“It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” - Joseph Joubert
In an obvious attempt to capitalize on the popularity of a recent Bayblab post, Seed Magazine has just announced the winners of its second annual writing contest, two short essays on the theme of "What does it mean to be scientifically literate in the 21st Century?"
Both essays are, in my opinion, outstanding and well worth the quick read. [Scientific Literacy and the Habit of Discourse, by Thomas W. Martin and Camelot is Only a Model: Scientific Literacy in the 21st Century, by Steven Saus.]
Both articles rightly point out that the traditions of free expression, diversity of thought, and evidence-based, dispassionate debate are critical for the advancement of science and a healthy society. Besides that, civilized argument is just damn fun; all the fun of a good fist-fight without the blood and bruising. Sadly, the authors are also correct in noting that these triumphs of human achievement are becoming increasingly rare in 21st century culture, as ideology, conformism and rigidity too often dominate our politics, journalism, universities and yes, even our science.
However the art of discourse is far from dead. To celebrate this fact, and to provide examples of how scientific discourse can maintain its relevance in this century, the Bayblab is calling for nominees for "The Bayblab Awards for Scientific Discourse" (aka "The Socrates' "). It's simple, just send in names of a person(s) from any walk of life who you feel have recently exemplified proficiency in the art of scientific discourse (in the comments section of the post below). Here are some ideas for qualities to look out for in potential nominees:
(From Thomas Martin's essay):
- "incessantly try to disprove the ideas generated by other smart people"
- "evidence-based argument"
- "imaginatively create new hypotheses and to dispassionately critique them"
- "criticize each other's ideas firmly yet civilly"
- "commitment to evidence over preconception"
- "create environments in which they [others] can safely have small epiphanies in the light of evidence"
- "changing one's mind in light of the evidence"
(From the Steven Saus essay):
- "Understanding that our scientific knowledge is "only" a model"
- "Critical, independent thought"
- knows that "The edifice of science is not in danger of crumbling; it is under constant renewal."
To get things rolling, I'll throw out a few of my own nominees (by category):
Philosophy - John Ralston Saul:
His Massey Lectures book "The Unconscious Civilization" should be the starting point for any discussion of discourse and democracy in the 21st century. Hailing from
Blogging - Prof. Larry Moran,
Sandwalk, the blog of this Canadian biochemist, is quickly becoming one of my favorites. A master at stimulating and participating in effective discourse, Larry is undoubtedly recruiting converts to the ways of discourse by the minute.
Economics - Prof. John Polanyi,
Nobel prize-winning chemist Polanyi has used his fame to stimulate discussion of many humanitarian issues over the years, particularly those those arising from the use chemical and nuclear technologies. I was impressed by his knack for dispassionate argument in promoting the SENLIS proposal for the legalization of the Afghani opium industry on a recent CBC radio program.
Politics - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran:
A politician is a politician is a politician, and so despite being my nominee in this category, I must say that Ahmadinejad's skills in the art of discourse are not necessarily in the realm of the other nominees listed above. [But please, judge for yourself by his recent TV interview and Columbia University speech/Q&A]. That said, it is perhaps a testament to the ancient academic traditions of the Persian and Islamic cultures that the Iranian President comes off as a philosopher-king when compared to the cardboard cut-out leaders of the West. So I guess he kind of gets this nomination by default - not so much for being a discourse superstar, but because most other politicians are so very bad at it.
Bayblabbers - Kamel
For a recent political post rich in discourse but devoid of detectable bias. An impressive feat indeed.
So there's my nominees. Feel free to make up your own categories and nominate as many people as you want. Provide as little or as much justification and background as you like. Once we get a bunch, we'll have a vote for the winners. Or maybe just argue about it.