Guest BloggersScience

Reader Rants: What Scientists actually do (Violent J? You there?) – Kirsten Mackenzie

Much Muthafukkin Clown Science!Scientists may be always pissing off Violent J and Shaggy and lying to them about how fuckin’ magnets work (which, yes, are lyrics that I am still amused by and believe with every bit of my soul that J’s profound questions about the universe will be the topic of philosophical Juggalo debates for centuries to come… provided weed and Faygo still exist for centuries to come), but Kirsten sees it a little differently. She claims that perhaps it is not the scientists who are lying, but some assholes in between Shaggy and the scientists, or maybe even Shaggy himself, who are the liars.

I admit, this was not submitted to me as a direct rebuttal to Insane Clown Posse’s Miracles, but it’s my feature, and I can frame this however I want!  Anyway, on to Kirsten’s rant:

Scientists, not lying about magnets

Kirsten Mackenzie

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s ignorance. Ignorance, in my opinion, is the only true stupidity because it not only requires an absence of knowledge, it requires someone to willfully turn their cheek against new information. One of the most prolific forms of ignorance that I see these days is the belief that common folk know waaaaay more than those nerdy, lab-bound scientists who are always telling us to change the way we do things. Take, for example, the caller to the CBC the other day.

The noon-hour show, BC Almanac was discussing the recent recommendation from the David Suzuki Foundation (backed up by a host of scientists in peer-review) that at least 50% of British Columbia be “conserved” in order to limit the impacts of global warming and provide a buffer for species that will need to adapt to a warming climate. I put “conserve” in quotation marks because they weren’t actually advocating that we set aside half of the province in a giant no-touch zone.. rather, they were advocating a more science-based management scheme that would address the needs of whole ecosystems. Forestry would still be allowed, but it would be managed differently. Ditto with other forms of land use. Sustainability would be promoted, and more effort would be spent on replanting forests, salvaging already cut wood, collecting waste material for biofuels, etc..

And of course the first caller was someone who didn’t believe a word of it.

“The government already set aside 12% of the province in parks and that’s enough. We need jobs, so we need to cut down all the trees we can. Scientists sit around in their labs and offices and make these recommendations, but they don’t know anything about where we live.”

We sit around in our labs? We don’t know what’s going on out there? I’m sorry, but most of the scientists I know spend the vast majority of their lives constantly studying – in the lab, in the field, in the community – in order to make recommendations like this. And a sustainable economy will still have jobs – they just won’t be the type that you’re used to. You might not make as much, but the days when you could make $70-grand a year just for driving a truck back and forth on a dirt road are coming to close, and they’re not coming back. We need to put more value into using the resources we have, and less into just cutting them down and sending them away.

Anyway, this type of willful ignorance of science and how’s it’s done drives me nuts. I’m a scientist, I’m from a small town, and I spend a lot of time out there looking at what is best for the environment. I don’t take any recommendations like this lightly. But when a recommendation like this is made, there has to be some effort by the people out there to understand why it’s recommended, what it will really mean for them, and what they can do to mitigate the effects on themselves and on the environment.

Kirsten is a fisheries biologist living in a small town in northern British Columbia. She spends the vast majority of her summer tromping around the wilderness assessing fish habitat and communities for a variety of proposed industrial projects (mostly mining). In the winter she spends the vast majority of her time writing about what she did all summer. In her spare time, she’s a bagpiper, skier, fisher, procrastinator, amateur photographer (very amateur) and online lurker. Occasionally, she likes to rant about stories in the news.  She has two cats named Beaker and Bunsen, and a significant other who thankfully feeds them.

Check out her bloggy bits at!


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. On thing that burns my candle even more than just a simple willful ignorance is willful ignorance with certainty. There seems to be a lot of sentiment in the US that there’s no need to protect the enviroment for our children, because Jesus is coming back within our lifetimes and make everything better. With a notion like that, not only can you not put a book in their face, but even if they read it, they still have that certainty that it doesn’t matter anyways. That book then stops being a learning tool. Once that happens, the only thing you can do with it is use it to beat them.

  2. I’m with you on this. I’m amazed by the people who are satisfied with not knowing much, and who seem uninterested in learning more about the world around them. I don’t expect everybody to be brilliant, just to have an intellectual curiosity.

  3. Great post!! The concerning problem I see more and more of is a near pride soome take in being ignorant and stigmatizing science and scientists.

    The only issue I’d have with Suzuki’s call to conserve half of BC is that it’s a value judgment that really is a matter for the population as a whole through their representatives to decide about, and a plan people can have different and valid opinions about. While the science and facts on the ground may be solid, what the nation of Canada chooses to do may involve political compromises and deciding to sacrifice some species for the sake of short and long term economic stability. That decision may or may not be about good or bad science depending on your philosophy and values. In the end it’s about realistically managing human interactions with the environment and how realistic is defined will be the rub.

  4. @James Fox: I agree that all of Canada must decide what is right economically, ecologically, and politically; however, it’s important to try to understand what the recommendations are from all of the stakeholders, and why those recommendations are being made. Of course we need jobs, and maybe it’s too idealistic to think that all out-of-work loggers can become eco-salvagers and support their families and communities like they once did. But the comment from the caller flat-out denied that there was any reason to change the way things are being done, and implied that it’s their god-given right to get paid $40/hr to chop down trees and send the raw logs out of the country like they’ve always done. It’s attitudes like this that burn me because these people are ignorant of the mere possibility that things could be done differently. Perhaps it’s fear that keeps them mired in ignorance – if they recognize that there are alternatives, they might have to change something… and it comes down to the devil they know or the devil they don’t.

    @Elyse: no problem! baby hormones can take the blame :)

  5. You know, I think I can see what part of the problem is here. A lot of people think that scientists occupy the same position in society that a lot of politicians do.

    I.E. they avoid actually being a part of what they work on. So when a scientist comes out with a study showing that they should be conserving a certain amount of British Columbia, everyone assumes that that scientist doesn’t live and wasn’t raised in British Columbia, or doesn’t have any personal investment or interest in it, and just wants a pay check.

    Just like when a politician that was born into an affluent white family, had his parents pay his way through law school, became a Senator and coasted on public money to wherever he is now talks about what’s good for Main Street U.S.A. when he’d roll his windows up as he drove down it.

  6. Of course, another problem is that there are so many Stealth Scientists. Most scientists if you asked them what they do for a living aren’t going to say “I’m a scientist.” They’ll say, “I’m a grad student,” or “I teach at [University],” or “I work on [insert field of research].” You mightget a short answer like, “I’m a chemist,” or “I’m a biologist,” but most likely not since those are such overarching fields.

    So people can go through life with scientists as acquaintances or distant relatives without ever knowing they are scientists. The scientists that get into the news for major discoveries are generally ones that are very well established and have either been lucky or spent a life dedicated to their pursuits, so they look like, and likely are in an upper level of our socioeconomic strata, so they look elitist.

  7. And to make this a triple post;

    Listen to me, I’m a whale biologist!

    (Actually, I’m a Supramolecular Chemist, but, Futurama reference.)

  8. I agree with much of what Kirsten says.

    However, scientists *don’t* always live in the same world. Take, for example, the BSE crisis in the UK in which scientists recommended the separation of high-risk (spinal and brain tissue) and low-risk (steak) bovine products. It took five years for the policies to be effectively enforced because the scientists failed to get input from the butchers – what works in the lab and in theory doesn’t always work in the real world.

    The policy as originally written was impractical so wasn’t implemented; this resulted in the continued contamination of the food chain for five years after the ban was supposedly in place. Only once the butchers were consulted, they were able to identify how to improve it, and was the food supply made safe. This type of information is often known as “situated knowledge”.

    However, I do agree that in many cases scientific advice is just that, scientific advice. However, “science” is not the only factor which needs to be considered; there are economic factors, social factors and political factors, all of which need to be considered and balanced.

    This isn’t to say scientific advice should be ignored – quite the opposite, it should be vocal in providing information – but that it is often one factor amongst many, and that scientists cannot be put in the position of making policy.

  9. @here_fishy: I totally agree. I live just south of the border and the whole logging culture has changed in Washington State over the past twenty/thirty years and the old school expectation of there always being logs for loggers is pretty much gone.

  10. Great rant! I’m also a scientist and I can’t stand the “they just sit around in their labs and don’t know about the real world” arguments. I often hear this in the form of – “I don’t care what studies say, I go by real life experience” (such as in an argument I had with my daughter’s day care provider who swears that flu shots are not safe for kids). What the hell is empirical evidence if not real world experience writ large?

  11. @DavidW: Of course, the question is, was that really the scientists didn’t consult the butchers at all, or did the bill start out entirely reasonable, but requiring effort, which sparked off protests from lobbyists in the meat industry, causing the bill to get altered, which made it impractical or useless in implementation, which got it mired in a political mess?

  12. I normally think of a rant as having little organization or structure and as being more of an expression of emotion than anything else. This is a very concise and clear argument in favor of open mindedness.

    If this is how you rant, here_fishy, your structured arguments must be really something. =^_^=

  13. @ Skept-artist: I find it hard to believe Juggalos live long enough to be considered elders. Or is this just anyone outside of the 18-34 demographic that’s a Juggalo considered an elder?

  14. It would be nice, just once, if the host of a call-in-show was a little more knowledgeable, and told such a caller:

    “I’m sorry to tell you, and perhaps some future callers, but you’re wrong. Scientists did not just sit in their labcoats and make these recommendations. They used hard data, collected by them and other scientists, yes, some with clipboards, and used data published before, and after getting all the evidence, made a conclusion, and wrote it up in a report. And now it’s up to the politicians to make up their minds on how they use it.
    And if you think cutting down the rest of BC will provide more jobs in the long run than the proposals these lab-coat wearing scientists came up with, you’re not just wrong, you’re stupid.

    Now, who’s our next caller?”

  15. @JerryM: omg, wouldn’t that be nice??

    Scientists suffer from a lot of misconceptions from the public – we’re elitist because we went on to higher education, we’re obsessed with test tubes and can’t see beyond our lab safety goggles into the real world, we (especially environmental scientists) just want everyone to go back to living in caves and eating tofu, we occasionally change our minds about how things work, so we really don’t know what we’re doing, and we’re all baby-eating atheists who shouldn’t be listened to anyway. Somewhere along the line, we went from being the people who could bring you “Liquid Plumber”, cure diseases, and send humans to space, to being the nerdy blowhards who predict the end of the world and want us to give up all our technology – and oddly it’s all happening in an era when science and technology are more visible than ever before. I guess there’s always been some push-back from lay people who don’t like to hear what scientists have to say (darwin? galileo?), but it seems to be getting louder these days.

    @JillianSwift: I rant in print form because I’m incapable of holding my own in an oral debate. My brain doesn’t hold on to things that it hears very well, so I drift off topic, forget what I’m saying, and am excruciatingly slow to craft a response. Blogging allows me to think hard about my argument before I publish it, and is usually preceded by days of internal ranting until I’ve got my story straight :)

  16. @here_fishy: Damn, your brain functions like mine.

    @JillianSwift: Usually a rant is a highly emotional thing, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be completely scatter-shot in nature. Being a BOL fan I have grown used to incisive rants on a single topic in the form of the Molly Rant, named for co-host Molly Wood.

  17. (Sigh). It is not science, or environmental policy that is threatening the logging industry (here in BC), it’s economics. There is too much supply and not enough demand. The caller’s suggestion of cutting down all the trees he can would make the situation worse.

    I’m not sure that this is ‘willful’ ignorance, though. The caller could just be stupid.

  18. I agree with most of this except the opening paragraph. It appears as though your whole post concerns willful ignorance. There is a more common form of ignorance where people merely haven’t been exposed to information yet. I admit ignorance on a great many subjects. I could not, for example, tell you know the prime minister of Canada is to save my life.

  19. (Analytical Chemist/Statistician) I don’t think there’s been much of a change in the way the general public view “Science”, but rather for the first time in history anyone has started giving a fig about what “Joe Shmoe” actually thinks.

    All that’s changed is that today we care about what people think. I blame democracy.

    It could be argued that in western cultures, given that everyone (give or take) is “educated” relative to historic standards, there is little or no shame associated with being, not stupid but unimformed, because education is no longer the preserve of wealthy.

  20. @here_fishy: these people are ignorant of the mere possibility that things could be done differently. Perhaps it’s fear that keeps them mired in ignorance – if they recognize that there are alternatives, they might have to change something… and it comes down to the devil they know or the devil they don’t.

    Growing up and living here in the middle of BC I know many of these people. Some of them are friends who lost their jobs and need to adapt if they are to have a livlihood.
    Devil vs devil is certainly part of it, but I’m seeing signs of a deeper, more fundamental fear in some of them. There seems to be a fear that the world is changing too fast, that they cannot keep up with it, and/or, that the new world will not have a place for them, so they cling to the world where they do have a place. I do not know how to reassure these people, because, when you get right down to it, they may well be right.

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