Truth, Deception, and the Myth of the One-Handed Scientist

Ira Flatow, the long-time host of NPR’s Science Friday, wrote his first science story in 1970 while an engineering student at SUNY Buffalo and working at the campus radio station, WBFO, to “twist the dials and knobs, as an engineer would.” But the anti-war movement was sweeping through Buffalo and WBFO recruited him to cover demonstrations. His boss, Bill Siemering, left that same year to start National Public Radio and was its first director of programming. After graduating in 1971, Flatow says, “I begged him to get me out of Buffalo,” and Flatow’s been reporting on science for NPR ever since. His TV credits include six years as host and writer for the PBS show, Newton’s Apple, science reporter for CBS This Morning, and frequent appearances on popular talk shows. He’s moderated numerous academic science forums and written three books on science and nature.

Flatow was presented with the Isaac Asimov Science Award at the American Humanist Association’s 71st annual conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 9, 2012. The following is adapted from his acceptance speech.

I personally knew Isaac Asimov, undoubtedly the most prolific science writer I’ve ever met. In fact, he wound up writing or editing something like 500 books in his lifetime. He was just a great writer, a great popularizer of science, and it’s an honor to accept this award from the American Humanist Association in his name.

I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned in my nearly forty years of covering science and technology, and the politics that go along with doing so. The first is that you can very rarely change someone’s mind when it’s already made up. If someone believes that people walked on the earth at the same time the dinosaurs did, there’s nothing anyone can do to change that belief, no amount of evidence you can show that will shake their conviction. If people believe the earth is 6,000 years old and the Grand Canyon was created by the flood, there’s not a lot you can do to convince them otherwise.

A few years ago we did a Science Friday program on autism and vaccinations. We had the world’s leading authority on the topic as a guest, and he confirmed that there’s no connection between vaccinations and autism. A woman called in and said, “I don’t believe it, I don’t believe the things you’re saying or quoting.” She went on and on, and my engineers were motioning for me to cut her off. But I didn’t want to cut her off. She was an intelligible person and I wanted to hear her thinking. After ten minutes I finally asked her, is there any amount of research in any form—from any person, any government, any university—I could show you that would change your mind? She said no. Her mind had been made up.

Part of the problem is that reporters don’t ask good follow-up questions, these days more than ever. A science journalist would never write or broadcast something without a good piece of research to back it up. Yet every day on the news, political reporters fail to say, “Excuse me, could you show us the data that backs up this claim you make about the economy?” or whatever it is. I used to argue with my White House correspondent friends about this, how members of Congress would make claims and the reporters would never ask to look at the data. They would just quote the politicians verbatim. We need to ask people to think critically about these public statements and ask for the data to back stuff up.

Something else I’ve learned is that people love to talk about science. You’ll hear them say all the time, “Oh, I don’t understand science, I don’t pay attention to it.” But if you explain something in a way that’s understandable, people really do love to talk about science. Interestingly, in surveys people say they like scientists, but that they haven’t got the slightest idea what scientists do. I think this has to do with the way we teach science in school.

When you study art, nobody expects you to become Picasso, but you’re taught how to appreciate Picasso: What goes into making great art? What motivates the artist? Why is it important? We don’t teach science that way. We teach science as if everybody’s going to practice it. Why can’t we teach science so students understand what the scientific method is, who the great scientists were, what motivated them, the important role that science plays in society, and what critical thinking is?

Another great myth in the public sphere is that scientists don’t disagree with each other, that they all know the same things to be true. During our first week on Science Friday back in 1991, we had a guest speaker on the show who was one of the scientists responsible for theorizing that the dinosaurs went extinct as the result of an asteroid hitting Earth. That was news back then.

Another scientist called in and said to the guest, “Why don’t you answer the phone when I call? Now I have you trapped on the radio.” He went on to present a competing theory that explained how the extinction could very well have occurred without an asteroid. They went back and forth arguing. A week later, the first mail came in. Barbara in New Jersey was shocked to hear scientists arguing with each other. “Don’t they know what the truth is?” she wrote.

In fact, it’s hard for the public to deal with the fact that science is like a little snapshot of a picture in time of what we know, while what we know keeps changing. And there are many ways of interpreting what’s happening, too.

Recently on Science Friday, we talked about the theory of dark matter. This is one of the spookiest topics out there. Everything you see around you in the world and what we see out in the universe is only 4 percent of what actually exists. The other 96 percent of the universe is “dark,” or unobservable. Dark energy makes up 70 percent, and another 25 percent or so is dark matter. So here we are in the twenty-first century, thinking we know how the world works, but we don’t understand what 96 percent of the universe is made of. It’s kind of humbling, but it’s cool.

And that’s really what makes my job so enjoyable. It’s talking about the things we don’t fully understand yet, asking questions, and discovering that scientists would rather not know the answer to something. For them, the theorizing, the experimentation, the searching is what science is all about, it’s what keeps scientists going.

The rub, of course, is that everybody else thinks that science should provide the answers. Remember the Concorde? Back in the early 1970s, Congress was debating supersonic transport, trying to decide whether such aircraft would represent a danger when flown over the United States. Would their big engines flying high in the sky cut a hole in the ozone and let in solar radiation? Would the plane make sonic booms as it flew over people’s neighborhoods? And so on.

Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME) was the chairman of the committee assigned to find the answers to these questions. He, in turn, appointed an august committee from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to study the issue. Six months later they were to report to the congressional committee. All the newspapers were there and the cameras were rolling.

The committee’s chief scientist said, “Senator, we’re ready to testify,” and Muskie responded, “Okay, tell me what the answer is. Is this going to be a danger?” The scientist then slapped down his giant sheet of papers on the desk and said, “I’ve got these papers here that definitely tell us this is going to be a danger.” Muskie was ready to conclude right there, but then the NAS scientist interjected, “On the other hand, I have another set of papers over here that says these papers aren’t good enough to know the answer.” In exhaustion, the senator looked up and yelled, “Will somebody find me a one-handed scientist?!”

Everybody wants the one-handed scientist, right? But that’s not how science works, and that’s not always how we gain knowledge.

The final thing I’ve learned in my travels, from the countless emails I receive, the invitations to speak, and from negotiating for budgets (with the National Science Foundation, with NPR—we’re always looking for money) is that you’ve got to go where you’re loved and where you’re welcomed. You can spend your whole life trying—with your résumé, or your show, or whatever it is—to convince people to like you.

But there’s already a whole population of people out there who do love and welcome you. Just give them a chance and let them in. That’s one of the reasons I’m here today, because I feel that from this audience right here. I’m very happy to be with you and to accept the Isaac Asimov Award. Thank you so much.

(What follows are responses to questions posed by audience members at the awards banquet on June 9, 2012.)

Ira Flatow, when asked to explain his comment that people don’t change their minds about core beliefs, when many previously religious humanists have done just that:

It’s certainly possible to have what I call a paradigm shift. I’ve seen it happen on rare occasions. I think we’re seeing such a shift in the way people view global warming. First, no one can deny that there’s no ice at the North Pole anymore in summertime. Explaining that what your eyes see and tell you isn’t the result of a warmer planet is very difficult. And when Karl Rove talks about wind power as a good investment and something that will create jobs, as he recently did, that’s a paradigm shift.

A woman my wife encountered a few years ago had such a shift. At a meeting of real estate agents there was a screening of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Afterward the woman approached my wife and asked her if I was a liar. What do you mean, I asked? “Weren’t you covering the ceremony on the roof of the White House when Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed?” my wife inquired. “Yes,” I answered. “I was there. I actually tripped over them.” “Okay,” my wife said, “and didn’t you also tell me that when Ronald Reagan became president he had the panels removed?” “That’s absolutely true,” I told her, adding, “I saw that, too.” “Well,” my wife said, “this woman says you’re a liar then.” It turns out this woman was a big Reagan supporter and her logical brain was clashing with her emotional brain. She couldn’t fathom that President Reagan would do something so stupid. So therefore I must be a liar. My wife relayed everything I’d confirmed back to her colleague, who said she was going to check it out. About a month later, I asked my wife, “Did you ever hear from that woman again?” “Oh, yes,” she said. “She called me up to apologize. She said you were right.”

…on asking science questions in presidential debates:

I was at a meeting of journalists and scientists who were trying to get science into this year’s presidential debates. Can’t they just ask a simple question, I wondered, like “How old is the earth?” You could go more complex and get a question in there about science as an issue, like “Why is XYZ not part of your budget?” I was told the networks hosting the debates can’t even wedge such questions in. They don’t think it’s something the public cares about or believes in, which just isn’t true.

…on the lack of science literacy, even among college students:

There’s a film called A Private Universe made by the Annenberg Project. They filmed at Harvard’s commencement ceremonies. I think it was 1989. They asked thirty-two Harvard graduates one question: Why is it hotter in the summer than it is in the winter? Thirty out of thirty-two got it wrong. They all believed that Earth is closer to the sun in summer. Actually, the earth this year was closest to the sun in January. No one did the follow-up question: Then why is it winter in Australia?

Is science literacy worse now? I don’t have any data, but my guess is that it probably is.

…on his appearance on the hit television show, The Big Bang Theory:

We got a call a couple of years ago from the producer of The Big Bang Theory who wanted to put Sheldon Cooper, who’s the star of the show, on Science Friday. They created an episode where Sheldon gets an on-air call from me and I interview him like we would a regular scientist. So technically I wasn’t on The Big Bang Theory, my voice was, and it was a lot of fun.

The actress Mayim Bialik, who plays Cooper’s sort-of girlfriend, was recently on Science Friday. Her character is a neurobiologist and what’s interesting is that Bialik has a PhD in neuroscience herself. I asked if that helped and she said, as an actress, no, but added that she probably understands more of the scripts than anybody else. The scripts are vetted by scientific consultants they hire, and if you listen carefully to the dialogue, it’s pretty accurate. That’s part of the charm of the show, I think.

…on how science can be used to refute creationism:

I don’t think you can refute creationism. Science only explores the natural world, not the supernatural world, and God is a supernatural question. Even creationists will admit that God is supernatural.

The question of God is not a question that’s answerable by science because you can’t create an experiment that shows God doesn’t exist. That’s what scientists do. They create experiments to prove the negative. In fact, most of science is failure—failure to prove your hypothesis. If you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, there’s no way you can prove that God does exist. It’s not a question valid to science.