Interview with Science and Politics

Science and Politics: Hi, y’all,

It is a great honor to be interviewed here. I have read several of the previous interviews and I see I am in some great company.

First, let me introduce myself and my blog. I was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and I came to the USA in 1991, just one week before the war started over there. I’ve been there to visit only once since then – in 1995. In 1994 I got into grad school in the Department of Zoology at NCSU. I got my MS in 1998 and my US citizenship in the same year. I am close to finishing my PhD and have no cemented plans for the future, although I hope to get a postdoc and do the whole academic trajectory shtick. I also teach biology to adult non-science majors at the local community college.

In the early 1990s I spent some time on Usenet, both in groups covering the Balkan wars and on biology/evolution boards, like the famous Darwin-L group. I got too busy with research after a while and avoided Internet for a few years. I got back into it in 2003. as the Democratic primaries were getting closer and blogged around the clock on the Edwards blog for about a year. Once he conceded, I blogged for a while on forums, Kerry-Edwards forums and the OneAmericaCommittee blog.

In August 2004 I decided on a spur of the moment to start my own blog. What I wanted to do was save some of my best essays from campaign blogs somewhere online, as the campaign blogs started to shut down. I gave the blog a title “Science And Politics” because I did not give it sufficient thought – I do not think it correctly reflects the substance or the tone of my blog, but my readers refused to let me change the name.

In January of 2005 I did two things: I got out of pseudonimity – I was known only as Coturnix until then – and I started my second blog, Circadiana, which is an entirely science blog, with no wiff of personal or political on it. This made Science And Politics less of a science-blog, and more of a personal and political blog.

A couple of months after the election ’04, I noticed my blogging style has changed. The long political rants became rare and they were replaced by numerous shorter posts linking to interesting bloggers, news, etc. I wrote more posts on my own personal history, or what my kids did that was funny or smart. I started writing about blogging and the sociology of the blogosphere. I started doing memes, linkfests and online quizzes, and started posting pictures of animals and cartoons. Instead of being my soapbox, my blog became a meeting place for my friends and a nucleus for a blogging community to form around. This resulted in getting MORE readers! Go figure.

One of the things I recognized as important as soon as I saw one, are the blog carnivals. I have hosted more than a dozen so far, founded one, and was part of founding a couple of others. I compiled a meta-carnival for a few months until some more tech-savvy people built the excellent website. I wrote about the phenomenon of blog carnivals a few times and was invited to ConvergeSouth bloggercon to talk about them.

Finally, I am in the process of turning a bunch of long-winded posts from Science And Politics into a blook. Hopefully, I’ll get it done in time for entering the Blooker Awards.

Simon Owens: In your bio, you describe yourself as a “Red-State Serbian Jewish atheist liberal PhD student.” Which red state do you live in and how has your environment acted towards you as a religious and political minority?

Science and Politics: I live in North Carolina. However, I live in the Triangle area. After a couple of months in Hendersonville, 11 years in Raleigh and 9 months in Cary, I’ve now settled in the Liberal Zoo of the South – Chapel Hill. This, combined with living in the Ivory Tower of the University, mostly shielded me from the most Red elements of the Red state. My Kerry-Edwards sticker was ripped off my car when I went to Wrightsville Beach last summer. When teaching, I try to hide my political inclinations like a snake hides his legs. I had run-ins with Bushie members of the (in-law) family, especially when they had too much to drink after dinner and wanted to challenge the liberal half of the family. As a blogger I am much better informed than most, so I naturally become the spokesperson for the Blue side of the family in such debates. But, in general, I had no problems. NC is pretty Purple anyway, and the Triangle area is mostly Blue.

Some of the family members with no Internet experience are scared for me because of that header on my blog. They are paranoid that someone is going to do me harm because I openly state that I am atheist and liberal and all the rest. But, as a blogger I am not shrill. I tend, most of the time, not to use satire and sarcasm, call people names (not even Bush), or get into flame-wars. I rarely blog about the Washington DC news-of-the-day or the latest David Broder or David Brooks editorial. I try to be polite to all of the commenters, even if I vehemently disagree with them. I have never deleted anyone’s comment, nor banned anyone, not even the trolls. I insist that the Tar Heel Tavern, the carnival of NC bloggers, remain bipartisan and/or apolitical, and I became friends with several local Republican and libertarian bloggers.

As a born-and-raised atheist, I feel no need to constantly rage against religion (except the political effects of the extreme Religious Right) – it is the converts to atheism that need to constantly talk about it. Thus, I have not made many enemies through my blog so far. On the contrary, I have made many friends.

Simon Owens: As someone who is interested in science, do you find yourself to be more skeptical than the average person?

Science and Politics: Yes. As a kid, I devoured Erich von Daniken, the UFO books, astrology and all that crap, as well as real science, and really was unable to tell the difference – it was all so cool about the way world works and about solving mysteries. By the time I was about 14 or so, I have read enough real science to realize that all the other stuff was crap. Hearing my older broher call it “crap” also helped me rethink all the pseudoscience that was peddled out there.

I taught myself critical thinking early on and kept at it all along. As a chronobiologist I sometimes bump into people who want to tell me about their biorhythms. This forced me to look into the most efficient ways to debunk it. Likewise, as an experimental biologist, I had to look into the fallacies of the Animal Rights movement. The recent attacks on evolution also made me seek the information on the best strategies for countering creationist arguments – something I found useful in teaching biology to adults! Finally, the last five years made me aware of the art of political spin, so I read people like Lakoff and Ducat in order to learn how to deconstruct the Right-wing propaganda.

Simon Owens: Why do you think conservatives seem to fear science so much? Is it because it can work to debase their religious beliefs or is there a deeper issue at hand?

Science and Politics: Why do you think conservatives seem to fear science so much? Is it because it can work to debase their religious beliefs or is there a deeper issue at hand?

Well, there are conservatives and there are conservatives. Many are not afraid of science at all. Many are scientists or engineers themselves. Many are strongly invested in environmetal protection and conservation. I link to and regularly read several science blogs written by conservatives.

There are three groups of conservatives that fight the War Against Science and of those three only one is “afraid” of it – the religious conservatives, for obvious reasons. In the modern world, people trust empirical evidence more than the voice of authority. They like to see data and graphs. That is why creationists have to hide themselves behind science-sounding terminology – that is the only way to sell religion in the 21st century.

The other group contains the business leaders who fight against scientific information that, if became publicly known, can lead to regulation that can potentially reduce their profits or at least force them to do some extra work and make extra investments. It is not fear of science, but a greedy short-term thinking that trumps the considerations of global and long-term consequencess of the way they do business.

The third group are Republican politicians. While some of them belong to either one of the previous two groups, others are privately perfectly comfortable with science, some of them even quite knowledgeable. But the pollsters see it differently, so these politicians pander to both of their bases (religious and business) by selling out on scientific issues. Even a smart guy like McCain found it politically neccessary to endorse teaching of Intelligent Design Creationism. They know that without the Big Religion and Big Business they cannot get elected so they sell science down the river. But they are not afraid of science per se.

So, conservatives for whom either God, or Money, or Power are more important than the future of the world we are leaving to our grandchildren, will fight against science. Those who are not slaves to these three gods are quite fine with science and even try to fight for it. They are just, for the moment, marginalized and hushed within their party, but that is bound to change. Laws of nature do not care about our political preferences and the facts will, in the end, force even the most indoctrinated to deal with reality.

Simon Owens: What are the five blogs everyone should be reading (besides your own)?

Science and Politics: It is so hard to limit myself to just five. Check my blogroll to see some of my other preferences beyond the five I’ll place here.

I am a Pharynguloid, i.e., a frequent commenter on PZ Myer’s blog Pharyngula. I suggest you bookmark the whole stable of science bloggers at ScienceBlogs hosted by the Seed Magazine – they even have a common RSS feed. Along with Pharyngula, you’ll find another dozen or so of the best science blogs out there (this allows me NOT to separatelly point out Intersection, Aetiology, Afarensis, Dispatches From The Culture Wars, Cognitive Daily, Living the Scientific Life, Adventures in Ethics and Science, Evolgen, Deltoid, Stranger Fruit etc.) and check out THEIR blogrolls for more.

I cut my commenting/blogging teeth on Legal Fiction and still find it an excellent read. That is the only blog which I dug through the archives and read every post. I am surprised that he is not an A-lister by now.

Another daily must-read is Lance Mannion – the best writer in the blogosphere. It does not matter if he writes about movies, books or politics – it is always a riveting read.

A strong challenger to Lance as far as great writing is Chris Clarke of Creek Running North.

Finally, I think I have to choose for your readers a more typical Lefty political blog with snark and spunk. There are many excellent blogs like that, but I feel most comfortable at Shakespeare’s Sister - look at her blogroll for more.

You can find Science and Politics over here.

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