Today Cognoscenti, the op-ed website run by Bostons's NPR station WBUR, published an essay I've been working on for a little while. It's about the emergence of science denialism and NIMBYism as paralyzing social and political forces, and how people who'd like to see the emergence of healthier forms of public engagement should respond.
The piece is called Beyond the Science Wars: Stories of a Shared Future.
In some ways the piece is a mini-manifesto for the project I've been working on this year at MIT, the proposed Center for Science Engagement.
Beyond the ever-present need to promote science education and greater scientific literacy, there's an even harder problem. That's finding ways to make progress on pressing social and political challenges in a time of extreme polarization among voters, consumers, and politicians. If we can't find a way to work toward consensus on science and technology issues, or at least have civilized conversations, we're going to have a hard time doing essential things like reducing carbon emissions, dealing with sea level rise, exploring alternative energy sources, developing new crops to feed more people, and keeping childhood infections in check.
One of the observations motivating the Center for Science Engagement project is that despite decades of good, dedicated work by science engagement professionals—a group that includes educators, artists, journalists, filmmakers, exhibit designers, game developers, comics writers, performers, live event organizers and many others—there's been little easing of the tensions and mutual mistrust in these areas.
One hypothesis—the one I explore in the Cognoscenti piece—is that the deep divides persist in part because we still aren't doing a very good job of listening to one another.
In the vision that I and several colleagues have been articulating, part of the Center's mission would be to discover and demonstrate repeatable mechanisms for promoting deeper, less fractious conversations between scientists, engineers, and the non-expert public.
If we get the opportunity to push the project forward, I'm hoping that we can spur the production of more stories, encounters, and experiences in the spirit of this terrific vaccination story by Maggie Koerth-Baker. In other words, engagements that grow out of respect, deep listening, and honest discussions with people on all sides of debates about science and technology.
Photo of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station by Simon Ingram, Flickr Creative Commons