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Saturday, October 2, 2021

"Just stick to the science!"

“The naive desire for science to remain above politics meant that many researchers were unprepared to cope with a global crisis that was both scientific and political to its core. ‘There’s an ongoing conversation about whether we should do advocacy work or ‘stick to the science…’ Science is undoubtedly political, whether scientists want it to be or not, because it is an inextricably human enterprise. It belongs to society. It is interleaved with society. It is of society.”
What Even Counts as Science Writing Anymore?
The pandemic made it clear that science touches everything, and everything touches science.
By Ed Yong
In theory, 2020 should have been a banner year for science writers. A virus upended the world and gripped its attention. Arcana of epidemiology and immunology—super-spreading, herd immunity, cytokine storms, mRNA vaccines—became dinner-table fodder. Public-health experts (and pseudo-experts) gained massive followings on social media. Anthony Fauci became a household name. The biggest story of the year—perhaps of the decade—was a science story, and science writers seemed ideally placed to tell it.

When done properly, covering science trains a writer to bring clarity to complexity, to embrace nuance, to understand that everything new is built upon old foundations, and to probe the unknown while delimiting the bounds of their own ignorance. The best science writers learn that science is not a procession of facts and breakthroughs, but an erratic stumble toward gradually diminished uncertainty; that peer-reviewed publications are not gospel and even prestigious journals are polluted by nonsense; and that the scientific endeavor is plagued by all-too-human failings such as hubris. All of these qualities should have been invaluable in the midst of a global calamity, where clear explanations were needed, misinformation was rife, and answers were in high demand but short supply.

But the pandemic hasn’t just been a science story. It is an omnicrisis that has warped and upended every aspect of our lives. While the virus assaulted our cells, it also besieged our societies, seeping into every crack and exploiting every weakness it could find. It found many. To understand why the United States has fared so badly against COVID-19, despite its enormous wealth and biomedical savvy, one must understand not just matters of virology but also the nation’s history of racism and genocide, its carceral state, its nursing homes, its historical attitudes toward medicine and health, its national idiosyncrasies, the algorithms that govern social media, and the grossly deficient character of its 45th president…

…When this pandemic started, my background as a science writer, and one who had specifically reported on pandemics, was undoubtedly useful, but to a limited degree—it gave me a half-mile head start, with a full marathon left to run. Throughout the year, many of my peers caviled about journalists from other beats who wrote about the pandemic without a foundation of expertise. But does anyone truly have the expertise to cover an omnicrisis that, by extension, is also an omnistory?…

…To the extent that the pandemic has been a science story, it’s also been a story about the limitations of what science has become. Perverse academic incentives that reward researchers primarily for publishing papers in high-impact journals have long pushed entire fields toward sloppy, irreproducible work; during the pandemic, scientists have flooded the literature with similarly half-baked and misleading research. Pundits have urged people to “listen to the science,” as if “the science” is a tome of facts and not an amorphous, dynamic entity, born from the collective minds of thousands of individual people who argue and disagree about data that can be interpreted in a range of ways…

…Science is often caricatured as a purely empirical and objective pursuit. But in reality, a scientist’s interpretation of the world is influenced by the data she collects, which are influenced by the experiments she designs, which are influenced by the questions she thinks to ask, which are influenced by her identity, her values, her predecessors, and her imagination…
Ed Yong rocks.
"Our understanding of nature has been profoundly shaped by our culture, our social norms, and our collective decisions about who gets to be a scientist at all. And our relationship with nature—whether we succumb to it, whether we learn from it, whether we can save it—depends on our collective decisions too."
I reflect in particular over my last couple of posts. i.e., Science denial. Genomic science and politics.

More to come. Stay tuned. BTW, I finished Dr. Hochschild's new book. A killer read.

She puts the "science" back in "political science."
...I feel no inconsistency in celebrating what scientists are discovering about genomics and simultaneously insisting that environment, resources, and leadership—that is, politics—matter.

Finally, you can’t beat something with nothing. Skeptics’ and Rejecters’ warnings and critiques must be taken seriously, and some warrant action: government surveillance, racial essentialism, agribusiness control of food production, parents’ demands for perfect babies, “playing God” with species, bioterrorism—all range between threatening and pernicious.

However, many concerns of Skeptics and Rejecters tend to be fairly abstract, hypothetical, and inattentive to possible countermeasures. At least at this point in the history of genomics, these concerns do not in my view outweigh the compelling immediacy of using gene therapy to prevent a child’s death from leukemia, growing genetically modified rice that will provide vitamins to millions of malnourished people, freeing Black men from wrongful imprisonment that resulted from bad luck and lousy lawyering.20 Technology optimists can make gauzy promises that match up to pessimists’ abstract fears, but so far, the benefits of genomics are disproportionately concrete and its risks disproportionately diffuse. Thus the former outweigh the latter in my judgment...

Hochschild, Jennifer. Genomic Politics (pp. 233-234). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Ah, what do I know? I am not a scientist. Define "science." And, is "Deliberation Science" actually a thing? 

"There has long been a view of science writing that imagines it’s about opening up the ivory tower and making its obscure contents accessible to the masses. But this is a strange model, laden with troubling corollaries. It implicitly assumes that science is beleaguered and unappreciated, and that unwilling audiences must be convinced of its importance and value. It equates science with journals, universities, and other grand institutions that are indeed opaque and cloistered. And treating science as a special entity that normies are finally being invited to take part in is also somewhat patronizing." —Ed Yong
Interesting. Perhaps re-posting some Jennifer Hochschild is warranted.
The choice of good decision-makers—and of those who should be left out of the room where it happens—is a matter of politics, not rationality. The social science experts’ long lists of appropriate and inappropriate decision-makers make it clear that we can expect no consensus around a small set of “the correct” governors. Many actors have claims; people have varied evaluations of the legitimacy and priority of those claims; there is no authority or consensual process for evaluating the actors or their claims. That is why political activity is essential—and entirely warranted in a democratic polity. Decision-making about societal uses of genomics will and mostly should include negotiation, emotion, rational discourse, scientific evidence, procedures and precedents, trade-offs and pay-offs, and power grabs. It may never be finally resolved.—Genomic Politics (pp. 218-219).

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