Dear Sarah: It’s not too Late to Start Your Science Education
I have a sense that Sarah Palin is feeling a twinge of cognitive dissonance these days. I think she knows that she doesn’t possess even rudimentary knowledge about the science issues she comments on (evolution and environmental science, to name two), yet as a figure standing precariously on the edge of right-wing populism, she feels obliged to make one self-assured sounding statement after another. Recall her now famous, “global warming studies based on snake oil science stuff” quote, and her disparaging of fruit fly research in Europe without having any idea what the research was about or why it was important, among others.
Granted, the prerequisite knowledge requirement for the position she occupies is not high; parroting skills are valued more, and those she has in spades. But I want to step back for a moment, ignore ideology and manipulative politics, and openly wonder if Sarah could–if she chose–get the basic science education she is obviously lacking. I don’t mean go back to school, but rather challenge herself to really investigate the science behind the issues. I say yes, she could, but with a crucial caveat: she’d have to step away from the podium and really get serious about learning.
Imagine how hard this would be for any public figure whose stock in trade is making endless public appearances, rallying mobs of followers, and putting on the air of impenetrable confidence at all times. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a public figure, of course, but I think it requires so much time, and so strongly colors the mindset of the person in question that genuine learning (the sort that demands self questioning and uncomfortable critique) seldom fits. The figure would have to be willing to take a vacation from the maelstrom to engage subjects with a perspective even vaguely approaching objectivity.
Maybe I’m giving her more benefit of the doubt than warranted, but a big dose of “doubt” is exactly what I think Sarah needs. If she stepped away from her firebrand mouthpiece persona and started asking hard questions about these things she dismissively comments on, she might be surprised at what she finds. And I’ll go even further and say that I think she has enough going on upstairs to make it happen, if a sincere willingness was there–though, regrettably, I doubt it is.
I think instead that she’s found a niche in the vanguard of a political movement that simply doesn’t value science beyond its political utility. That’s why so many scientists just shake their heads and try the best they can to ignore the political arena. They aren’t elitists, they’re just tired of credible scientific investigation being ignored while politically motivated “science” gets the main stage. Who can blame them for becoming jaded?
In any case, Sarah, if you’re reading, at least consider what I’m telling you. It’s not too late, and you might even enjoy the experience.