Sunday, September 30, 2007

Submit Your Nominees for "The Socrates":
The Bayblab Awards for Scientific Discourse

“Information, usually seen as the precondition of debate, is better understood as its by-product.” - Christopher Lasch

“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 Ottawa, home of the Bayblab, this Canadian IS the modern-day Socrates.

Blogging - Prof. Larry Moran, University of Toronto:
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, University of Toronto:
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.


kamel said...

Thanks for the props, and I love this idea, by the way.

I've been pondering some possible nominees (apart from yourself, of course, since you're obviously a discourse man). Only a couple so far, but I'll revisit this later, I'm sure:

Journalism - George Stromboulopoulous/The Hour:
I'm only an on-again/off-again watcher of CBC's The Hour, but every time I find it engaging and entertaining and unusually honest for a current affairs show. Even with the lighter fare, Stromboulopoulos actually interviews his guests for info and opinion instead of the usual repetitive questions and fishing for soundbites, and with the more serious material he doesn't shy away from controversy or the tough questions.

Politics - Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert:
Maybe 'comedy' would be a more appropriate category - I'll let you be the judge - but these two, with their humour, challenge the current American politic in a unique way. It might not be the most scientific of discourse, but it's discourse nonetheless - and certainly gets people talking.

Unrelated to the topic at hand, I think this post may be broken. The comment link in the footer (which is formatted strangely) leads to digg, and the sidebar is now at the bottom of the page, below the posts.

Anonymous said...

Journalism: Christopher Hitchens

Bayman said...

Nice choices. Reminded me there's still some discourse to be found on TV...even if in the US it takes a comedian under the guise of satire to do so.

Love the diversity of guests George gets as well.

Anonymous said...

"combating climate change should not hinder economic growth."
George Dubya Bush

Bayman said...

Post reconstructed and fixed, sidebar is back. Turns out IE didn't like the punctuation in my title. Piece of crap.

kamel said...

Here are a couple more nominees from me:

Literature - Kurt Vonnegut
I'm not sure if your rules exclude granting a Socrates posthumously, but if not I nominate Kurt Vonnegut, most famous as author of Slaughterhouse Five but author of 13 other novels, as well as numerous short stories and essays. Often funny, occasionally absurd and almost always thought-provoing, he was an idea man and a well known anti-war voice.

Science - Paul Crutzen
Seems reasonable to add another scientist to this list. Crutzen won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1995 for his research in ozone depletion. Crutzen may have been one of the first voices to speak out against greenhouse gases and man-made global warming (also pioneering the idea of nuclear winter in the 1980s). Crutzen continues to be a voice for the environment, questioning the wisdom of biofuels and their environmental impact and proposing potential solutions to combat global warming.