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Issue No. 14 (May 2000) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Scientists discuss, debate burning
political issues while press sleeps

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), founded in 1848, is the world’s largest federation of scientists, with 143,000 members; its formidable weekly, Science, may be the leading science journal in the world; its 83-member Council is a virtual Who’s Who of the U.S. science establishment.

So you’d think that the AAAS’s annual meeting, held February 17-22 at the Marriott Wardman and Sheraton Omni hotels in Washington, D.C. (and bringing together more than 5,500 top scientists, educators, policymakers and researchers) might have been one of those ponderous boring meetings full of self-congratulation that Washington is not undeservedly known for.

You’d have thought this, too, if your memory is still fixed in time in 1969-71, when radical students and scientists charged into AAAS sessions shouting obscenities and “Science for the people!” by way of attacking the science community’s supine role in the Vietnam war.

And you’d have surely thought this if you read press accounts of last month’s meeting. Although over 800 media folk were there, for most intrepid reporters “there” meant press news briefings and glamour sessions like “Space Travel for All,” “The Healthy Side of Eating Chocolate,” and AAAS President Stephen Jay Gould’s keynote address.

But out in the trenches -- that is, in gorgeous conference rooms where the real work of the meeting was taking place -- at least 14 major panels devoted themselves to the burning social and ecological issues of the day.

And for the most part, the presentations and discussions were at an astonishingly high level.

We’d dreamt, in 1969-71, that someday scientists and researchers would devote their considerable talents (and resources!) to promoting positive social change. I am here to report that, on the evidence of the AAAS meeting, it is happening -- in thunder.

And it’s not just the mainstream media that’s missing the story. The “alternative” press was nowhere to be found -- their hearts doubtless still back in 1969-71, when many of us supposed that the only Good Science would come from independent researchers without Ph.D.s. who’d never be caught dead at an AAAS function.

Listen up, folks: Today’s AAAS is nothing like the one from a generation ago.

Its Science and Human Rights Program gives aid and comfort to scientists, teachers and students in oppressive backwaters around the world. Its Black Churches Initiative helps thousands of churches do science and math education. Its Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion is trying to raise issues of values and ethics in every lab and lecture hall.

Because I wasn’t aware of how much AAAS had changed, I wasn’t prepared for the exuberance of the 14 politically relevant panels I attended over four days last month -- each of them three hours long, and hopelessly compelling -- which left me rudely cutting in and out of them (and catching someone’s flu in return), and scribbling copious notes so you my subscribers could share my sense of them --.

Around the world in 14 panels

-- At the Ecosystem Services: A Free Lunch? panel, scientists from the universities of Florida, Georgia, Arizona, and several government agencies covered some of the ground Paul Hawken and the Lovinses covered in Natural Capitalism (RAM #3) -- with less guff and more science.

“There’s a ‘tax’ on ecosystem services [whether we choose to admit it or not],” Katherine Ewel of the Forest Service concluded, and the pressing question is “what kind of subsidy has to be provided in order to obtain that service [and] what is the price of not obtaining a competing service from the same ecosystem. . . .”

-- At Three Jobs, Two People: 21st Century Solutions to Overwork, Rosalind Barnett of Brandeis University confounded panelists (and much of the audience) when she suggested that creating “reduced-hours work options” was a “knee-jerk reaction” to the problem of couples suffering from overwork.

But she won many over with her passionate reminder that people are individuals, and many such individuals don’t want to give up doing original research, don’t want to select themselves out of certain areas of specialization (surgery; litigation; newsletter editing), etc. Her conclusion: Workplace reform can’t substitute for choosing an appropriate mate. . . .

-- At Who Will the World Feed in the 21st Century?, scientists from three continents reached a (tenuous) consensus that a combination of traditional, organic and biotech farming methods can best address the food needs of the developing world.

Some also had the temerity to address non-tech issues: Ed Schuh, for example, from the University of Minnesota, showed that households are the key to alleviating malnutrition in the developing countries (since “food is combined with labor in the household”), and he pleaded with policymakers to “emphasize the importance of schooling for women and girls. . . .”

-- At Cyberterrorism in the Next Millennium, Kevin Poulsen -- the first U.S. hacker charged with espionage (and now a technology journalist) -- argued vociferously that there’s no such thing as cyberterrorism, that power grids pose a much more real and immediate danger, etc. It was uncannily like the radicals in the Sixties arguing that the Soviet Union wasn’t a threat, and the youthful and casually dressed Poulsen provoked an uncannily familiar enmity from the scientists and lawyers on the panel. . . .

-- At Prophylaxis or Therapy, British for “Prevention or Treatment,” a plurality of British and American epidemiologists concluded that prevention is more cost-effective.

Tom Jefferson, from Britain’s Cochrane Center, analyzed why funders are relatively uninterested in preventive approaches (fear of shutting down hospitals, beads-and-sandals image of prevention, tendency for successes -- e.g., polio prevention -- to quickly disappear from public consciousness), and Marianne Prout from the Boston U. School of Medicine emphasized the complexity of prevention (was the decline in smoking fueled by changes in public norms? higher cigarette taxes? the Surgeon-General’s report? the nonsmokers’ rights movement?). Prout drew the moral that “only comprehensive approaches [to prevention] work. . . .”

-- At Violent Crime and Punishment in the U.S., Steve Levitt of the University of Chicago -- a self-described “right-wing radical” -- demonstrated that violent crime isn’t going down nearly as fast as the prison population is rising (conclusion: get the petty shoplifters and petty drug dealers out of there!).

Then Jeff Fagan of Columbia University demonstrated that the conservatives’ “broken windows” theory of crime is all wrong and that the liberals’ poverty theory is all wrong. It’s the norms, stupid: When a neighborhood fills up with kids who’ve imbibed poisonous social norms (e.g., gun use equals respect), contiguous neighborhoods often become poisoned too -- whether or not there are broken windows, whether or not there’s poverty. Fagan to us: Go after the guns, go after the gangs -- break the back of the perverse person-to-person relationships that poison the neighborhoods. . . .

-- At Anticipating Science and Technology’s Futures, three previous RAM subjects stole the show.

Michael Marien (RAM #4) attacked AAAS President Gould for his studied unwillingness to make predictions about the future, let alone articulate “preferred futures or visions.” Joe Coates (RAM #7) anatomized some the reasons scientists tend to avoid looking at the future -- fear of appearing bizarre; narrow horizon of most professional fields; fear of spotlighting politically incorrect implications of research. Finally Clem Bezold (RAM #4) demonstrated the indispensability of futures thinking, for science and social change alike: Those who have “aligned their practices, visions and values are more effective by a factor of 12. . . .”

I haven’t even begun to describe such panels as “Sustainability Science,” “Organic Agriculture,” “Technology and Inequality,” “Ecological Forecasting,” and “Weapons of Mass Destruction and Scientific Responsibility”; but I suspect you share by now my sense of the informed hope and constructive energy the political panels conveyed.

The only cloud hanging over them was, as I say, my colleagues in the press.

The mainstream media was too fat and lazy to clamber beyond the flashiest events and discover the political panels within. The alternative press was AWOL, still mistrustful of science and technology and/or still convinced that people with credentials and resources are Off the Bus.

That leaves a huge niche. And RADICAL MIDDLE is happy to fill it!


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