The worst road we can go down is to discredit and devalue truth, and for that, scientists need to speak up more clearly and more often than ever before.
The March for Science is coming up on April 22. This nationwide event on Earth Day has many sister marches, as outlined on the website www.marchforscience.com. Per the site: “The March for Science is a celebration of science. It's not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.” My daughter, my friends, and I will be marching on April 22. I hope you join me.
A while back, AP Science students at the local high school asked me what the most important thing for them to learn is. I replied: communication. Not only do you have to communicate to your boss, you need to communicate to the people providing funding and, ultimately, to the public. Bob Bea, the engineer and Cal State Berkeley professor who investigated the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster was bold and brilliant in his assessment of causes. However, what was more unique is that his results were not JUST presented in papers and committee hearings. His stories of the human factors contributing to the tragedies made the pages of Men’s Journal, Discover, and Rolling Stone, to name a few. Scientists must follow that model and communicate to a wide audience, if research and findings are to have an impact.
Another communication mistake is to allow science to be painted as elitist and different from what people “know on their own.” The best science is cemented by experience. It is in the field that we get ideas, observe and learn. When planning for a Bike To Work Day many years ago, a city staffer remarked that they didn’t realize Canyon Country was a higher elevation than City Hall. If you ride a bike, you know this. When hiking in Hart Park in the morning, you can feel the heat on the ridges and the pockets of cool air that persist in the valleys. The situation reverses at night. A metrological study I was involved with illustrated how daily temperature changes, wind, and chemical transport are interrelated. That study had lots of historical climate data from regional weather stations, but I already suspected the same thing, just from walking the dog. My husband rolls his eyes when I gleefully predict things in movies, but I almost jumped out of my seat watching the action flick Deepwater Horizon with Mark Wahlberg. Because of my work with hazardous materials, as soon as I saw the gas seeping out of the vents in one scene I exclaimed “that’s going to blow up!” Truly, science and real life intersect, and it enables us to ruin even MORE movies for our family members. Science is NOT people in lab coats removed from the real world. Science is the real world.
Poet Wendell Berry was interviewed by Bill Moyers in 2013. His encouragement for young activists was as follows: “don’t get into this with the idea that you're going to save it and solve all the problems even in your lifetime. The important thing to do is to learn all you can about where you are and if you're going to work there it becomes even more important to learn everything you can about that place to make common cause with that place and then resigning yourself, becoming patient enough to work with it over a long time. And then what you do is increase the possibility that you will make a good example” I think in many ways those working in scientific fields need to hear this too, especially today. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) work is vital to our well being on so many levels. Policies and programs for human health, food safety, the environment, sociology, economics, space, oceans, energy, and many other fields are simply guesswork if not informed by data. We must persist and we must communicate.
Today, the world can seem crazy. You can have facts challenged by other facts or, more likely, by #alternativefacts. The worst road we can go down is to discredit and devalue truth, and for that, scientists need to speak up more clearly and more often than ever before. Complex issues might seem hard to figure out, but that is what scientists live to do. My sign for the March for Science will read something like Science: Facts Matter.
Originally published in The Signal Newspaper on April 17, 2017.