January 3, 2016

A Slice of PIE: Where is Asimov When You Need Him? (Condescending Scientists Have Killed Science Reporting)

Using the panel discussions of the most recent World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane, August 2015, I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. This is event #3207 . The link is provided below…

Science Reporting: Science plays an important part of our lives. Our ability to understand science is dependent, in part, on how science is reported in the news. An on-going trend is the loss of science beat reporters, but also the rise of professional scientists as bloggers. How well is science reported in today’s new media? How might this change? What are sources of science news that you can rely on? Anne Hoppe (m), Frank Catalano, Janet Freeman-Daily, Charlotte Lewis Brown
(This essay is not in direct response to this event -- it just sparked a line of thought!)
When I think of the best science reporters – not the smartest, or best in their field, or with the most letters behind their names, or the most insistent that they are “right” – I think of Isaac Asimov.

“…professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books. Asimov was prolific and wrote or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards. His books have been published in 9 of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification.” (Wikipedia)

We have no Asimov today. In fact, I can think of no scientist-author-newspaper columnist anywhere…one that’s not condescending, that is. Currently, AGW warming alarmists have set themselves at the very forefront of science reporting hecklers. The people they heckle, unfortunately, are people who are NOT scientists. Try this on for size:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/justin-stoneman/post_868_b_720398.html

This one’s about obesity and stupid Americans. Or how about this one: http://news.discovery.com/space/astronomy/1-in-4-americans-dont-know-earth-orbits-the-sun-yes-really-140214.htm about how stupid Americans don’t know that the Earth orbits the sun. Or this one regarding democracy: http://blog.sfgate.com/politics/2012/03/09/scientists-say-america-is-too-dumb-for-democracy-to-thrive/. How about the simple fact that we’re psychologically messed up: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201407/anti-intellectualism-and-the-dumbing-down-america. And then there’s the Democratic Party’s American “whipping boy” – the GOP is stupid (by implication anyone who is a Republican is stupid…so roughly half of the US) http://www.addictinginfo.org/2015/12/18/obama-calls-gop-stupid-on-climate-change-even-far-right-european-parties-agree-video/.

This article, however, is both NOT par-for-the-course and well-done: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/04/opinion/sunday/playing-dumb-on-climate-change.html?_r=0

Not ONCE did Asimov begin with “Americans are so stupid” or “The GOP is so stupid” or any other deprecatory statement of ANY group of people. He educated. He wrote clearly and on everything. He educated without malice and with a sense of humor. He wrote quizzes that people actually took – my local “newspaper” still does them! (http://www.startribune.com/isaac-asimov-s-super-quiz/129322923/)

For a complete list of his work, go here: http://www.asimovonline.com/oldsite/essay_guide.html

As for his essays, “Though perhaps best known throughout the world for his science fiction, Isaac Asimov was also regarded as one of the great explainers of science. His essays exemplified his skill at making complex subjects understandable, and were written in an unformal style, liberally sprinkled with personal anecdotes that endeared him to a legion of faithful readers.”

Even as intelligent as he was; even though he knew he probably knew more than most of the people he met, he responded this way in the Fall of 1989: “I RECEIVED a letter the other day. It was handwritten in crabbed penmanship so that it was very difficult to read. Nevertheless, I tried to make it out just in case it might prove to be important. In the first sentence, the writer told me he was majoring in English literature, but felt he needed to teach me science. (I sighed a bit, for I knew very few English Lit majors who are equipped to teach me science, but I am very aware of the vast state of my ignorance and I am prepared to learn as much as I can from anyone, so I read on.)” (http://chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm)

Would that more science writers took Asimov’s stance; spoke more eloquently; AND judged less harshly, maybe the whole GMO issue, and AGW issue, and stem cell issue, and vaccine issue, and every OTHER issue regular folk respond to with fear; might never have come to BE issues if more science writers worked at educating people gently rather than with the “I HAVE A PHD AND SO I KNOW MORE THAN ALL OF YOU STUPID [choose your group] PEOPLE SO YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”(I actually had a person write this to me because of a blog post.) that I’ve seen so often in so many paper and online publications.

So, is there any science writer out there with the “spirit” of Asimov?

(PS – I picked the quote above because I am certain that scientists and writers who are most critical of “the rest of us” automatically assume that they would “of course” be with Asimov in laughing at stupid people. But I can’t find a single reference to him completing the statement with, “Except for scientists and people who think other people are stupid.” I’m pretty sure that “society” includes all of us – and I’m pretty sure Asimov would have included himself in “society (‘the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community.’)”)

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