Experts Challenge the "Dangerous Divide" Claims about Science in America

As I noted when the Pew science survey was released last month, there was a disturbing tendency among some bloggers and commentators to seize upon the findings as yet more evidence of a "dangerous divide," a "widening disconnect," and a "gulf" between scientists and the public. I summarized some of the problems with this narrative at the time as did others.

In a follow up article at The Scientist titled "Are Scientists Really Out of Touch?," several researchers who have conducted similar surveys of scientists and the public have noted their own reservations about the "dangerous divide" claims. As these researchers warn, it is never good to jump to dramatic conclusions without taking into account the cumulative research and expert views in an area:

In a recent AAAS/Pew survey [1], one in five U.S. scientists named the chronic difficulties [2] in communicating with and educating lay audiences as one of the greatest U.S. scientific failures of the past 20 years. The real surprise, however, was that scientists do not seem too eager to find a solution -- at least not according to the AAAS/Pew data [3]. Only about two in five AAAS scientists reported that they often talk to non-scientists about findings from their research, and only 3% often talk to reporters.

But are things really that bad? As part of two independent research teams, we interviewed nationally representative samples of scientific experts in nanotechnology [4, 5], stem cell research and epidemiology [6]. Data from these surveys suggest much more optimistic views among scientists about interactions with journalists, mass media, and lay audiences. At least two important differences in survey technique may explain these contrasting findings....


The authors then go on to summarize these important sample and question wording implications. As they conclude:

These more positive attitudes toward public communication across disciplines also translate into scientists' openness to connect with lay audiences. Data from our nanotechnology survey shows that more than half of all scientists "strongly" or "somewhat" agree that "[s]cientists should pay attention to the wishes of the public, even if they think citizens are mistaken or do not understand their work." And scientists believe that communication can make a difference, with more than 80% in the nano and the biomedical surveys disagreeing that "[c]ommunicating with the public does not affect public attitudes toward science." Judged against scientific norms and priorities, media coverage of science will always be incomplete and -- at times -- flawed. But scientists, it seems, are open to a dialogue.

Overall, we do not mean to imply that data such as the recent AAAS survey are not helpful in guiding our thinking about the future of science communication. But data that potentially overstate the problem could drive a wedge between already divided groups and discourage both sides from building bridges. We continue to be convinced these that bridges have to be built, and -- based on expert surveys across disciplines and continents -- can be built.


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Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).

The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.

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The controversy around the Torah codes gets a new life.

Michael Drosnin
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  • Mathematicians claim to see a predictive pattern in the ancient Torah texts.
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