Friday, April 21, 2017

March for Science - well meaning people, but a very bad idea

Tomorrow, Earth Day, 22 April 2017, well-meaning folk will be gathering in cities around the world in a ‘March for Science.’  I won’t be one of them.

The idea is to advocate for and to raise awareness of science as one of the major pillars that uphold the common good.

But in practicality it comes across as a protest march. The lofty positive message is window dressing. People have picked this particular Earth Day to march because they perceive that science is suddenly under attack due to a political change.

Wrong. What is under attack is the respect for the role of science in society, and the problem has been slowly developing for decades.

Particularly since the arrival of the internet, we, the people of the free world, have been engaging in way too much hot, polarizing, rancorous debate over issues ranging from the effect of vaccinations on Autism to the effect of human activity on Climate. The volume of scientific research directed at these and other hot-button topics is completely inundated by the volume of rhetoric. The March for Science will only add more rhetoric to the mix. It is only going to bury the science even deeper.

The way to most effectively ‘champion’ science is exactly the opposite. Science shares three qualities that naturally allow it to rise above the smothering partisan fray. It is these qualities that need to be communicated, not the supposed ‘facts’ that result.
  1. Science is selfless. Personality has no place in its process or its products. At the heart of the scientific world-view is the assumption that all results (all ‘facts’) are conditional, always subject to review and revision. Science requires the experimenter to ‘turn the other cheek.’ Any individual who questions a result is free to test it themselves—to try to knock it down. The methodology and the result of these tests are all that matters, not who does them.

  2. Science is universal. The more people who try to knock down a result the better.  Reproducibility is the measure of the ultimate value of a scientific result. A scientific finding is not considered ‘true’ unless an overwhelming majority of the experiments used to test it, conducted independently around the world and over time, converge on the same finding. The power of universal results cannot be underestimated. They can be applied to people’s daily problems, and they work. Look at the ‘miracles’ that modern technology has produced. Thanks be to Science. Science gets results.

  3. Science is transparent. The average person today does not believe this. They see science as some alien religion—completely fallible and requiring faith in order to trust it. That is because these days, science experimentation is so complex and so specialized that only a handful of people world-wide have enough knowledge to fully understand what is being done. This implied ‘elitism’ is one of the greatest hurdles to trust. I do not have a solution to this pervasive loss of respect. All I can say is that the standard of transparency is iron-clad and must be unimpeachable. We who do science have no right to demand trust and respect. We must earn it with our behavior and with our results.
I am a retired Earth Scientist. On the face of it, participating in a march for science on Earth Day would seem natural—a near perfect fit. But marching on Washington will do nothing to improve the quality of any scientific finding. I’m willing to bet that participants will not come away from it appearing more selfless. They are not likely to spend any time better exposing any universal truth, and almost certainly participants will not come away with any more trust and respect than they arrived with. No. Bad idea all around.

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