Saturday, July 01, 2006

Blogging and a Country Divided

There is a great interview with Razib from Gene Expressions over at Genetics and Health. Razib in case you don't know his blog, is a wonderful geneticist and one with a refreshing independent viewpoint. He has lots of wonderful comments about politics and science, blogging and also genetics of course.

I think his comments fit very nicely with the 20/20 program last night, A Country Divided on ABC. This program documents how the United States is becoming more divided and people on each side of the divide are no longer able to talk to each other. The program looked at the forces that are pushing us apart including the rise of blogs and other politically diverse media that enable people to look just at the news (used loosely here) from their point of view. The program also talks about how our politics also affects where we live.

I had not really thought about this but it is true. Certainly in my case, and I have said this to people, that I choose to live in Lawrence in part because of its liberal atmosphere as opposed to where I work in the next County. To be fair to Johnson County, it's not all that conservative and is represented by a Democrat because the moderate and conservative Republicans are seriously split. But Douglas County having a blue streak in a red state was a consideration in my decision to stay here. Access to KU was a bigger factor.

Bloggers are in an interesting position, because the nature of the medium is such that our personal viewpoints show through. That is after implicit in the term blog (from web log) and there are some fine non political science blogs such as Genetics and Health. But often science bloggers let their political and religious view points show through maybe a bit too much. For instance PZ Myers over another one of my favorite blogs pharyngula
advertises his blog as:

"Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal"

and that is OK. But I wonder how many people might get turned off by that message and ignore the science. Clearly he is comfortable with his conscious choice to mix his science with politics.

In a way that is not too dissimilar to what I try to do here. Only in my case I blog heavily about lots of other things because science is only part of what I am and I quite frankly felt that being a science blog was too restrictive for me even though science informs everything that I do. In the 50's and 60's there was a lot of discussion about the two cultures - the humanities versus the sciences and I think we have gone a long way to breaking that false dichotomy, down at least in the academic world, but the society at large has become a psychic Gerrymander of political and cultural groups whose members slide past each other at work and drive past each other on the interstates and yet never really talk to each other.

Razib makes a good point in the Genetics and Health interview:

"One must separate norms, the overarching goals, and the day to day method. I don't think politics, aside from ubiquitous social politics, matters in science on the everyday level, but in terms of emphasis and orientation what your goals and values are seem entirely relevant. If scientists accepted that a zygote was a human being, and that human life is inviolable, then that has public policy implications in terms of stem cell research (one example among many in regards to fetal tissue research)."

But if we are so Gerrymandered that we as a society cannot come to some dare I say compromise on these value issues, get away from the absolutism of our little group, how are we going to deal with these large issues of public policy. We have to realize we are never going to have a perfect society from our individual points of view, so what we need to do is let go a little bit for the sake of having a working society. I know, easier said then done. But if we want a functioning civil society we have to try, liberals and conservatives, authoritarians and libertarians, gay and straight, deists and theists and atheists.

How do we do this? I think a big part of the solution is honest critical thinking. Often times, bloggers will come up with a question, leave it unanswered as a rhetorical device to undercut an opposing point of view. I see this all the time. For instance Big Simon in his really cool blog recently took on Al Gore's documentary on Global Warming and in a post that he files under lies says:

"Al Gore'’s new movie, The Inconvenient Truth, is in the theaters now, and liberals, treehuggers, and disciples of The Way of Clinton are absolutely eating it up. But the truth behind this "Truth"” is that it'’s all based on a lie - the lie of global warming and the destructive effects we, human beings, have on our world.

Don'’t get me wrong: We pollute, and sure, we should stop that. I am convinced it is having some negative effects on the biosphere. But to believe we are the cause of some great phenomenon like Global Warming, well, that'’s giving us a bit much credit.

Why do I say that? Well, Greenland, of course.

A thousand years ago, Norsemen were harvesting grapes in the fields of Greenland. In more recent times, however, explorers have unearthed several World War II-era planes that crashed in 1942. They were found under 268 feet of snow.

How'’d that happen in Greenland got warmer?"

Good question, but notice the rhetoric. He leaves the question as open ended without even bothering to think abut what might be going or even looking to see what is happening with the Earth's climate. Now to be fair, Big Simon is not a scientist, and a blogger's time is limited, but with the wealth of recent information about climate it seems he could have made a stab at answering his own question. Calling Al Gore a liar on the basis of an unanswered question is disingenuous at best.

Here are some links to the science:

NAS study

Spencer Weart's The Discovery of Global Warming

The upshot is that one cannot extrapolate from what happens in one part of the world, say Greenland, to global temperatures and while global temperatures were warm around 1000AD, they were not probably warmer than now; though there is still uncertainty about that. Big Simon and other global warming skeptics might do well to at least examine these graphs about global temperatures discussed in the NAS study. Note that the recent spike in inferred global temperatures is well above the earler warming that affected Greenland. Then read the NAS conclusions concerning about the temperature data. The conclusions are couched with standard scientific cautions about the uncertainty of the data, but independent temperature estimates detailed in the NAS study point to the reality of the spike in glbal temperatures since the mid 19th century.

The message is clear. Don't leave questions hanging..OK? Asking a question is part of critical thinking, but leaving a question hanging without attempting to deal with it is not. Rather that is merely a rhetorical trick, one that unfortunately bloggers of all stripes use. And it is a technique among many others that serves only to further divide us and prevent us to having the important converstaions we must have if we are to survive long term as a civilization.

Update Razib provides a thoughful response to me.

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