The March for Science is a public celebration of science planned for April 22 in many cities across America and some abroad. As a gesture of support, my wife and I plan to participate. According to the national organizers, the march “recognizes the very real role science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.”
“Just what’s the big deal?” you could understandably ask. Cell phones in third world villages, space shots past Pluto, and DNA testing are convincing testimony that we got past needing science appreciation reminders over a century ago. Maybe so, but the central features of science that make it so marvelous are still not understood by many—arguably most—even in advanced countries.
I took physics in high school and dearly loved it. That love affair, albeit an amateur one, with the physical sciences, persists to this day. I learned then and later a lot of the facts science illuminated, but the understanding of science I’m referring to here is not a collection of facts, but an almost philosophical reverence in the advancing methods by which scientists find those facts, regardless of what branch of science they were trained in. Those methods didn’t become so meaningful to me until my doctoral human behavior research training.
Frankly, it’s depressing that there actually is reason for public protest. Our nation has fallen not only into a muddle of “alternative facts,” but into the widespread absurdity that facts are subject to a vote, or that scientific findings should be judged according to primitive beliefs of millennia ago. Perhaps we missed the memo that this reliable way of testing whether propositions are true took a major step forward only a few hundred years ago. It isn’t foolproof; it can be corrupted by carelessness or fraud; it occasionally needs revision. But whatever the shortcomings, there is no better way than the scientific method to separate fact from fancy about our universe.
(Several posts in this blog are devoted to science and the proper role of science in politics, including “Science and society–separating the roles,” Oct. 2, 2013; “Should science class include religion? Jan. 22, 2014;“Scientific method or just better thinking?” Apr. 23, 2015; “…but there are things science can’t explain,” Aug. 1, 2015; “You can’t put God in a test tube. Why not?” Nov. 19, 2015.)
Science exists to confront us frequently with the discomforting message that many of our certainties are not so certain after all. (Edwin Land—of Polaroid fame—put it this way: “Science is a method to keep yourself from kidding yourself,” while earlier Claude Bernard had said, “Science increases our power in proportion as it lowers our pride.”) And in the few centuries of modern scientific research science has repeatedly shown us to have been demonstrably wrong. Unfortunately, that can lead to embarrassment if not out-and-out opposition. Quite often in politics, it guarantees partisan struggles over what should be nonpartisan issues. Consider heliocentrism and witchcraft as old examples, climate change and evolution as present ones.
It is easy see how science can be blamed for, on one hand, opposing religious or economic beliefs and, on the other hand, can be wrongly cited to deceptively lend those beliefs its prestige. Undoubtedly, a big reason for this outpouring of interest right now is due to American political changes of the past few months. Although many conservative politicians act as if science is just more liberal tree hugging and snail darter protection, there is no reason for the issues of science and the inclusion of scientific findings in legislation to be partisan matters.
The gravely dangerous spread of anti-science, of reckless disregard for proof and facts, and simple ignorance about science are not conducive to a better future, a stronger country, or effective sociopolitical strategies. Driving thinking to the lowest common denominator cannot help but affect us all. My guess is that thousands of the persons who’ll participate in the March for Science themselves cannot describe even in moderate detail the methods of science. Nor, perhaps, can they articulate a reasoned view of the role of science in politics and government. But they do realize something important and precious is being ill-treated and risked on a frighteningly large scale by recent social and political trends.
Although the average US citizen is woefully unfamiliar with what distinguishes science from opinion polls, it is nigh criminal that our elected representatives are not more informed. Enough of them are so unqualified as to be stupefying. Consider these examples of science ignorance out of the dozens I’ve collected over the years:
- Paul Collins Broun, Jr., M.D., U.S. House, Member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology: “Evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. Scientific data actually shows this is really a young earth….9,000 years old….created in 6 days as we know them.”
- John Boehner, Speaker, U.S. House: “The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide.”
- U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum: “The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is.”
In large part, what we’ve missed is that the scientific method is a way of thinking about what we know or think we know. Yes, it is what research scientists do, but there is absolutely no reason for it to belong specifically to those we call scientists. It is a way of thinking not only available to us all, but incumbent on us all. (True, it’s not important to understand inferential statistics, but it is important to know it exists and what it can do.) Perhaps continuing to call it the scientific method is part of the problem; doing so enables non-scientists free to wallow in our ignorance, unaware that we have so powerful a tool at our disposal.
Organizers of Saturday’s march have tried to minimize any tendency of marchers’ to make of the occasion a predominantly partisan message. I certainly hope that effort is successful, for partisan appeals, in my opinion, would undermine the larger, longer range revitalization of the country’s interest in, appreciation of, support for, and political use of science in the society.