Scientists Should March

Scientists are planning a “March for Science” in Washington, DC and many other cities on 22 April 2017. Some commentators seem to think this is a bad idea, because it would politicize science.

Before I continue, let me suggest the form an intellectually honest debate about global warming would take:

Scientists:

Global warming is happening.

It will cost $X to stop and/or mitigate global warming. If we do not stop and/or mitigate it, it will cost $Y to deal with the resulting property damage, logistical problems, loss of standard of living, food supply shortages, disease outbreaks, and security threats. $Y is much bigger than $X.

Democrats:

Okay. We think that from an economic, social, and security standpoint, we would be better off paying the smaller amount up front, $X, than having to deal with all those problems individually later on.

Republicans:

Okay. We think that the impact to certain market sectors would be too great to pay the $X up front. We think we are better able to pay installments of the larger cost $Y later on, as those various problems crop up.

Now, allow me to summarize the form the actual debate about global warming seems to be taking in the United States:

Scientists:

Global warming is happening.

It will cost $X to stop and/or mitigate global warming. If we do not stop and/or mitigate it, it will cost $Y to deal with the resulting property damage, logistical problems, loss of standard of living, food supply shortages, disease outbreaks, and security threats. $Y is much bigger than $X.

Democrats:

Okay. We think that from an economic, social, and security standpoint, we would be better off paying the smaller amount up front, $X, than having to deal with all those problems individually later on.

Republicans:

Global warming is not happening.

Scientists:

But we just told you that it is, and presented our evidence, and told you the cost of ignoring–

Republicans:

Stop doing science.

It’s easy to say that scientists should keep themselves in the business of producing scientific evidence and scientific conclusions, and stay out of the business of figuring out how to act on those conclusions. Science, after all, doesn’t tell us anything about morality or ideals, it just describes what happens in the world.

What does someone do, though, if they hold a particular position, and science produces definitive evidence suggesting that their position does not give them the result they want? In my field of engineering, the correct response to this scenario is to redesign my system so that I do get the result I want. I have to trust that the most up-to-date scientific theory is the most accurate description available of how my design will actually work, regardless of what I want my design to do. However, more and more, we are seeing a different strategy emerge in the field of politics: attack the science itself. Cast aspersions on the scientists. Talk about presenting “alternative facts,” as though physics behaves differently depending on one’s ideals. Cut off the ability of scientists to conduct their work, if one thinks that they will uncover evidence disfavoring one’s suggested course of action.

This is not a good way to solve problems.

What I believe scientists are standing up for in their march is simply the idea that decisions should be based on evidence. Conclusions should be based on a strong argument. Engineers know this. Businesspeople know this. Doctors know this. Scientists know this. Politicians should, too.

Scientists may not be perfect people, and an individual scientist’s conclusions may not be completely correct. Lots of factors feed into this: the tenure process, aggressive university publishing policies, limited funding, and severe competition leading to hype. But that is why we conduct science as a community, and as part of a larger iterative process. Scientists as a whole are always improving the state of knowledge. Others follow to correct and refine previous knowledge. As such, the current state of the art does represent the best available scientific description of the world. And, in many cases, that description has been converging. So, I can say with confidence: Global warming is happening, and human-caused, and has real economic costs. Vaccines don’t cause autism. GMOs are fine to grow and eat. The collapse of the bee population is going to cause big problems for agriculture. Coal power is just more expensive than natural gas (and, soon, wind and solar). Tax cuts for the wealthy are not as effective at stimulating the economy as government investment. No refugee from the Middle East has committed a terrorist attack in the United States. American police shoot black people at a disproportionately high rate. These are all things we can measure, facts based on evidence. There are no alternatives.

What do we do about these things? Do we do anything about them? Yes, those are questions for politicians to debate. But I can tell you this definitively: cutting off support for the science that produced evidence of a problem does not make things better. Politicians who advocate doing so are not going to help solve those problems, and we all need to remember who they are and how they are exacerbating our problems.

That is why scientists should call attention to their work and to their efforts. They need to remind everyone that evidence matters and decisions based on evidence matter. They need to remind people that experts have expertise. This march is not just about science, it is about the very idea that we can observe the world and use our observations to inform our expectations about the future. It’s about stating the reality of reality as opposed to “alternative facts.”

The idea that scientific evidence is a description of reality is not a political statement. I can understand how that might be hard to grasp, though, for a party whose paragon once took an incorrect position and said, “my heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”

Guess what? The facts and evidence were right.

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