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Science is More Necessary Than Ever in a Divided Nation

I am a practicing scientist, studying radiation in space. I am also a church-going, choir-singing "mainline" Protestant, but my colleagues include Christians of other denominations, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists. I work alongside Republicans and Democrats, supporters of the Brady Campaign and of the National Rifle Association, vegetarians and big-game hunters. My colleagues of other faiths and I are not going to agree about the significance of various religious figures, and an atheist colleague isn't going to agree with any of us. And yet we all work together doing the same science. What is it about science that bridges so many differences?

I think the "active ingredient" here is that science is, at its root, a system for resolving disagreements about the observable world. A schoolchild who says "I hate science" probably associates it with memorization of lists of facts and jargon (kingdom, phylum, class, order, ...), but a successful science class will get across to the students not just a list of results but a sense of the process (and excitement!) of investigation that leads to them. I'm not a philosopher of science, but I have always thought that the aim of science is not to prove ideas; rather, its task is to disprove them. Any idea, or part of an idea, gains more credibility as it survives longer in the crossfire of testing against observations to see if it's wrong; you can never be sure that all possible tests have been completed and that no possibility of disproof remains, but scientists place increasing reliance on ideas as they withstand more and more testing. The key here is "testing against observations": a test must be objective and clearly described by those reporting it, so that anyone with the right equipment could have done it, and ideally it should be repeatable so that anyone with the right equipment could re-do it. The latter is hard to do with one-off events like natural cataclysms, or with sparse instrumentation as in my own field studying the vastness of space with a sensor here and there, but others should be able to re-do a given test in similar circumstances even if it's not possible to duplicate the original ones. Looking forward by means of ideas containing predictions, the testing of those ideas will have to be in the future, but such predictions must be based on ideas that have already survived much testing. Through all of this, though, the personal differences of belief or principles between my colleagues and myself have no bearing on the measurements we make and the calculations and extrapolations that we base on those measurements.

The limitation imposed by this insistence on testing, of course, is that science can only address testable ideas: those that can be proven wrong. You'll see the phrase "Science Says So" on bumper stickers, signs, etc. about global warming, but one must be careful about exactly what one claims that "science says." That the world is warming, and that the warming is largely due to human activity, is well-tested within the science of meteorology and climatology; these and related disciplines also give confidence in predictions about the effects on weather, disease, famine, etc. of certain levels of global temperature rise, or statements that carbon dioxide concentrations must be kept below certain levels to avoid this. Economic science can be brought to bear to make and support statements about the effects of possible policies that might be adopted to address the issue, for example the quantitative effects on carbon dioxide emissions of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade markets and the financial costs and benefits as resources are moved around to implement such policies. However, in any policy that might be adopted there are going to be winners and losers; a carbon tax, say, would boost alternative-energy companies and workers but put pressure on those in fossil-fuel industries. I personally think that the benefits of not disrupting the climate, of improving health directly by reduction of toxic exhaust, of reducing the geopolitical importance of unstable and/or undemocratic oil-rich regions, etc., firmly tip the balance in favor of climate action; but that is an opinion, not a measurement. Science makes and tests statements about what is, what was, or what will be; statements about what should be, when competing interests or rights are at stake, are the domain of ethics, morality, and politics.

This is why the present environment of attacks on science is so alarming: with so much to disagree about politically in a divided nation and a divided world, shouldn't we try to find as much common ground as possible that's outside the political arguments, so that we are at least speaking the same language as we argue the political points? But it seems that those who feel they are likely to lose the political arguments on their merits are trying to undermine that common ground so that their opponents won't have solid footing to begin with. If somebody thinks that his constituents' (or contributors') economic interest in continued fossil-fuel use outweighs others' interest in a stable climate, then let's have that political discussion about conflicting rights and interests. If somebody thinks, at a more basic level, that assertions about a changing climate and the impact of human activity on it are being made without adequate testing, then let's have that scientific discussion about measurements and observations.

But instead, we get the President trying to bad-mouth the reliability of science as a whole by saying that, hey, there used to be a scientific consensus that the world was flat and at the center of the universe (wrong and wrong: Greek philosophers, Polynesian wayfinders, and others knew that the Earth was round millennia before the dawn of modern science, while Galileo's effort to show that the Earth goes around the Sun pretty much was the dawn of modern science), or a pundit doing the same by falsely claiming that not so many years ago the scientific consensus was that we were on the cusp of an ice age, not of global warming. We get a Senator pretending to "disprove" global warming by holding up a snowball (a straw man, since no scientist predicts that winter will go away as the average global temperature goes up: it's more like a refrigerator, where putting more power into it increases the extremes, so that both the outside becomes hotter and the inside becomes colder). And we get any number of bogus claims that climate scientists are in a conspiracy to ruin U.S. prosperity and freedom by stampeding people to overreact to the phantom bogeyman of global warming (have you ever tried to herd scientists? They're an anarchic lot, about the least promising candidates you could find for "deep state" minions).

There are plenty of other examples outside the realm of climate change, as well. A Congressman tries to deflect concerns about banning abortion in cases of rape or incest by inventing the biological "alternative fact" that a victim wouldn't actually become pregnant in a case of "legitimate rape." An animal-rights group asserts, without evidence, that "animal testing = scientific fraud." And anti-vaccine groups dismiss any scientific studies purporting to show the safety of vaccines as the work of "shills of Big Pharma." In each case, as with the global-warming examples above, the purpose of attacks on science or scientists is to avoid making a reasoned political case for the attacker's position by dismissing scientific results that might be more favorable to the opposing position.

Doesn't democracy deserve better? An honest discussion of the pros and cons of action or inaction, starting from a foundation built on the best objective evidence available? The purpose of the global March For Science movement, as I see it, is to put politicians and pundits alike on notice that we are not fooled. We see that your attacks on the reliability of science and the integrity of scientists are rooted in your fear of actually having to come up with an argument that will be persuasive to somebody whose interests don't already align with your position. Science is the best tool humanity has invented to understand the observable world in the present and to make preparations for the future, and citizens will not stand quietly by while it is left unused, or worse, by those whose job it is to be stewards on our behalf of that present and that future. Science, not silence.

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new 21 April 2017