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2014-08-06

The Academy and Action

I’m sitting as I write this in an academic meeting and trying to pay continuous partial attention to the speaker. As he relates his findings, I’m struck by the notion that these proceedings are now global in nature. I can say that because I’m sitting in a conference center in Maputo, Mozambique, with a couple of hundred participants from across Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America. The center offers simultaneous translation services between Portuguese, English, and French. Each seat sports a headset where you make your language choice. But the point of this essay is not just the global nature of the setting, but the universality of academic meetings. 

Simultaneous Translation Device
How to hear English--press the button
I’ve been attending these sessions off and on for over thirty years: Meetings that include the humanities (I’m really just a recovering historian) as well as scientific disciplines that include medicine and public health. They almost always feature a speaker or panel of speakers with others in the audience listening and sometimes asking questions at the end of a presentation. Almost everyone uses slides to complement their speaking part, sometimes just reading the slides. People in the audience used to daydream or doodle on paper if bored, but the advent of portable communications devices changed that. Now, people answer email, surf, revise documents, and even write blogs. But even that is not the point of this essay. 

I’m struck that in the United States, the scientific community seems to have become less relevant in the discussion and development of government policy. Granted, the scientific method of hypothesis and investigation often is not well understood by the general public—despite the efforts of countless middle school science teachers. The literature is routinely written in the passive voice because the intention is to let the evidence speak rather than the scientist. Public figures experienced in the combat of debate and campaigns may find such findings often tentative and difficult to follow if you are not a specialist. But that’s not the point of this essay. 

One of the hallmarks of the countless such sessions I’ve attended is the politeness of the proceedings. I can count on one hand the number of times there was controversy and verbal conflict in any of these sessions. They tend to be technical and filled with lots of data and evidence, but not much in the way of implications of these findings. Scientists often do not know how to communicate either beyond their technical specialty and certainly do not like the parry and thrust of the political arena. (Perhaps bringing classical debate to the scientific proceedings might liven things up.) I worry that the community has lost its voice in the public arena because of this civility. And that’s the point of this essay. 

We sometimes are governed by people with an active dislike for science and all the procedures and culture involved. I base that on the variety of evidence available online and C-SPAN recordings of our political leaders discounting scientific evidence in making policy. I also cite an instance when I attended a public meeting about basing a biomedical research facility in my home state. One of the speakers from the general public stood up to complain that she did not know what kinds of dangerous research might take place there. She literally spat out the word, “scientists”, to focus her rage, dislike, and distaste. How can we respond?  

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