Dr. Alex Berezow is a science writer and the editor of RealClearScience.com. He is a co-author of the forthcoming book, Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left, to be released in September. I asked Alex to answer some questions about the book, science journalism, and the relationship between science and politics.
Cameron English (CE): After earning a Ph.D. in microbiology, why did you go into science journalism instead of an academic research career?
Alex Berezow (AB): About two-thirds of the way through grad school, I realized that I loved science, but not research. Scientific research is one of those pursuits where you become such a highly specialized expert, that only a handful of other people in the world know the field as well as you do. That didn’t really appeal to me. I’m a “big picture” guy, and I was interested in too many different topics (including ones outside of science) to spend my entire career studying one molecule. So, I shifted gears when I left grad school.
CE: What do you look for when choosing articles to feature on RealClearScience?
AB: Primarily, we try to choose articles that are accurate, interesting, relevant, and within what we would consider to be mainstream scientific thinking. We try to avoid articles that we feel violate those general guidelines, and we also try to avoid articles we feel are purely hype or an exaggeration.
CE: What do you think about the current state of science journalism?
AB: Science journalism went through a rough patch several years ago when many news outlets dropped their science coverage. However, science journalism appears to be making a comeback. One very good development has been the willingness of scientists to blog about research or other relevant topics. Many scientists are gifted communicators, and the explosion of blogging has helped reenergize science writing.
CE: Some science writers, Chris Mooney for example, claim that Republicans are anti-science. Are Mooney et al. correct?
AB: No. Holding anti-science beliefs is truly a bipartisan phenomenon. There isn’t anything unique about Republicans who hold anti-science beliefs because some Democrats have their own pet causes that are contradictory to mainstream science. I actually wrote an article about this in USA Today.
CE: In another recent column, you said scientists and libertarians are a lot alike. How so?
AB: I think more so than any other political ideology, libertarians are driven by a small set of easily defined beliefs (mostly based on enhancing personal freedom) with a focus on reality. This is similar to the scientific method: Rely on a small set of easily defined premises (the scientific method) with a focus on data. Libertarians, just like scientists, aren’t afraid to be contrarians. If the data doesn’t support a policy, throw it out.
That’s why many libertarians have rejected the war on drugs, interventionist foreign policy, or promotion of economic equality. In my opinion, more so than any other ideology, libertarians (again, just like scientists) deal with the world the way that it is, rather than the way they want it to be. Whether or not I actually agree with their conclusions, I almost always find their arguments intellectually appealing.
CE: Tell us more about your book.
AB: Every election cycle, we routinely hear that conservatives are anti-science, but the anti-science beliefs of progressives are almost never scrutinized. It is true that some conservatives hold anti-science beliefs, most notoriously in regard to evolution, climate change, and human embryonic stem cell research. But some progressives have their own anti-science beliefs.
Among their ranks, you will find influential people and politicians who are anti-vaccine, anti-Western medicine, anti-animal research, anti-nuclear power, anti-genetic modification, anti-science education reform, anti-technology, etc. My co-author (Hank Campbell, the founder of Science 2.0) and I wanted to throw back the curtain on anti-science progressive beliefs. Our goal is not to defend conservatives or demonize all progressives. Instead, our goal is to tell, as Paul Harvey might say, “the rest of the story.”
CE: Are Americans ignorant of science? If so, what do we do about it?
AB: One study showed that Americans were 28% scientifically literate, while China was 3% literate. Our K-12 education system is decidedly mediocre, but our higher education is the best in the world. Certainly, we have room for improvement, but the sky isn’t falling either.
CE: What science topics are people most misinformed about?
AB: That’s really hard to say. I think a lot of people could benefit from a little more scientific knowledge in everything from biology and chemistry to astronomy and physics. Many scientific issues today are interdisciplinary. To truly understand genetics, you need a solid grasp of biology and chemistry. To understand medical news, you need a basic grasp of statistics and epidemiology. To understand nuclear power, you need a basic grasp of physics. And to understand any of those fields, you need a fundamental understanding of math and logic. So, I guess my advice would be: Study hard in school and keep learning throughout life!
CE: Is there a conflict between religion and science?
AB: Absolutely not. Science and religion ask fundamentally different questions. Science asks, “How?” and religion asks, “Why?” Because of that, they use fundamentally different tools. That’s why it is often illegitimate to apply the tools of science to religion and vice versa.
CE: It's definitely a good idea to learn about science from celebrities, right? (Sorry, I had to ask.)
AB: The trustworthiness of a celebrity is inversely proportional to how often they speak in public.