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Rush Holt: Teen’s Ordeal Tied to ‘Irreverence for Evidence’

American society's eroding respect for evidence-based thinking played a role in the recent case of Texas teen inventor Ahmed Mohamed, whose homemade clock triggered police involvement and raised questions of racial profiling, the AAAS CEO said.

"Profiling is a mental shortcut that shortcuts the collection of evidence," said Rush Holt, who also serves as executive publisher of the Science family of journals. "It is jumping to conclusions. It is not truly open-minded."

With AAAS CEO Rush Holt are Georgia Tech faculty (L-R): Valerie Thomas, the Anderson Interface Professor of Natural Systems in the School of Industrial & Systems Engineering, who has a joint appointment in the School of Public Policy; Diana Hicks, professor of public policy; Kaye Husbands Fealing, chair of the School of Public Policy; and Julia Melkers, professor of public policy. Hicks and Melkers served as co-chairs of the conference. | AAAS

Four days after 14-year-old Mohamed was handcuffed and suspended for bringing his clock invention to school, Holt cautioned attendees of the Atlanta Conference on Science and Innovation Policy that "we are losing a reverence for evidence, and it's partly because people think that science is not for them," but rather, a specialty accessible only to "the scientific aristocracy."

Climate-change denial, the anti-vaccination movement, the omission of evolution from many high-school biology classes, and surveys that reveal a widespread misunderstanding of basic scientific concepts were also cited by Holt as examples of America's growing irreverence for evidence.

AAAS has invited Mohamed to show off his inventions during Family Science Days at the association's Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., next February. President Obama has also invited Mohamed to take part in a 19 October White House Astronomy Night.

At the Georgia Tech Global Learning Center, Holt said that non-scientific thinking stifles innovation and undermines good public policy. "People substitute ideology for evidence and think that they are looking at the evidence when really all they are doing is looking at their preconceptions," said Holt, who served for 16 years as a member of Congress before joining AAAS. "You can't make good policy if you are fixed in your thinking, if what you do is confirm what you think you already know, and that is what I see not only among policymakers and legislators, but more and more among the general public."

America was founded as a reaction against an oppressive aristocracy, Holt noted, emphasizing that science, like public policy, should be "democratized" and accessible to all. Referencing a quotation by Lewis Thomas, who described the discipline of following evidence toward a conclusion as "the shrewdest maneuver," Holt also stressed that scientists should not be seen, or view themselves, as a separate class of citizens: "The progress of science depends on many people, most of whom are not Einsteins — most of whom are like you and me, who buy into this 'shrewd maneuver' for understanding how the world works," he said. "Heaven forbid that all Americans would be wearing lab coats."

"Very few recognize science as the high adventure it really is, the wildest of all explorations ever taken by human beings, the chance to glimpse things never seen before, the shrewdest maneuver for discovering how the world works."

Lewis Thomas, American scientist (1913-1993)

Science is a self-correcting process, he added, yet the natural human aversion to being proven wrong too often interferes with that search for truth, whereas third-graders "delight in being confounded." He urged everyone to model the natural curiosity of young people. "Science is asking questions so they can be answered empirically and verifiably," he said. "Through that process, we make progress."

Holt had made similar points earlier this month during the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues at Dickinson College: "You can ask questions so that you can derive an answer based on evidence, observation, and measurements, and you can subject your answers to other people's verification so that they can check your work," he told the audience at Dickinson. "Third graders are really good at that, until we beat it out of them."

Following his Georgia Tech lecture, Holt met with AAAS members, donors, and others to seek input on how the association can better serve society and become a more effective advocate for the scientific community. He talked with members about AAAS programs intended to support excellence in science journalism, engage scientists in the developing world, promote a high standard of scientific ethics, dispatch scientists and engineers to Capitol Hill, and enhance science communication, particularly in emerging fields such as synthetic biology. 

The full video of Holt's presentation is available at AAAS MemberCentral.