Should Science March On or Stand Pat?

Reported gag orders, statements that scientific claims were invented and a general dismissal of science have encouraged a number of scientists to coordinate a march on Washington sometime in the near future [Update: March is set for Earth Day, April 22, 2017]. But as an op-ed in the New York Times argues, is this a good idea?

The simplest answer might well be, if this is partisan, it probably is a bad idea. If it is not, it may well be a good one. At the moment, it is clearly reacting to dismissal of science on the right, but in fact parts of the political left have been just as eager at times to promote scare stories over scientific analysis (See vaccine-autism scares, genetic engineering scares, homeopathic medicine, some of the scares over fracking). There is a growing tendency to discount science that challenges your personal beliefs on both ends of the political spectrum.

Perhaps the march could include panels or marching sections like “why I believe in climate change even though I voted for Donald Trump” along side “why I believe genetical engineered food is safe despite supporting politicians who don’t.”Scientists who do research on these topics generally cease to toe their party’s line, and that should be the point. Science is a mechanism to try and overcome our own biases and predispositions.

There is not, as yet, a war on science as a whole in the U.S. Science has been far too useful in general to discard. Would the right really want to end all scientific research, including research that helps find natural resources, or makes cheaper airplanes, or faster computers? No. We will need scientific expertise more and more over time within legislative and judicial chambers as life gets more complex. We need as a society for science to be as respected as it continues to be, otherwise we risk being led astray by charlatans and biases.

The op-ed does suggest one form of marching: being involved in a community so that people know a scientist and don’t simply assume scientists are political animals. Although GG’s home community is swarming with scientists, when doing fieldwork, GG has been in corners of the country that don’t see scientists very often. Once, for instance, GG wanted to place a seismometer on a property and met with the owner, a spry elderly woman. She was initially very guarded, railing against the government, despising the IRS who, she said, was trying to take her property from her. “Are you from the government?” “No, ma’am, I am from a university.”  GG left a flyer for her to study, and a week later she grudgingly agreed to allow the seismometer to be installed. A week after the install, she decided to come up and see the instrument with us and was intrigued.  A few weeks later, she stopped us on our way to check on the instrument and insisted we come inside to help celebrate her husband’s birthday. Her politics were probably different than GG’s, but we understood each other in better ways than that.

So, patience and manners can be rewarded.

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  1. How Naïve are Scientists? | The Grumpy Geophysicist - April 25, 2017

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