I can’t stop thinking about Berkeley professor Richard Muller’s comments during his talk Monday at UCSD about scientists having “lost credibility” in recent times.

Muller, a physicist who teaches a class and wrote a book entitled “Physics for Future Presidents,” said it was incumbent upon President Obama to become the nation’s science teacher, because the American public no longer trusted scientists. Call me naive or ill-informed, but I honestly didn’t think scientists thought that way about themselves.

A couple of readers offered their insights on Muller’s statement. One argued that scientists would be better off if they spent more time in the lab, and less on TV and newspaper op-ed pages. Another said that all Obama needs is enough scientific knowledge to know bunk science when he sees it.

Those were great comments, but I was itching for more. So I called another scientist who I knew wouldn’t mince words on the subject, The Scripps Research Institute Associate Dean Stephen Mayfield. His first response was this quip: “I think [Muller] is confused — he says scientists have lost credibility, like we had any to lose.”

Then Mayfield got serious. He said he understands why Muller feels the way he does, but has a completely different view. “What he said is true,” Mayfield said of Muller. “We need to educate people on basic science. But that is not Barack Obama’s responsibility; it is the scientist’s responsibility. What we need is for scientists to step forward with a little spine and call BS on things that are BS.”

Mayfield said he is particularly upset about how scientists allowed themselves to be pushed around during the Bush years on issues like global warming because of their natural tendency to hedge when the research does not show that something is 100 percent one way or the other.

“We scientists need to have the same conviction in our arguments as others who have no factual basis for their arguments,” Mayfield, cell biologist who focuses his research on turning algae into a viable biofuel. “We are equivocating because of 5 percent — that is fine when you are talking with other scientists. But when we go out in the real world, we need to fight fire with fire.”

Well, no one will accuse Richard Muller or Stephen Mayfield of keeping their thoughts to themselves. What about you? Let’s keep this conversation going — it’s an important one. You can either comment, or e-mail me at david.washburn@voiceofsandiego.org.


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