Jon Stewart, God, Science, Mutant Fish And A Plea For Reason : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture The discussion about genetically modified salmon, left Astrophysicist Adam Frank thinking. After listening to so much passion and exaggeration, it made him wonder about reason and its place in modern society.
NPR logo Jon Stewart, God, Science, Mutant Fish And A Plea For Reason

Jon Stewart, God, Science, Mutant Fish And A Plea For Reason

Comedians Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, seen here in 2008, plan to hold dueling rallies on the National Mall in October. Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo hide caption

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Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo

Last week I had my mind changed and it was a bracing experience.

It happened right here on this blog. When Marcelo's post on genetically modified salmon appeared, I expected he would be taking a negative stance.  I am skeptical of genetically modified foods. So when I saw his arguments in favor of the salmon program my knee jerked so hard it hit me in the forehead.

But his argument was reasoned and most of all he was calling for caution.  Then, the next day, Ursula added her own perspective with a beautifully composed tutorial on what, exactly, the genetic science in this case was all about.  After reading both posts and chewing on them for a while my thinking about the salmon had shifted. I am still skeptical of genetic engineering for foods but through their arguments my perspective was broadened.

The ability to change your mind in the face of evidence and argument is the hallmark of scientific practice.  It should also be the basis for civil discourse in a free and democratic society.  Now that science has become inseparable from the functions of society, the need for civil discourse with evidence and argument driving the potential for changing minds must be recognized as our only salvation.  Without civil discourse and open minds we will lack the all-important capacity to move, to effect changes, in the face of the wholly singular challenges our historical moment seems heir too.

That is what we need.  What we have is something all together different.

In the rolling mix of media defining modern cultural life, the loudest and most extreme voices are the ones that get the greatest attention.  Even on this blog, we can see its effect.  A post on climate change draws commenters, many of whom have never posted to NPR before, delivering talking points from "denier" websites that have no firm basis in science. The tone is often so nasty that recoil is the immediate reaction.

The same nastiness appears on discussions of science and religion, as if these deepest issues deserve the meanest response. One wonders if any post on these issues, anywhere on the web, activates a network of folks who then pour in with comments. Regardless of the origin, the effect is the same and we see it playing out in the national debate on critical issues like climate, energy and resource depletion.

The loudest, shrillest voices win even though they willfully mangle the science.  Climate skeptic politicians generated press last winter by building igloos that "demonstrated" climate change to be a hoax and then are strangely silent when D.C. endures the hottest northern summer on planetary record.  A movie star continues a campaign linking vaccines and autism even though all credible research shows no connection. Discussion of genetic engineering brings knee-jerk reactions without deeper investigation.

In this age, it has become so hard to hear voices that enlighten rather than just yell.

Which brings me to Jon Stewart. The comedian/newsman has recently made our inability to reach informed consensus through dialogue a personal political cause.  With his usual upside-down insight Stewart jokes that people in the middle — the 80 percent of folks who are reasonable, take evidence seriously and a willing to have their minds changed — are voices unheard.  The extremes suck all the air out of the room, while the rest of the country appears mute.

The reason for this is simple: While the extremes can spend all day screaming down congressmen, the rest of the country is trying to get on with thier lives.  As Stewart puts it, reason is unheard because all the reasonable people "have s**t to do." To that end on Oct. 30, Stewart is hosting "The Rally to Restore Sanity" in Washington DC.  As he puts it,

Ours is a rally for the people who've been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs) — not so much the Silent Majority as the Busy Majority. If we had to sum up the political view of our participants in a single sentence... we couldn't. That's sort of the point.

And that is, for me, where Stewart connects with science.  The point is not to have your views summed up in a single sentence but to remain open to evidence and argument.  We are so desperately in need of sane, civil discourse on issues that rise directly from science's impact on the world that I can only hope Stewart's rally does exactly that — rallies our capacity for sanity.