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September 7, 2011 / Tobin Craig

Poor ‘Science’… always under siege and unable to be funny

Check out the latest Union of Concerned Scientists cartoon contest and calendar.

“Twelve talented artists have created editorial cartoons that poke fun at the not-so-humorous issue of political interference in science. This year, they focused on how special interests can manipulate, distort, and suppress the science used to make policy and undermine the public’s understanding of scientific issues—often leading to disastrous consequences for our health, safety and environment.”

Science, again, as always, is under siege.  The public, of course, as always, has been manipulated and misled by ‘special interests’ which means industry and their shills (issue advocacy groups apparently never manipulate or tailor scientific findings to suit their ends).  Unsurprisingly, the climate change debate and environmental issues are the central focus of the cartoons.  Also unsurprisingly, the cartoons aren’t very funny.  Indeed, the utter lack of humor is the most striking feature of these cartoons.  But let us assume they have been chosen by  “concerned scientists” and see how they view their situation.   Above we see a climate scientist attacked by a many-tentacled monster emerging from his computer.  Legal intimidation, harassment, hate mail, and personal attacks have hands.  The real monsters, however, are name calling and death threats.  More interesting are all the eyeballs looking at the scientist as he ‘works’ at his computer.  Science deniers, special interests and opponents are all interested in seeing what the scientist is up to.  But why should this be a concern?  Or is this a reference to climate gate and the hacking of climate scientists’ emails?  If so, it is a revealing take on how climate gate is viewed by UCS scientists.

Here we have three cartoons presenting the scientists’ view of the media and their relationship to the media.  Concerned scientists don’t like media simplifications and the potential for distortion of scientific findings when they leave the safe and familiar confines of the peer-reviewed journal.  They feel powerless… passive onlookers, or quiet nerds who even when panicked are out-shouted by savvy spin strategists, or, most revealing, accorded only equivalent status with Twitterer HealthNut492 on the blogosphere.  What they deserve — the opportunity to lecture the public on their findings about the dangers facing us all, thereby saving us from them — is denied to them.  What does this imply about the general public, and their understanding of and attitude towards science?  Let’s see:

Who are these people on the left engaged in the sisyphean struggle to halt progress?  They chant “deny” “mislead” “supress” and “reject”?  This suggests they are not just disagreeing or as yet unpersuaded, but self-consciously resisting scientific truth, and thereby progress (notice the helpful, clearly marked sign).  Incidentally, the continued salience of the inevitability-of-scientific-truth-and-therewith-progress argument is well worth thinking about.  But who doesn’t want progress?  Who wishes to be willfully ignorant of relevant information?  Is this the public in the eyes of the “concerned scientist”?

Speaking of strawmen, the concerned scientist feels like an invincible robot (or like someone who has made an invincible robot) who is here to crush deniers.  It looks a bit like robot “robust scientific argument” was made precisely for this purpose, which is curious and alarming.  But deniers are quick and get away, and then they go and beat up on strawmen.  What does this even mean?  It only makes sense if this is meant to represent, once again, the public interaction of the ‘denier’ (whoever that is) and the invincible robot “robust scientific argument”.  So this encounter is ‘on stage’ as it were.  The concerned scientist now feels as if he is always in view, potentially under attack.  Again, is this why he builds “robust scientific argument”?  And if so, isn’t that a good thing?  Weirder still,  would the denier really label his strawman “distorted scientific argument”?  Or does the cartoon drawer think the public is so stupid we don’t know what a straw man is and so need a label?  Or that we are even stupider — that even if it was obviously a straw man, we would still fall for the denier’s nasty deception?

“Concern” climaxes, as it were, with the depiction of someone — apparently a typical, elderly, upper middle class man — who has become a panicked conspiracy theorist believing scientists are out to get him and everybody else.  But upon reflection, who’s paranoid fantasy is this?  Isn’t this cartoon more revealing of the concerned scientist’s crazed view of the public?  A public that is apparently evenly divided between those who calmly take the scientists’ claims as authoritative, and those who are under the sway of crazed delusions.


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