Why I’m Joining in the March for Science
Originally published 3/7/2017
If you haven’t heard yet, there's going to be a nationwide March for Science on Earth Day, April 22nd. This includes a primary March in Washington, DC, as well as “sister” marches around the globe (at least 320 cities have already signed up). I’m planning on marching here in Seattle, and I’m writing this to encourage others to participate in whichever March is most convenient for you to attend. The March for Science is being supported by a number of prominent organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the NY Academy of Sciences. Not all scientists think the March will be helpful (and some have voiced that it could even be harmful), but I’m not in that camp for the reasons I’ve outlined below.
Why is the March Taking Place?
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I’ve previously written about the consequences of living in a “post-truth” world, and why I’m concerned that scientific progress will be blunted at a time when we desperately need innovative solutions to the problems facing our country (and our world). The March for Science is happening because many scientists share a basic concern that the new administration is going to ignore or marginalize data when crafting policy decisions going forward. Let me share a few examples that have stoked fears among many scientists.
Changes to numerous government websites have confirmed these fears. The Trump administration has instructed the EPA to remove climate change data from its web page, and Trump has tweeted his belief that global warming is simply a Chinese hoax. Anti-vaccine advocate Robert Kennedy Jr. has stated that the President asked him to head up a vaccine safety and scientific integrity commission, although the administration has not confirmed this. Being in the drug discovery business (as well as a healthcare consumer), I’m very concerned about President Trump’s lack of understanding of the FDA drug approval process. It is, in contrast to his recent comments, neither “slow” nor “burdensome.” One of the people he reportedly is considering to head the FDA is Balaji Srinivasan, who has suggested that the current approval process should be replaced with a “Yelp for drugs.” This is a terrible idea that would do significant harm to the health of our citizens. To paraphrase Neil de Grasse Tyson, we depend on science to inoculate us against charlatans, and this includes snake-oil salesmen and others peddling drugs that have not been tested for efficacy.
The task for scientists and other experts to clearly explain their work to people without a good education is daunting. For example, some of the people who say they hate Obamacare embrace the Affordable Care Act, not realizing that these two things are one and the same. Sadly, our new President is a poor role model who frequently professes to understand things much better than the experts, leading to laughable statements. He claimed during the election that he knew “more about defeating ISIS than the generals do,” and that he would “repeal and replace Obamacare” within days of his inauguration. This has now given way to “Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated.” Actually, a huge number of people knew this, many of whom have been at the President’s beck and call if he was really interested in finding this out.
From “False Knowledge” to “Alternative Facts”
The issue of lay people having an incorrect understanding of science is hardly a new one. George Bernard Shaw once said, “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” Or as Josh Billings (aka Henry Wheeler Shaw) put it, “The trouble with most folks ain't so much their ignorance as knowing so many things that ain’t so.” A failure to understand any particular scientific subject can arise from two distinct causes, both of which have significant negative consequences. One is a simple lack of knowledge, where someone is merely uninformed. This can presumably be corrected by providing accurate information to the person. Having someone on hand who can further explain the details and answer questions is also a good idea. The other flavor is willful ignorance, where a person knows that accurate information is available, but they choose to either not avail themselves of it, or ignore it. Two current examples that many scientists feel fit into this latter category are climate change denial and the debunked idea that certain childhood vaccines cause autism. And let’s be clear about one thing: “alternative facts” are not facts at all. They are, as some have politely described them, falsehoods, but most of us prefer a simpler descriptor: lies.
Advocating for Science
Many scientists are like me; they enjoy discussing science, both to educate others as well as learning more about subjects of which they are not experts. As Mark Twain once put it, “Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.” Those who know me know that I will start up a science discussion at the drop of a hat and under almost any circumstance. When my wife was in the hospital in labor with our son, I got into a lengthy discussion with the anesthetist who came to give her an epidural about the reason we were planning on banking the cord blood cells. My wife, not surprisingly, interrupted us with a suggestion of her own that we bring the focus in the room back to her. I maintain a rather lengthy list of science based non-fiction books that I’ve read on my website so that I can share them with others whom I think will enjoy them. Let’s use the March as an opportunity to communicate our sense of purpose, enjoyment, and awe that we get from uncovering the various scientific mysteries that we work on, as well as the benefits that accrue to society.
Accentuate the Positives
One of the themes that the March organizers have put forth is that this is a pro-science March, not an anti-Trump administration one. I agree this approach is much more likely to be effective at illustrating our concerns instead of merely parading a sea of negativity against the current administration. It’s time for us to explain to our fellow Americans exactly why science is a great process for understanding the world, and how important data and evidence are in decision making. The importance of science is something that many of us take for granted, a vital core around which we have built our careers. However, I think we all share a responsibility to explain our work to the public, and to answer their legitimate questions and concerns.
For me, I’m going to be focusing my discussions on the day of the March on three of the greatest life-saving innovations in the history of mankind, all provided to us by scientific research:
Vaccines: Simply put, vaccines save lives. They also protect those who can’t be immunized for health reasons by a process known as herd immunity, where vaccinated individuals block the spread of disease. Read about vaccination success stories in Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky (2006) and Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases by Paul A. Offit (2008).
Antibiotics. The discovery of antibiotics revolutionized the treatment of infectious bacterial diseases. First came the sulfa drugs, and later the more commonly known antibiotics such as penicillin and streptomycin. Read about how these drugs were discovered in The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug by Thomas Hager (2007) and The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle by Eric Lax (2004).
Man-made Fertilizers. In the late 1800’s concerns were mounting that an expanding world population would soon outgrow the food supply, leaving to mass starvation across the planet. The problem was solved with the discovery of the Haber-Bosch reaction, which converts atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia (the basic ingredient in fertilizer). Read about how this discovery came about in The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler by Thomas Hager (2009)
The March for Science is Not Just for Scientists
You don’t need to be a scientist to March; you simply have to believe that rigorous science has significant value and should not be ignored or marginalized. The March is for everyone who respects the scientific method, hypothesis testing, and debate on issues that are informed by facts, not just beliefs and opinions. It’s for people who think that actual facts should be an important element of decision-making. As Neil deGrasse Tyson once described it, “Science literacy is the artery through which the solutions of tomorrow's problems flow.”
In my mind, not having a March also sends a message, even if it’s an unintended one. It says that scientists think the status quo is fine, and that we’re not alarmed by the circulating wave of anti-science rhetoric and the potential policy decisions that may follow in its wake. So please, come join those of us who believe in the power of science to change the world for the better in the March for Science on April 22nd. Tell your friends, neighbors, families, and coworkers that you’re joining the March because you think science plays an important role in all of our lives. Invite them to join you. Science isn’t Democrat or Republican, and it doesn’t care about your gender, race, creed, religion, or national origin. Many people watching us on that day will be asking: why are these scientists marching? What issue is so important that it’s driven them into the streets parading around with signs? This will be our opportunity to share with them our stories about how science has made, and is making, a positive difference in all of our lives. Bottom line: Help us get the word out that science matters!
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