All about the Information!!

Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, weighs in on the difference between how politicians use information and how scientists use information. And there’s that pesky word “truth” coming up again.

“I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, what’s happening in the U.S. is a wholesale dismantling of one of our most precious resources: the scientific ability to sort truth from fiction. This ability is what my website (and blog) are all about, so I intend to be more active in this field in the future.”

Although in the concluding paragraph, I would have used “fact” in place of “truth,” Phil Plait’s point is still very well taken, though, and that is that there is a distinct difference between how the typical politician and the typical scientist feels about truth.

His post reminds me of a certain scene in that cute movie, Sneakers. “There’s a war out there, old friend. A world war. And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets. It’s about who controls the information. What we see and hear, how we work, what we think… it’s all about the information!”

The war that scientists face today is not a war about the information, it is a war over the method we use to obtain it. On the same note as yesterday’s post, many politicians care only about claims, and not about supporting the way that you convert truths into falsehoods.

David Brin, on the other hand, suggests that there is one politician who cares about learning the facts…

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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

2 thoughts on “All about the Information!!”

  1. Hi Karl,

    Charles Pierce addressed this very problem in a wonderful rant entitled “Greetings From Idiot America” which appeared in the November 1, 2005 issue of Esquire magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

    “The rise of Idiot America is essentially a war on expertise. It’s not so much antimodernism or the distrust of intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter deftly teased out of the national DNA forty years ago. Both of those things are part of it. However, the rise of Idiot America today represents — for profit mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power — the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good.”

    Full article at http://www.aboyandhiscomputer.com/Greetings_from_Idiot_America.html

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  2. Thanks for the link, Keith. I had not read it before, but that was a good post, even considering how long it was. There were a couple parts that stuck out to me.

    “That faith is not fact, nor should it be, and that faith is not science, nor should it be, seems to have eluded Doctor Senator Frist. It doesn’t matter. He was talking to the people who believe that faith is both those things, because Bill Frist wants to be president of the United States, and because he believes those people will vote for him specifically because he talks this rot, and Idiot America will take it as an actor merely reciting his lines and let it go at that.”
    That is exactly what I thought about Frist’s comments, as I ranted about in Episode 4 of the Mindcast. Faith is not a subcatgory of fact or science – his words sounded like they were prescribed to him, and I see that Esquire picked up on that notion as well. Frist did not come up with them on his own. Some of the things he says are intelligent, and this was so stupid that it must have come from someone else.
    This piece also reminded me of someone I met a couple months ago. The Agnostic and Atheist Student Association (AGASA) at UC Davis asked me to speak and be their M.C. at a panel of professors that we organized to talk about evolution and intelligent design, and there was a freshman in physics who revealed that he did not believe that the Earth was 4.5 billion years old. He also said that his beliefs “come from science,” but when asked to substantiate how he arrived at the conclusion that the Earth was not as old as the science tells us, he kept dodging. I tried to explain radiometric dating to him, but no evidence I could bring up would dissuade him. I gave him my email address in hopes that he would contact me so I could send him a few links that were really good, and perhaps if I talked about radiometric dating on my show with a geology professor, I could tell him beforehand and he could call in with questions if he chose to do so. I never heard from him.
    The reason why this piece reminds me of him is that when someone else said that intelligent design was a movement that is trying to destroy science itself, he became shocked, and said, “hey, hey, I’m a physics major!” He seemed to think that being a science major, or eventually having a degree in science would make it not an attack on science, no matter what he believed. But it has been made explicit in the ID movement that the criterion of testability and falsifiability must be eliminated from science, which is anti-science. Now at the time, I scoffed in my head at his declaration that he was a physics major, considering that he had only been in college for about one month, and was probably taking general education classes and perhaps was enrolled in one course in classical physics.
    Maybe he took one physics midterm thus far, maybe by now he has decided that science is not his thing, or maybe he is still drumming along blissfully unaware that he, as a physics major, is going to have to learn the age of the Earth and the age of the universe, and maybe the whole thing might hit him hard and shatter his beliefs. Or, he might abandon his scientific leanings and hold to belief in a religious doctrine about the age of the Earth, and then we’d have a new Ken Ham or Phillip Johnson of physics, holding a scientific degree and having learned nothing at all about what makes science such an amazing thing.
    During the part about the museum-goers being earnest and taking thorough notes, I was reminded of how he reacted to the notion that HE was anti-science. No, he was not, as far as I could tell, but he was being led down a doctrinaire path thinking that what has been told by charismatic or trusted people is in fact science. It is those people who are the true “Idiot Americans,” not the people they lead astray.
    I am in this for people like him, who are pure in intent but dyed by the blood dripping from the fangs of those who would see the pursuit of knowledge shredded in the pursuit of money or power. But he is in a better position than most, because he at least had the bravery to come to our panel. What of the thousands that showed up to the creationist farces that UC Davis experienced last year?

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