Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Happy Science Popularizer Day - and, yes, I just made that holiday up

Today, coincidentally, is the birthday of not one but two scientists who are notable for writing books about scientific subjects for the general public. The work of the popularizer is often a thankless job, but one that I think is important because I believe that the more one knows about the world, the better off one is, and the sad fact is that each person cannot be an expert in every field. Therefore, popular works that inform about fields that can be technical to the point of confusion for one who is not an expert can be quite valuable.

So, today is the birthday of Jared Diamond, who was born on this day in 1937. Diamond has written such books as The Third Chimpanzee (1991), Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), Collapse (2005), and The World Until Yesterday (2012). His training was in physiology, and that is what he has taught at UCLA, in the medical school there. His writing, however, has seen him branch out into a number of fields, including anthropology, human evolution, and history.

Diamond has come into for his share of criticism for his work, including charges that he is too Eurocentric, that the arguments he makes in his books are weak, and that the large roles he assigns to geography and environment in the shaping of civilization are misplaced.

Like Diamond, Stephen Jay Gould, who was born on this day in 1941, has been criticized for things he wrote and said in the course of his career as a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, science historian, and prolific author of both specialist and popular books and articles. Among those criticisms were, like Diamond, that some of his explanations and arguments were weak. It is probably important to note that, especially in Gould's case, this criticism particularly has mostly come from those who disagree with his ideas and want to discount them.

It also probably has to be said that Gould did indeed take some stands that were controversial. He was co-developer, with Niles Eldredge, of the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which claims that evolutionary change is not a slow, steady process, but occurs rapidly and in bursts, with long periods of stability in between. Gould was very vocal, as well, about his rejection of sociobiology, the idea that social behaviors are rooted in biology and evolution. Additionally, Gould did not approve of cladistics, a method of biological classification, which brought him a measure of criticism as the use of cladistics became more and more widespread.

Gould was also criticized for his politics, which some critics characterized as "Marxist," charging that he let his politics interfere with his scientific positions. This was probably exacerbated by Gould's willingness to discuss his father's Marxism and his statements that his own politics were probably to the left of center. But, he also claimed that his politics were different from those of his father. Still, today, there are those people who discount Gould's contributions by pulling out the "Marxist" label.

Gould did not hesitate to address the subject of religion, and claimed that science and religion are not, as some argue, in conflict. However, he also claimed that the two areas comprised "non-overlapping magisterial" that, while they do not conflict, also do not really have anything to say to or about each other. He spent some of his time writing about this idea in a book called Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (1999).

While Gould did not criticize religion as a category of knowledge as some scientists, notably Richard Dawkins, do, he also spent a significant amount of his time arguing against creationism and intelligent design and against their inclusion in public school science classrooms. Among his efforts on this topic, Gould testified against giving creationism equal time in the classroom in the landmark case McLean v. Arkansas in 1982. The case, which ruled that "creation science" is actually religion and not science and that its inclusion in public school science classrooms violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Unites States Constitution, has been influential in subsequent rulings relating to the teaching of creationism and intelligent design.

Gould was a prolific and eloquent writer. He wrote nearly 500 peer-reviewed papers during his career, around 100 book reviews, 22 books, and a long series of essays that included a series called "This View of Life" in Natural History magazine. He published several collections of these essays in book form. Gould was also a fixture in science documentaries on PBS and elsewhere.

Sadly, Gould died in 2002, at the age of 60, cutting short a remarkable career that, among many other accomplishments, saw him named a "Living Legend" by the US Library of Congress in April 2000.

In honor of the day, your assignment, should you decide to accept it, is to go out and find some good popular science writing to read. I don't care what subject you choose, and it doesn't have to be something by either Gould or Diamond - although as a huge fan of Gould's writing, I would certainly not be sad if you chose to read some of his work, which can be challenging but is always rewarding.

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