I was in the audience yesterday at Arizona State for something they called the Origins conference, which attracted a lot of top scientists to talk about issues related to the origins of life and the universe. Towards the end there was a panel discussion that was less scientific, and more focused on "future of science" and "science and public policy" type issues.
What I observed in this discussion was amazing. Folks who likely set very high standards of proof and rational thought in their own disciplines threw all such concerns out the window when talking on these public policy topics. In fact, in the same sentence, I heard participants decry the rise of anti-scientific Luddites and then make wild, unsupported statements of their own that are laughably easy to disprove.
Here are some semi-random observations:
On Scientific Education: The panel went on and on about how schools are somehow failing to make science interesting and magical or whatever and are killing interest in science. One woman who used to work with Carl Sagan said every kindergartner should be taken out to look at the stars and think about alien races. While I am not one to defend schools too much, I do think that this gauzy view of education is a crock. For some number of years, kids can be engaged with science and nature with gee-whiz demonstrations and participation events and spurring a general sense of wonder, and elementary school teachers who can do so should be treasured.
But at some point, discipline has to kick in. To be good at physics, for example, requires a deep, deep knowledge of math. It means hours and hours and hours of stultifying work learning to solve various forms of partial differential equations (just to choose one example near and dear to my heart). Or, to choose another discipline, I just don't think that memorizing isomers in organic chemistry is ever going to be magical. I believe this happy feel-good approach to science is in fact part of the problem. Kids may get to age 13 thinking black holes are cool, but they are utterly unprepared for the work it is going to take to go to the next level of understanding. I think this is in some sense why so many hard science PHD's are foreign -- their culture and early education is preparing them better for the hard stuff that requires discipline to master.
On Obama: The panel members all agreed that the change in US administrations meant an enormous turnaround in the future of science in the US. Really? I understand the problems with the Bush administration, but does anyone really think that the quality and quantity of scientific endeavor in its full scope across the country is going to measurably change because Obama has several Nobel laureates among his advisers? It's like saying the Earth's rotation is going to measurably change if we all jump up and down at the same time. How can people who analyze complex systems for a living throw out everything they know about such analysis when then look at the government and the economy?
On Economics: I swear one of the panel participants got up last night and said that the US economy is tanking because we have failed to make investments in science, while other countries who have made such investments are doing well. That one sentence, from someone who is nominally a scientist, has four unsupported, and I think unsupportable, statements in one sentence: 1. That the US has somehow refrained from investing in science, against some unidentified benchmark (the past? the Platonic ideal?); 2. That current economic problems stem from this lack of investment, rather than, say from the housing bubble and poor banking decisions; 3. That other countries have made more investments in science than the US; and 4. That these countries are prospering while our economy is in the tank (who??). And everyone nodded their head at this. No one challenged this.
On the Politicization of Science: The panel lamented the politicization of science, which they say is a phenomenon that has arisen solely over the last 10 years. Ignoring this perversion of history, I was amazed at their solution. For example, one member lamented the pushback in teaching of evolution in certain public schools. Her solution, however, was for scientists to get even more political, ie to fight fire with fire. That seems to miss the point. I would have thought a better solution was to merely eliminate the politicization. For example, taking government out of the business of setting curricula, e.g. by allowing school choice, would eliminate the role of government in choosing sides in science teaching issues altogether. Why escalate the problem when we can eliminate it?
On the Profit Motive: The hostility to the profit motive was astonishing. One guy on the panel had the temerity to mention that maybe changes in scientific output were driven by changing expectations of making money from such investment. We then had to endure a 5-minute interlude where each member jumped in to assure the world that neither they or anyone they knew or anyone with any real credibility were driven by anything but a pure and idealistic desire to understand the universe.
Update: I have been reminded rightly that this panel does not necesarily represent the mass of the Origins effort, and in fact this panel was much more skewed to media and public policy. This post is solely in reaction to this one panel, and the rest of the conference was great, dedicated mostly to hard science, and a real learning experience for me.