23 April 2017
Thousands of scientists from around the world did something that seemed unimaginable a few years ago. They stood up and made their voices heard in defense of science. Thousands of scientists braved a steady light rain and cool temperatures to gather on the Mall in Washington today and then marched toward the Capitol. The rain was not a surprise because the forecast for the day was nearly spot-on (thanks to science!), and the AGU joined the procession with a large banner that states the motto of one of the world’s largest science organizations: Science is Essential.
There was much talk about this event in the science community, and being introverts, it was seen by most as an event to support truth and discovery rather than as a protest. Most of the signs I saw as I walked around the Mall were reminders that Neil de Grasse Tyson hit the nail on the head last week when he commented that:
“Science is the best thing we’ve found to discover truth.”
AP Science writer Seth Borenstein has his usual well-written piece, and I have no illusions about competing with a professional journalist like Seth, but here are some of my thoughts:
For me, it was a day of beauty and truth. I was in DC for a seminar Friday at NASA with two of Americas top climate experts, Ben Santer and Gavin Schmidt. Thanks to an NSF grant, we learned a lot about the latest science and even some of the lingering myths about climate that refuse to die the ugly death they deserve. NASA hosted us and gave us a grand tour of the Hubble control room and I saw the James Webb telescope (In the Goddard clean room) which is soon to be thrown out of the planetary airlock and left a million miles from its birthplace.
Saturday morning, I took the metro to the National Gallery of Art to spend some quality time with Duccio, Da Vinci, and Monet. As I left, I could see thousands gathering under a gloomy sky to stand up for truth and the scientific method, and some of my photos of the event are below.
The reasons for this march are not something easily answered. I suspect that the very scientists gathered would have a wide array of opinions on that subject alone, but the attacks on science can be blamed on fear, and our educational systems short-comings are also undeniably a factor. As Neil de Grasse Tyson said in his viral video earlier in the week, “It seems that people have lost the ability to judge what’s true and what is not.
Anyone in science sees striking evidence of this daily. Physicians face patients who refuse lifesaving vaccinations, while meteorologists like me are accused of hiding the truth about mind control chemicals sprayed across the sky (or secret government manipulation of the weather). Archaeologists are asked how aliens built the pyramids, and where do I start regarding climate scientists like my friend Ben Santer (See this clip from The Tonight Show) who can only be pleased that he has slightly fewer death threats than Michael Mann! The National Center for Science Education can tell you of the attacks biology teachers still face when the subject of evolution is brought up in a classroom, and I know of climate myths long discredited still repeated in high school classrooms.
When people with this lack of basic science literacy are in positions of power, we are in danger of losing the scientific enlightenment that made the U.S. the envy of the world. Look at what Pennsylvania State Senator Scott Wagner told a gathering in York County Pennsylvania a few weeks ago. This is a quote from a newspaper report:
He also took the stance that climate change is probably happening, though–citing scientifically unsound evidence–he maintained that the US shouldn’t worry too much about emissions. “I haven’t been in a science class in a long time, but the earth moves closer to the sun every year–you know the rotation of the earth,” Wagner said. “We’re moving closer to the sun.”He added, “We have more people. You know, humans have warm bodies. So is heat coming off? Things are changing, but I think we are, as a society, doing the best we can.”
I posted this on social media with the following comment:
“FYI: We are moving AWAY from the sun at a rate of about 1.5 cm /yr. This will continue for the next 1000 million years and likely longer. The part about “Not being in a science class in a long time” seems to be objectively correct.”
My friend and science journalist Bud Ward who organized the NASA seminar told me of this piece in Foreign Affairs magazine and it may get at the heart of the issue. It’s well worth taking a moment to register and then spend 15 minutes reading a superb essay. Click the image below to read it, and if you missed Neil de Grasse Tyson’s video, I posted it here.
I have no answers but I do know that the greatest human invention is not fire or the printing press.
It’s scientific method.
It has taken us from burning witches at the stake to driving robots on Mars while sending probes to the stars in less than 350 years. We all own the trademark for this invention, and it’s certainly worth standing up for.