HOW TO BEAT THE ODDS
Nobody is yelling at anyone to stop the presses in observing the remarkable fact that Planet3.0 and Watt’s Up With That were allies in the recent internet uprising against the egregious internet-bashing legislation pushed by the entertainment industry in the US Congress. (Most prominently there was the SOPA, sponsored by Lamar Smith, who I’m sorry to say has a small part of Austin in his sprawling constituency.) That we and Watts are in vigorous agreement here, though, does matter.
The SOPA legislation had been considered inevitable. Representatives “on both sides of the aisle” (sorry for the cliche’, can I just say OBSOTA next time?) had been duly sponsored by Hollywood, the opposition was notoriously fractious and apolitical, and nobody in congress was going to take them on.
The visible support by Google and Wikipedia is what probably turned the tide in fact, but these two organizations both seek for and thrive on political neutrality. What gave them the gumption to take a strong position?
Clearly, it was the unanimity of the internet: DailyKos is opposed to these measures. Reason Magazine is opposed. It’s pretty clear that almost everyone who is serious about the internet in between is opposed. Only people for whom the internet is either mostly a threat or not much more than a convenience could support measures that essentially make it very easy to shut down a public internet service and very difficult to restart it.
Tactically, the lessons are twofold: first, it is possible to defeat (or at least set back) the forces of the status quo politically; second, it requires a very broad consensus.
If only the supporters of one party had spoken up, the other party would be likely be able to push these very destructive measures through. The fact that the consensus appeared across the political spectrum had enormous impact.
THE FORCES OF EVIL
Are the internet-threatened Hollywood interests anything like the science-threatened fossil fuel interests? That’s a pretty loose comparison. Unfortunately, though, the fossil fuel interests are not the only problematic aspects of the situation. There are a couple of reasons that their accusations carry weight beyond the wishful thinking that they obviously appeal to. These have to do with the self-interests of the scientific community and of the scientific publishing industry.
a – the scientific community
The climate system is a complicated beast, and the number of people who best understand it is rather small. Most of these people manage to get their understanding by virtue of interacting with one another in a circle of elite researchers. So how does on get into that circle? Persistence is necessary, and to achieve that persistent participation, success in the field is needed. It’s something of a vicious circle, admittedly, unless you are on it, in which case it turns into a whirl of positive feedback. But it’s crucial to understand what this means. In short, you need to achieve tenure at a top-flight institution. +Kerri Rawson on Google Plus summarizes:
1. Do good research.
2. Be prolific and reliable: Don’t have “a bad year.”
3. Be technically sound. (e.g. stats)
4. Make an impact in the field. (be known w/in the field)
5. Get your name on something: What was your “major contribution?”
6. Don’t be too well known outside the field: “I’m glad we didn’t hire Dr. X; he spends too much time in the New York Times and not enough time in the lab.” (wow)
7. Don’t write a book: While you were writing that book, you weren’t doing research.
8. Bring in grant money.
9. Take outside offers seriously.
10. Don’t worry about teaching, leadership, organizing, etc.
11. Choose your hobbies wisely: Permissible hobbies include skydiving, playing guitar, or cooking. Suspicious hobbies include writing of any sort (novels, magazine articles, blogs)… I don’t think blogging has quite the stigma it once did, although I have heard senior faculty members say they would never hire someone with a blog. (Still true?)
12. Friends are good; enemies are bad; indifference is fine: You don’t need to be friends with everyone, just the right people.
13. Don’t dabble
Note especially points 6, 7, 10, 11, and 12.
“And here we see why science is an ivory tower community, and why the public understanding of science lags so much.”
In short, public interaction is bad for your career and controversy is disastrous. Only people who already have tenure are in a position to violate these rules, and by the time they are in that position they have developed contrary habits.
b – scientific publishing industry
Public discussion of science on the internet is, like so much else, hampered by unreasonable demands placed by copyright holders. Seriously, does anyone ever send the $15 pr $25 to the science publisher to get a glance at a paper that may or may not be relevant to their interests? Even if I were wealthy I would refuse to do such a thing on principle when the incermental cost of reproduction is well under a penny, especially when my own taxes were used to support the research. Openness should be at the center of science, and an Open Access moevement within the scientific community, recognizing the availability of new distribution mechanisms, is actively promoting dramatic change in this regard.
A great step forward was taken by a major funding agency in the US, the Public Access Policy of the National Institutes of Health which requires that all NIH-funded publications be made publicly accessible within twelve months after publication.
The journal publishers of course are immensely threatened by this. Their business is certainly worth defending from the point of view of profit-making. In exchange for a modest organizational effort, both their publishing and their editorial work is done by unpaid volunteers. Indeed, authors often pay page charges for the privilege of ebing published. The main service the journals provide is curatorial – their purpose is to avoid the publication of half-baked work. (Increasingly, we see that a sufficiently committed mischievous author can even find ways around this intent of the system.)
Their response? It is remarkably indistinguishable from Hollywood’s. In a classic buggy-whip industry move, they are trying to convince congress to protect their obsolecent industry with laws. Not only would NIH’s Public Access Policy be reversed, but it would be rendered illegal. The instrument is the proposed Research Works Act. Wikipedia’s summary states that “The bill contains provisions to prohibit open access mandates for federally funded research and effectively revert the NIH’s Public Access Policy that allows taxpayer-funded research to be freely accessible online. If enacted, it would also severely restrict the sharing of scientific data. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform”.
Look. You paid for the science. That doesn’t mean you have a right to read my email. But it certainly ought to mean that you can read the published results! And while retroactive demands for raw data may be unreasonably onerous in practice, surely no legal barriers should be put up to sharing data!
HOW THE DENIALISTS TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THESE CONDITIONS
Clearly, much of the hostility drummed up against climate science and the suspicion of its participants could be directed against any scientist and any science. “If you haven’t got anything to hide why are you hiding?” is up against “any engagement in controversy is a threat to my career”.
None of this means that the content of science is suspect. I believe that on the whole, the scientific community still incermentally approaches truth, though perhaps the slips and flaws are becoming more prominent over time. Applied science, such as medicine and engineering, is very healthy, as it butts up against real-world constraints all the time.
Climate science is in an awkward position at the boundary of pure and applied science. Its participants and have very different expectations than do its clients and the public. The funding agencies are caught in an awkward straddle. It’s all very worthy of a close look and possibly a reworking. But nevertheless, the CO2 builds up and the climate changes, most of the cited work has value. The community has a clear idea who its most competent researchers are.
But the traditions of the academic cloister and of a not-especially-practical pure science contribute to a disastrous relationship between the practitioners of the science and many of the most interested members of the public. It will take much persistent effort to turn this around.
In summary, there’s much else to discuss in the SOPA matter, but what we need to understand as sustainability activists is that the status quo has great power when the populace is divided, but crumbles quickly when the people are united. Science provides the ideal vehicle for unanimity, but science is not well-understood. The isolation of the general public from science and from scientists is therefore perniciously dangerous. Encouraging openness and public participation is not a minor or peripheral goal. Rather, it seems like a necessity for our common survival.
For more on the Open Science movement, see the Open Science Project website.