Alex Berezow points a lot of fingers and not much more at Town Hall Seattle

Posted: September 18, 2012 in Events, Policy, Science, Science Communication

I attended a Town Hall Seattle event last night titled, Alex Berezow: The Left Isn’t Always Right, Science-wise. I had been cautiously looking forward to this event and was genuinely curious to see what evidence he would provide to support that the political left, and not only the right, is anti-science. While I did agree with much of the basics he presented to paint certain groups on the left as anti-science, I was severely disappointed with his lack of concrete evidence to back up his assertions during the question and answer portion of the evening. Additionally, as the title says, Dr. Berezow pointed a lot of fingers during his talk but did little to suggest alternative or new ways to go about combating the anti-science rhetoric occurring in the US, regardless of political party affiliation.

Alex Berezow received his Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington and is currently a science writer and the editor of RealClearScience, “portal for the most relevant science stories from around the globe”. Dr. Berezow was speaking at Town Hall Seattle to support his new book, Science Left Behind, which was co-authored by Hank Campbell. From the book’s webiste,  “To those who would claim that any one party deserves the mantle of being “pro-science,” Berezow and Campbell offer a bracing corrective. At its core, Science Left Behind is a provocative polemic that exhorts Americans on all sides of the political spectrum to look more closely at the issues we take for granted, lest we become embroiled in a new culture war over basic scientific facts.”

The talk began with Dr. Berezow’s biographical sketch and a quick description of RealClearScience. The rest of his talk then focused on topics discussed in his book, stating that the purpose of Science Left Behind was to expose the progressive left as acting anti-science, a phenomenon commonly over shadowed by the anti-science of the conservative right. In general he claimed that the progressive left held myths that natural things are good, unnatural things are bad, and that science always lands of the side of the progressive. Examples of anti-science beliefs held by progressive were vaccines, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), chemicals as additives, alternative energies such as nuclear and hydroelectric power, nanotechnology, and animal research. After providing evidence for the above, in his mind baseless, beliefs, he posed the simple question, “are progressives really pro-science?”

Throughout his talk he repeatedly claimed that he was not ‘team red’ or ‘team blue’ but instead he was ‘team science’. Being ‘team science’, he deemed it his duty to expose the left as being just as anti-science as the right, thus his book Science Left Behind. Throughout his talk, and especially during the question and answer portion that followed, I found scant evidence to support his claim that he was ‘team science’. His approach to very complex science policy issues such as GMOs and alternative energy seemed to be very black and white; GMO good, alternative energy of all kinds good, no matter what. While I realize that he only had about an hour to present his story, I felt he did science a disservice by implying that these science policy issues were as easy as saying yes or no. For example, a young man asked him to elaborate on his comments that hydroelectric power and the often required damning of large rivers was always good policy. Instead of walking the audience through a thoughtful discussion, he immediately dismissed the man’s comments and reaffirmed his own previous ones from the talk. I found it extremely worrisome that he did not feel the need to discuss the ongoing Elwha River Restoration, a clear example of a river and ecosystem coming back to life following the removal of a dam. Other audience questions pertaining to the socioeconomic implications of GMOs and even his classification of President Obama as a progressive were also immediately rebuked by the speaker. Understandably, it is not his job to convince everyone of the widespread benefits of science, but if his main premise is that certain beliefs are false and not based in fact, I would appreciate if he could back up his assertions when they are being challenged with contrary evidence.

Again, I realize that his time was limited, but to me he missed out on a huge opportunity to engage the general public in a thoughtful discussion on science policy issues important to Washington State and the larger health of the global community. In my opinion, being ‘team science’ does not just mean calling out those opposed to science, it also means fostering discussion and encouraging the growth of citizen scientists. Dr. Berezow’s talk accomplished neither of those things last night, instead if anything I think many audience members left feeling angry and like their doubts regarding certain science issues were stronger than ever. In response to my question regarding how do we go about increasing the dialogue and collaboration between scientists and politicians, my attempt to engage him in a discussion of constructive solutions and strategy, his answer lacked concrete ideas and  basically just touted the importance of science journalists to bridging that gap. If by science journalists he means more like himself, than I fear that the worst of the anti-science rhetoric is yet to come.

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Comments
  1. David Ashlin says:

    I can certainly appreciate the gist of Dr. Berezow’s views. I have engaged in the same discussion and arguments that conservatives have no monopoly on anti-science rhetoric. Vaccine opponents use identical tactics as those of who oppose human evolution and climate change: anyone who agrees with vaccines is on the payroll of “Big Pharma” and they try to discredit vaccines by discrediting Jenner. Evidence for CAM is no difference from divinely provided miracles. Almost no one whom I’ve heard oppose genetic modification can even explain how recombinant DNA techniques are accomplished.

    As a recent transplant to Kirkland from central VA, I have been highly dismayed at the prevalence of anti-science regarding genetic modification, vaccines and, so-called, “alternative and complementary” medicine by those who identify as liberal. In “interactions” both in person, and online, I have found it fatiguing to go through the trouble of finding reputable and credible evidence sources, only to have them merely dismissed in favor of anecdote and propaganda from such sources as “The Natural News”. Quite frankly, I have formed the opinion that such people are being contrarian in order to ameliorate their intimidation and feelings of intellectual inadequacy; i.e. they want to “prove” that their liberal arts degree provides them with the same education and practical experience as those with laboratory science training. I recently had it out with online “friends” over the misuse of the word “energy” when touting the efficacy of Reiki over distance. Most disappointingly, a former elementary school teacher and public health advocate who does a wonderful job of providing credible evidence in favor of vaccines on her page “Informed Parents of Vaccinated Children”, fell into using the form of every anti-vaxx argument in her stance against GMOs. I wasn’t the only one on the thread pointing this out.

    However, there is a great difference in speaking on science and *engaging* the public on science. Taking the tack of Berezow, like Dawkins, does nothing to improve or aid the efforts of those of us who are trying to engage people. Yet, one can be too complacent as can be seen by Neil DeGrasse Tyson on Bill Maher, and even on his own StarTalk radio when Maher was the interviewee. Science has become politicized, and just as with politics, highly tribalized. Evidence has no value in tribalism. And so, just as with politics, evidence of science over anti-science is effective only with the “undecided”.

  2. Thanks for your comment David! Its definitely an interesting concept that at least some anti-science people (both on the right and left) act that way, as you write, “in order to ameliorate their intimidation and feelings of intellectual inadequacy. That is why I found the the way Dr. Berezow approached the audience’s questions so frustrating. Immediately shutting people down, rather than engaging them in a thoughtful discussion, will only add to these feelings of intimidation.

    I also agree it helps no one to be complacent. Finding the correct balance is something we can probably all work on. I came across this article earlier today:

    http://theconversation.edu.au/no-youre-not-entitled-to-your-opinion-9978

    Also, I would like to encourage you to check out FOSEP (Forum on Science Ethics and Policy), a graduate student and postdoc run science policy group at UW. Info can be found here: http://www.fosep.org/seattle/.

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