Blog Action Day ’09: Science and Senator Allen

15 Oct 2009 02:04 pm
Posted by: Donna

It’s Blog Action Day ’09, brought to us by, which is “an annual event held every October 15 that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day with the aim of sparking discussion around an issue of global importance”.

It’s a great idea and I certainly would not want to be excluded from “one of the largest-ever social change events on the web” on account of I’m a sociable gal who wants change. When I was thinking about what I wanted to blog about and surfing the tubez for inspiration I came across this review of a book that came out last summer, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future by science jounalist Chris Mooney and researcher Sheril Kirshenbaum. Reviewer Mark Maximov specifically mentioned our very own Sen. Sylvia Allen, who became a youtube sensation recently.

Last month, at an Arizona state senate hearing, a Republican legislator named Sylvia Allen casually tossed off a statistic that, if true, would unravel the last 200 years of painstaking progress in geological research.

Speaking on a proposal for a new uranium mine, she asserted matter-of-factly that “the Earth’s been here 6,000 years, long before anybody had environmental laws, and somehow it hasn’t been done away with.” The hearing was videotaped, and a clip of her remark was posted on the Internet, exposing her ignorance of basic science to a predictable chorus of mockery and disdain. None of which, of course, has the slightest chance of causing Allen, or other believers of the so-called young Earth hypothesis, to change their minds.

Visitor Konfused Kancer commented to my Tuesday Energy Blog inquiring what relevance Sylvia Allen’s belief that the Earth is 6000 years old has to the development of solar energy in our state. It’s actually a fair question on its face if, like Kancer, you don’t understand the context in which Allen expressed her belief and the long history of resistance to science by religious conservatives. The reason it matters that Sylvia Allen subscribes to a Young Earth theory where environmental policy is concerned is self-evident in what she said. She views science as a threat to her belief system the scientific community as hostile to people like her. Her statement at the hearing was no mere accidental expression of ignorance. It was a shout out in solidarity with others who adhere to the same literal interpretation of Scripture as she does. I’m fairly sure she knew exactly what she was doing.

It cannot be emphasized enough: Sen. Allen may not be scientifically literate, but she’s no dummy and no shrinking violet. What was her response to the chorus of mockery? Did Sylvia Allen hide in shame or backpedal on her contention that the world is 6000 years old? Not hardly. Last month she convened a panel of global warming skeptics at the State Senate for a hearing to allow them to “debunk” climate change. That’s how Sylvia rolls. She is not to be misunderestimated. And this is precisely what the authors of Unscientific America and others who want to increase popular interest in science want us to understand.

It’s an argument that’s been gaining currency lately. In their prologue, the authors thank filmmaker Randy Olson, whose 2006 documentary, Flock of Dodos, made the same case. Like Olson, they think the scientific community’s typical response to public displays of ignorance—the extreme version of which they dub the “you’re an idiot” model of engagement—has been counterproductive: “The scientist ceases to be a friendly instructor and becomes a condescending detractor and belittler.” Which is, of course, no way to win friends and influence people.

Mocking Sylvia Allen may provide hours of entertainment but it’s only going to drive her further into the comforting arms of her church and Exxon shills. She, and many others like her, will continue to interpret science and concern for the environment as a repudiation of religious conservatives and their values. More importantly to us in Arizona, it’s not going to help a scientifically literate candidate of either party defeat Allen at the polls, nor is it going expedite investment in solar and other sustainable energies in our state. As Maximov reminds us:

If the authors’ contention is true, that roughly 46 percent of Americans agree with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,” and this percentage hasn’t changed since pollsters started asking the question in 1982, any new strategy of public engagement is worth trying.

Since the aim of Blog Action Day is to spark discussion, what are some insights you guys have on effective public engagement about science and environmental issues?


  1. Comment by Eli_Blake on October 15, 2009 4:15 pm

    She is unfortunately my Senator.

    First, I wouldn’t worry about driving her ‘further’ into the arms of the extreme right, because they already own her.

    Second, I believe that it is right and proper to ask a question like this in a debate or other forum. There are a lot of moderate but educated Republicans and Independents whose aversion to conservatism springs not from fiscal issues but to fundamentalism as a political agenda. Just like asking them in a public forum, “do you believe in evolution?” I’d say that this forces them to take a position which may gin up their base but which leaves a lot of swing voters cold.

  2. Comment by Donna on October 15, 2009 6:25 pm

    I agree that they should be asked about their views on evolution at candidate forums and in debates. Absolutely. Voters have a right to know what informs the opinions of their elected leaders on science and education. I wouldn’t advise their opponents to react with open derision toward them if they reveal themselves to be Creationists, since that would leave a lot of swing voters (many of whom are at least nominally religious) cold as well.

    But on the topic of environmentalism, is it possible to present it to the many Americans who think the world is 6000 years old in a way that reconciles it with their belief and doesn’t compromise accuracy and logic? I’m thinking that’s where scientists are coming off (unintentionally in many cases) as insulting and pedantic when in reality they are trying to be keep things evidence-based and factual when dealing with people who base their opinions on faith and dogma. It’s two totally different approaches to the world.

    IOW, is it possible to convey to people that they can think the world is 6000 years old AND think we need to address climate change?

  3. Comment by Appleblossom on October 15, 2009 7:01 pm

    I usually ask if they think that God’s time is exactly the same as human time and if not, then is it not possible that God had the sense to take some time in creating the wonderous world around us? And the marvelous brains we have to use? :)

  4. Comment by Donna on October 15, 2009 8:01 pm

    Yeah, Appleblossom, that’s the kind of message that a folksy, likable Carl Sagan-type scientist or mainstream theologian could popularize with the half the country who takes comfort in faith and religious traditions but hasn’t been given a different frame through which to perceive concepts like “the world was created in 6 days” and “we’ve been here for 6000 years”.

  5. Comment by Appleblossom on October 16, 2009 12:10 am

    Catch more flies with sugar than vinegar although why I have no idea.

  6. Comment by Donna on October 16, 2009 12:25 am

    I think you can catch flies with both. Personally, salt and vinegar is my favorite brand of potato chips but I’m not opposed to luring people in with the honey BBQ flavor.

  7. Comment by Appleblossom on October 16, 2009 11:33 am

    What really bugs me about these guys is they try to limit God-if God is infinite and all, why try to limit it to our own notions of time?

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