing the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide at 350 parts per million: “As chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) I cannot take a position because we do not make recommendations,” he told Agence France-Presse. “But as a human being I am fully supportive of that goal.”
Backing a target that would require political action compelled Pachauri to differentiate his roles as “a scientist” and “a human.” Such things make Slouka’s hypothesis, about the “dehumanization” of students, seem less dystopian and more realistic. While Slouka would criticize the necessity of such bifurcation, however, he might applaud Pachauri’s gumption. The IPCC says that a higher concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide—450 parts per million—is safe. Going with 350 puts Pachauri in the camp of controversial NASA climatologist Jim Hansen, who was arrested this summer during one of several recent protests against the coal industry he has participated in. Even Hansen was reluctant to step of out the scientist’s traditionally apolitical shell for a while, however.
“As recently as the George W. Bush Administration, Hansen was still operating as if getting the right facts in front of the right people would be enough,” Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in a recent New Yorker profile, detailing the slow, but steady intensification of Hansen’s activism.
Will Hansen and Pachauri’s advocacy sway reluctant individuals in Congress, industry, and the general public to take climate change seriously? According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, Americans have a great deal of faith in scientists. But in the case of climate change and many other fields—from genetics to nanotechnology—there are factors that diminish that confidence.
A number of news stories in recent months have focused on the need to better understand the cultural, psychological, and religious factors that influence people’s responses to scientists and their research. A cover story in Seed magazine, for example, recently called the social sciences “The Last Experiment” in the quest for solutions to global warming.
The educational system may still favor the hard sciences over the humanities, as Slouka contends, but at least there have been a number of recent efforts to make scientists more engaged citizens.
In an upcoming paper (pdf), science communications experts Matthew Nisbet and Dietram Scheufele argue that scientists must learn to better explain their research in ways that are relevant to different communities’ lives. Much like Hansen in his early years, scientists are wont to believe that the “facts will speak for themselves,” Nisbet and Scheufele argue. Thus, “when the relationship between science and society breaks down,” scientists often rush to blame public ignorance of science. In doing so, they ignore the “far stronger influences on opinion … such as ideology, partisanship, and religious identity.”
Nisbet and Scheufele acknowledge their critics, who have “argued that scientists should stick to research and let media relations officers and science writers worry about translating the implications of that research.” That would be the ideal situation in an ideal world, Nisbet and Scheufele concede. In reality, however, politicians and the public often seek scientists’ opinions on matters of policy and government—so scientists should know how to explain the import of their work and their knowledge effectively. They cannot, as Slouka put it, “keep to their reservation.”
Still, scientists must eschew anything that smacks of a “top-down persuasion campaign,” Nisbet and Scheufele warn. To “democratize science,” they must engage the public during the formative stages of research, so that the public doesn’t feel like anything is being foisted upon society. Nisbet and Scheufele advise using a variety of media platforms—blogs, online video, social media, new documentary genres, and storytelling techniques such as satire—to accomplish that goal. New forms of collaboration will also be necessary.
“Government agencies and private foundation should fund public television and radio organizations as community science information hubs,” they write. “These initiatives would partner with universities, museums, public libraries, and other local media outlets to share digital content that is interactive and user-focused.”
That might worry Slouka, who is leery of the sciences’ “symbiotic relationship with government, with industry, with our increasingly corporate institutions of higher learning.” Indeed, there is already some worry within the journalism community about groups like the National Science Foundation “underwriting” a variety of current media projects. A recent paper in Nature Biotechnology, on which Nisbet was co-author, acknowledged “the danger … of this type of public engagement emphasis becoming too conflated with marketing and public relations.”
In the upcoming paper, Nisbet and Scheufele make a point of reiterating that framing scientific communications in terms of people’s cultural, ideological, or religious concerns should never attempt to “sell” science to the public—only explain its relevance, good or bad. In fact, their call for a “more empirical understanding of how modern societies make sense of and participate in debates over science and merging technologies” resembles Slouka’s plea to “humanize” the educational systems. Gathering the data Nisbet and Scheufele are looking for would mean more work in the social scientists and humanities.
If it can save Rajendra Pachauri or any other scientist from repeating the ridiculous bifurcation ritual, it’s certainly worth a shot. After all, if he has to humanize in order to state his mind, does he have de-humanize in order to lead the IPCC? That would be sad.Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.