Friday, March 06, 2015

How to promote science according to new AAAS CEO Rush D. Holt

As the name implies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is a group of American scientists dedicated to "advancing" science. It was formed in 1848 and over the years it has evolved into a sophisticated lobby for advocating and defending science funding as well as an organization that promotes science to the general public. It publishes several journals, including Science and Science: Translational Medicine.

The new CEO and Executive Publisher of Science is Rush D. Holt, Jr.. He is the son of a former United States Senator (Rush D. Holt Sr.). Rush D. Holt Jr. obtained a Ph.D. in physics in 1981 and taught courses in physics, public policy, and religion at Swarthmore College from 1980 to 1986. He is a Quaker.

Later on he worked in the US State Department and as Assistant Director of the Plasma Physics Lab at Princeton. Holt was a Democrat member of the US Congress (New Jersey) for 16 years from 1999 to 2014.

Given the way government works in the USA, I think it's important to have a man like Holt at the head of the lobby group since scientists represent a special interest group that has to push hard to make sure their agenda is not shoved to the back burner by other special interest groups. Part of that agenda involves lobbying the general public so they have a favorable view of science and why it should be funded. I have heard Holt speak to scientists and he emphasizes the importance of lobbying members of Congress and their congressional aides in order to secure funding for science.

Rush Holt explains the AAAS goals in an editorial in the Feb. 20th issue of Science: Why science? Why AAAS?. He starts by defining science.
Among the various ways of thinking and knowing about the universe and ourselves, science is special. Asking questions that can be answered empirically and engaging in open communication so that others can collectively review and verify possible answers lead to the most reliable knowledge—a knowledge that is powerfully applicable in daily life.
It's apparent that Holt thinks of science as one way of knowing among many. It's probably one that's restricted to the traditional disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology etc. plus mathematics and engineering.

The search for knowledge is important but Holt wants to sell this to politicians and the public so the emphasis is on how this knowledge improves the quality of life. I don't know if this is how the AAAS leaders view the goals of science themselves or if this is just a good talking point to promote science to taxpayers. It's a good tactic for a lobby group.

Later on in the editorial he says,
As a former professor of physics and public policy, and a former member of the U.S. Congress for the past 16 years, I deeply appreciate the importance of advancing science for the benefit of society and am sensitive to the many challenges ahead in accomplishing this. AAAS must continue to enhance science and engineering for the well-being of all people.
This does not rule out the idea that society benefits from just having the knowledge of things like evolution, black holes, and the nature of the chemical bond but I suspect that he has more tangible benefits in mind.

How does the new CEO plan to improve AAAS?
The organization must defend openness and integrity in the practice of science. Communication and education among scientists, engineers, and the public must improve.
This is a laudable goal but I wonder if he has in mind the same sort of things that I would focus on if I were in his position? I think that the current versions of Science magazine are failing to communicate science in a manner that I would say is open and honest. We have lots of obvious examples (arsoniclife, ENCODE, Ardi) where the publicity and hype failed to live up to expectations and the writers at Science didn't recognize the problem until it was pointed out by others.

Those are only the most obvious examples. The very next pages in the Feb 20th issue contain a number of press releases whose main objective is to promote researchers and institutes rather than inform the public about science.

AAAS has a serious conflict of interest that they are not addressing. If your main goal is to "sell" science to the general public and to politicians, then it is in your best interests to exaggerate the benefits of science and downplay the drawbacks. You probably don't want to spend a lot of time convincing the public that science usually doesn't advance by "breakthroughs" and that most of what's published in science journals is wrong or useless.

On the other hand, if you are committed to "openness and integrity" then this is exactly the message you want to convey so that the general public eventually appreciates the real benefits of science and how it works.

Here are the additional goals that the new CEO wants to emphasize.
The organization will build its publications and communications ability to meet the modern needs of the scientific community and the general public. AAAS will enhance its programs in public affairs, education, law, and international relations, and continue to explore constructive relationships between science and religion, art, history, and other disciplines. I am committed to raising the necessary resources to do these things. Especially, AAAS intends to remain the world's most effective advocate for science.
You know which words in that description get me riled. Why should AAAS be exploring "constructive relationships between science and religion"? It's because in the USA that's how you have to appeal to the general public and a Congress that's dominated by religion.

Fine, but then don't pretend that you really want to focus on "openness and integrity" because there are many scientists who think that science and religion aren't compatible. If you are committed to the truth then the truth is that it may not be possible to have a constructive relationship between science and religion. The public needs to know this since it's what many scientists believe.


  1. "... because there are many scientists who think that science and religion aren't compatible"

    And there are many who think they are, for myriad reasons. One good reason is that a science based tyranny is still a tyranny. Even those trying to do good science frequently get things wrong (ENCODE) because people are highly defective. Seeking constructive engagement isn't bad Larry. It isn't necessarily code talk for selling out.

    1. And there are many who think they are ...

      I agree but that's not the point. The point is that there is considerable disagreement and debate within the science community. If you are going to accurately portray science to the general public then a science organization should not take sides.

      Seeking constructive engagement isn't bad Larry.

      Debatable. Should AAAS seek constructive engagement with Intelligent Design Creationists? How about homeopaths or climate change deniers?

      It's clear that AAAS is being selective about who it seeks constructive engagement with. What are the scientific criteria it uses to make that decision?

      It isn't necessarily code talk for selling out.

      Sometimes it is. In this case the AAAS leadership may be religious so it's not a cop-out.

    2. I now wonder what you think "constructive engagement" means. It does not mean mutual promotion.
      Should AAAS engage with climate change deniers? Yes, if they can do so constructively. There's a hard question there about lending inappropriate senses of credibility by even deigning to engage. But that's politics, not science. So if you're playing that type of politics why pretend to some sacred purity about other politics?
      So what's a constructive way to engage deniers? Given them space to lay out their best claims, and challenge their opponents best claims, and a round or two of rebuttals.
      It should increase readership for the entertainment value alone.

  2. It's clear that AAAS is being selective about who it seeks constructive engagement with. What are the scientific criteria it uses to make that decision?

    More funding > Less funding

  3. What is a advocate for science? What a strange idea? Who is advocating against science?
    Is it advocacy for a methodology in figuring things out or is it really mean imposing conclusions that are claimed to be concluded by SCIENCE.
    Science is not a noun but a verb. How does one advocate for a verb??
    Instead of advocating why not just invent or figure something out? That would be the biggest advocacy for a methodology.

  4. Byers: "What is a advocate for science? ...Who is advocating against science?"

    Um... you are advocating against science. Specifically, ID creationists advocate against science. Every single day.

    Example: Just today Denyse O'Leary tweeted that "The real mystery is why our taxes fund this stuff [scientific research]." Not only does she call for cutting off funding for scientific research, which is common with IDiots, but she promotes the "us vs. them" paradigm. "Them" are scientists, "us" are the real people. All of O'Leary's tweets, several per day, and all her posts promote contempt for scientific research and the abolition of funding for science.

    Michael Egnor has likewise demanded cutting all scientific research funding to the bone, except medical research-- the least reproducible type of research-- because Egnor is a sawbones, and knows which side his bread is buttered on $$$.

    $megnor at the Discovery Tute's website ENV has called for the prosecution and imprisonment of most of the National Academy of Sciences. Because global warming is the greatest fraud of all time. Time to ship the heretics off to Death Camp for Smarties.

    IDcreationists advocate against science every day. You lie about scientists, you slander scientists, you promote conspiracy theories about scientists, you demand McCarthyite government hearings, interrogations, subpoenas, you demand emails and steal emails so you can take sentence fragments out of context to slander scientists, and thus demand their prosecution and imprisonment. Because the evidence they report is contrary to your political and corporate agendas.

    If that isn't advocating against science, what is?