Can the reality-based community save science from slimeballs?
Cover | by Gregory Beatty
With the dark turn the world has taken in the last while, it’s hard not to feel like we’re caught in a time warp. Last June, Britain (by a slim margin in a controversial referendum) voted to turn the clock back to 1973 by exiting the European Union. South of the border, President Donald Trump and his Republican allies seem determined to wrench America (and the world) back to an imaginary 1955 utopia.
And most dramatic of all is the ongoing attack on science.
Science is under siege by myriad political, economic, religious and other forces, which — each for unique reasons tied to their own self-preservation and privilege — are undermining scientific principles that have served humanity well since the Age of Enlightenment over three centuries ago.
Sound dramatic? Well, these are dramatic times. That’s why on April 22, people who support those principles will march in over 300 cities around the world. The main march is in Washington, D.C., but Saskatoon will host a satellite march in Victoria Park from 1:30–4 p.m.
The official title is March for Science, but the scope is broader than the natural sciences, says Julia Boughner, a University of Saskatchewan medical professor who is a co-organizer of the Saskatoon march.
“Evidence for Democracy is helping coordinate the Canadian events,” says Boughner. “As their name suggests, they are proponents of evidence-based decisions around policy that are in the public interest.”
What is “evidence-based” decision-making? Well, to provide an example that’s outside the natural sciences, criminologists know from studying statistics that crime rates have been dropping steadily since the 1970s. That suggests that progressive measures such as investing in public education, health care, community services and more, are working.
But if you’re a politician/party running on a “tough on crime” agenda, that’s not a message you can campaign on. So you ignore the evidence and sow seeds of fear and division.
That might win you short-term political advantage, but long-term, society suffers.
Multiple factors are in play here. Some, as noted above, are tied to self-interest and privilege. Others are more a function of us adapting to the reality of life in the early 21st century as (in anthropologist-speak) Homo sapiens sapiens with advanced technologies that are literally transforming our planet.
Not surprisingly, we’re experiencing some growing pains.
“We’re a species that evolved tens of thousands of years ago under harsh conditions,” says Boughner. “Now, we have all these resources that we’ve generated through science and technology. But cognitively we’re still kind of paleo. That speaks to our need as a species to continue to understand who we are, and what our strengths and foibles are.”
Science got us into this position, and it’s the best tool for helping us sustain our prosperity into the future. But some bridge-building needs to be done first, says Adam McInnes, a University of Saskatchewan bio-medical engineering student who’s another co-organizer of the Saskatoon march.
“Carl Sagan had a good quote once, where he noted how society today has become so dependent on technology, yet so few people understand it, and how that was a prescription for disaster,” McInnes says.
“I think, too, there’s been a loss of respect for people who are experts or intellectuals. We used to look up to them and value them. Part of that is tied to the political climate,” he says.
“I also think that, in some ways, unfortunately, science has become removed from everyday life. People see scientists as the ivory tower, they don’t see them as their neighbours.”
Scientists bear some responsibility for that disconnect, says McInnes.
“We’ve become horrible for speaking in techno-babble. It makes sense to scientists — when we read the papers, we understand the terms, we understand the concepts. But it’s still incredibly difficult. And the average citizen isn’t trained, isn’t exposed to it enough to understand.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t an appetite for science out there, McInnes says, pointing to the following Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield developed during his time aboard the International Space Station.
“He used social media to bring space into your living room, and engaged with people in a way few scientists have,” says McInnes. “He had to learn how to do that, though. He was an engineer, so when he was first on social media he was talking like an engineer and wasn’t getting any engagement. So he worked with his son and a few other people to learn how to communicate more effectively, and he became a sensation.”
Dark Ages 2.0
Other forces arrayed against science are actively working to suppress its influence. Since the Enlightenment, for instance, religion has had an uneasy relationship with science.
The two don’t necessarily have to conflict, says Boughner.
“I think of someone like Charles Darwin. He was a devout Christian, and struggled with his scientific work [on evolution] in the context of Christian teachings,” she says. “Nonetheless, there are many excellent scientists working now, and in the past, who have faith.
“Where I see a problem is when we have organizations that use religion as a veil behind which to broker power. It’s hypocritical and dishonest, because you have a group of people using something where the optics are meant to be good, but they’re using it for their own gain and to the detriment of the public.”
Economics and politics are also in play too, obviously. With massive ties to the fossil fuel industry, the Trump administration has erased all mention of climate change from the White House website. It’s also cut funding for NASA to study Earth from orbit and gather data on changing environmental conditions.
Trillions of dollars are at stake, and to protect that “investment”, fossil fuel interests have deployed an impressive array of weapons from climate denial think tanks to green-washing marketing campaigns to backing politicians who tout austerity agendas that put public education and other community resources at risk.
“When I hear people talk about cuts to education I become very cynical,” says Boughner. “In the U.S., for instance, when you cut funding to schools, you end up with a public that is not as well educated, and that includes critical thinking that gives you the ability to challenge authority. Then it’s much easier to tell people what to [think], and for them to accept what you tell them.”
That strategy isn’t limited to the U.S. During the Harper government’s last term, it was roundly criticized for funding cuts and legislative changes that limited the ability of scientists to conduct environmental and other types of research.
And in the Saskatchewan Party government’s recent budget, three areas targeted for cuts were K-12 education, post-secondary education and libraries.
“I’m an avid library user, and I think they do an outstanding job with their resources and programming,” says Boughner. “To me, that set off a huge red flag, because libraries must surely be the foundation of life-long learning. It’s not simply what we learn in school, it’s the process of learning how to learn and teach ourselves so that we continue to develop. That helps build a strong economy.”
That’s a point McInnes emphasized as well. While some interests might gain in the short-term by suppressing scientific inquiry, long-term prosperity — be it at a provincial or national level — is tied inextricably to science.
“It’s one of the prime movers in our economy, as almost everything we do in industry is heavily reliant on it,” says McInnes. “So I think we need to put more focus and support behind science in policy and decision-making.”
Economics aside, what we’re really talking about is our survival. Science and technology have given us better and longer lives. But our “progress” has put tremendous stress on Earth and the natural systems that govern our existence — and unless we come to grips with that reality, we will be in for a rude awakening.
“We don’t appreciate enough that we are not outside natural selection,” says Boughner. “We’re seeing that in places that don’t have the ‘developed world’ buffer we do. If the water or food runs out in those places, you die.
“So while we may view ourselves as being outside of natural selection, I think the coming decades are going to demonstrate very starkly just how much we are not,” she says. ❧
For more information on the April 22 March For Science see marchforscience.com.