The summer rains on our farm in South Dakota carved rills and gullies in the soil as the water cascaded down small streams to the bottom of the hills. Even as a teenager, I knew that the soil removed by these streams, and the farming practice that allowed it, was unsustainable. Watching the devastation year after year inspired me to become a soil scientist, so that I might somehow have a role in conserving and enhancing one of our nation’s most important strategic resources.
This may sound like a normal path to a career in science, but it is also one loaded with emotional motivations, and a clear desire to implement change. I imagine it is also a template for how many other scientists chose their career (just insert a different location, and different emotional or cultural prompts). Science is a deeply human enterprise practiced by, yes, humans. We do it for a reason, and many times, the reason is to use what we have learned to change the way the world does things.
We are nearing a monumental event, the March for Science scheduled for Earth Day (Saturday, April 22). It is a day intended (among other goals) to publicly acknowledge the role of science in society, and to highlight the frequency and nature of political attacks on science, and its misrepresentation by some members of society.
In the broad span of disciplines that science encompasses, a debate has emerged about the logic of this event, and its effect on the way science will viewed by society. Part of this concern is based on the idea that science is a dispassionate exercise, one free from value, politics and other human distractions. This notion is ridiculous, and scientists who argue such may likely be guilty of simply not thinking long and deeply about how they arrived at the profession, why they do it and what motivates them. Science is quirky, and certainly not a robotic exercise. Some of our greatest scientific discoveries have been due to the most human-like occurrences: Archimedes “discovering” a way to measure specific gravity of an irregular object while in his bath, Alfred Wallace “discovering” natural selection while suffering from a tropical fever (and thus nearly scooping Darwin), and Mendeleev’s conception of the periodic table of the elements in one of his dreams. Sure, these people were all intellectually prepared for these epiphanies, but they were epiphanies nonetheless.
There is no cookbook science, and scientists operate on hunches, guesses and sheer bias. But, to be fair, science is an area of human knowledge that has a profound and unique set of cultural practices. What is important about science is its intensive and rigid system of ethics and standards. It isn’t “science” until it’s published, and it’s not published until the manuscript describing the research has been peer reviewed and accepted in a journal, and until the data and methods have been made available to the rest of the community. This is the easy part, for our scientific peers are our worst critics. Motivated by intense critical behavior and sometimes even envy, they strive to replicate, test and replace ideas and hypotheses published by their colleagues (any academic review of a scientist at a major university inevitably articulates and amplifies any perceived weakness, while offering only muted praise for the case’s strong points). Science is not a profession for the thin skinned. It is a profession of humans.
This brings me back to the march. There are suggestions that it will taint our standing as unbiased scientists, and poorly portray us to the nation’s political leaders and the rest of our fellow citizens. In contrast, I suggest it is a long overdue opportunity to engage policy makers, the non-science public, and for scientists themselves to take a deep look into the impacts of their aversion to public engagement. As for the policy makers, we still lack any significant science expertise within the new administration, and major decisions on climate, energy, and other important topics are being decided without expert scientific advice. Many prominent elected officials ridicule and deliberately misrepresent science. As for the perception of us by our fellow citizens, this is an opportune time for science to tell our stories, and for all of us to get to know each other. Research has shown that citizens value and respect the voice of members of their own cultural or political “tribe”.
Thus, I challenge my scientific colleagues who are Republican, Christian (including me) and members of other cultural tribes to use this event to explain the scientific basis of important issues to their fellow tribal members – citizen groups who have sometimes reacted negatively to science, partially due to the affiliation or history of the messenger. We have an opportunity begin to unveil to our neighbors the most scientifically solid choices or policies that may avert the worst outcomes of current activities.
Finally, I propose that all scientists need to use this time to consider how they may have, in effect, inadvertently contributed to enabling political bad behavior. The easiest way for a politician to avoid difficult policy action is to fund more research on the topic, essentially “kicking the can down the road” to the next administration. By implicitly being “bought off” by politicians (as in welcoming some climate change research funding), scientists themselves have sometimes chosen the easy path, avoiding the more painful action of demanding a re-prioritization of national goals, and a redistribution of financial resources to solutions and adaptation – not just more funding to document what is happening, and how fast it is happening.
There is nothing in the so-called scientific method that indicates we should not “say something when we see something”. It comes down to, I guess, how strong our conscience is for the well-being of our nation and for our descendants, and how willing we are to engage in the messy institution called democracy. In the end, the decision to March for Science is one not based on the cartoon version of what science is and what scientists are, but one driven by what it means to be human.