Failure in Science Communication – Jon Stewart

I’ve only just caught up with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, even though they were in repeats this week.  I didn’t note Marilynne Robinson’s appearance on the July 8 edition of The Daily Show because there was nothing about her work that suggested to me there would be scientific content.  My guess was essentially correct, as I found her remarks inconsistent and not well constructed.  Having just watched the interview, I needed to post about it because of something Jon Stewart said.

Robinson and Stewart talked about the religion vs. science conflict, but I won’t.  I don’t get into it on this blog, mostly because I find it a waste of time and an easy way to collect comments that I find usually have an ephemeral relationship with reason.  This interview was an attempt to address the topic, but an effort that I think failed because of a lack of coherence from both interviewer and subject.

But on to the failure of science communication.  At roughly 2:54 into the interview, Stewart says something that suggests he’s either never understood, or never been exposed to someone who can effectively communicate, why science can make claims about things that are outside of direct observation.  Stewart’s comments (this is a rough transcript, but you can watch the video to make sure I’m not misrepresenting things.  He’s recounting conversations, so while it reads like two people, it’s actually all Stewart:
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Space Emerges on PCAST Agenda

Generally speaking, the public comment sessions of government meetings that I attend reflect a general lack of engagement by the citizens with the day-to-day ephemera of the government.  Granted, some of this comes from a lack of knowledge of various meetings or an inability to participate (though online means of comment are gaining ground) rather than a lack of interest.

The President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) has pretty consistently had a few public comments at each of its meetings.  While some of them have been from interest groups representing a host of people, there have always been individuals who saw fit to speak their mind.  Today’s PCAST meeting saw a dramatic increase in these comments, with nine of the eleven comments speaking to some aspect of space exploration.

The messages of those commenting were sometimes at cross purposes (some support Constellation, some do not, some want to go to the Moon, others to Mars), so I can’t believe that it was part of an organized campaign.  People recognized that today marked the 41st anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, and that the NASA authorization bill was working its way through the Senate.  The comments were all sincere, well-thought out, and occasionally supported with detailed papers.  Both co-chairs, Dr. Holdren and Dr. Lander, specifically mentioned an interest in getting into these papers, noting that many on PCAST were following issues in space policy with interest.  For what it’s worth, there is no PCAST working group or subcommittee on space, so I do not expect a formal report from PCAST on the issue.  But it would not surprise me if Dr. Holdren, in his capacity as Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, engaged with this issue.  PCAST may well issue some informal recommendations on this topic as well, but I have no sense of what consensus might emerge from the group.