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Science in the Public Square

By Matt Impink on May 14, 2014 in Civic Blog
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This week President Obama released a new report on climate change with much hoopla in an effort to get some headway on the issue. He however, faces an uphill climb as Americans rank it well behind many other issues, a recent survey of Americans found that climate change ranked #14 out of 15 public policy issues in importance. Yet the White House and the scientific community are trying to change the narrative by being more aggressive on presenting the compelling evidence for global warming happening right now.

bill_nye_and_neil_degrasse_tysonToo often though, scientific evidence is drowned out by the political narrative of denial and doubt. John Oliver found the one-on-one climate debates often seen on television to be ridiculous given that 97.1% of scientists have said that human beings are contributing to global warming. He had fun getting Bill Nye and 96 other actors in white coats to yell at 3 deniers all at once. Beyond the comedic ridicule there is a major public question about what to do with the scientific data before us. In her recent blog post, Denise Robbins complemented Neil deGrasse Tyson for his his take on climate change during an episode of Cosmos:

In the latest episode of Cosmos, Tyson devoted the hour to the Earth’s history of changing climates and subsequent mass extinctions. He ended the show by forecasting the next mass extinction due to climate change, imploring his audience to break society’s “addiction” to fossil fuels:

TYSON: We can’t seem to stop burning up all those buried trees from way back in the carboniferous age, in the form of coal. And the remains of ancient plankton in the form of oil and gas. If we could, we’d be home free climate-wise. Instead, we are dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate the earth hasn’t seen since the great climate catastrophes of the past. The ones that led to mass extinctions. We just can’t seem to break our addiction to the kinds of fuel that will bring back a climate last seen by the dinosaurs, a climate that will drown our coastal cities and wreak havoc on the environment and our ability to feed ourselves. All the while, the glorious sun pours immaculate, free energy down upon us, more than we will ever need. Why can’t we summon the ingenuity and courage of the generations that came before us? The dinosaurs never saw that asteroid coming. What’s our excuse?

Tyson has beseeched the necessity of “scientific literacy,” particularly for those that make decisions on energy, security, transportation, and health, warning that the “scientific illiterate adults” are “in charge of things.” He has also decried those that “cherry-pick” science, saying “[s]cience matters in our lives for us to be better shepherds of not only our civilization, but the world.”

Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are likely the two most popular scientists in America and despite their entertainment chops are representing a growing sentiment in the scientific community that they cannot cede the public debate to surrogates any longer. Scientists must also become public advocates for their work. After a long period of autonomy and high public investment during the Cold War, scientists must stand up for their work in public and not just the academy.

Our lack of scientific literacy is an important barrier to any meaningful public policy to combat climate change. We all must be willing to discuss climate change and other scientific issues in the public square… most of all those scientists who know what the hell they are talking about.

meMatt Impink is a former US History Teacher and Education Policy Advocate. He is currently a Graduate Student at IU’s School for Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) in Indianapolis and curates the Civic Blog. He can be reached at mrimpink@iupui.edu and tweets @mrimpink.

Photo Credit: Jamie Bernstein; Creative Commons / Wikimedia Commons

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