The gods weren’t really angry, and other things science taught us
(CNN) — There was a time when a thunderstorm evoked fear, for it meant the gods were angry. Famine and plague were thought to have the same cause, as did a solar eclipse, the attack of a rabid bear, or an erupting volcano.
We no longer believe in any of those things — and for good reason. That reason is science. Since the 16th century, humanity has learned that the scientific method can determine natural causes for phenomena that once seemed too powerful for human comprehension.
We’ve come a long way since those days, but our journey is not complete. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that politicians tasked with setting public policy will use rationality and not superstition to guide their decisions. There are many voices clamoring for their attention and it is therefore important for scientists and science enthusiasts to join the conversation.
And we have had some success. The 2017 March for Science was a testament to that. Droves of people gathered to state loud and clear that they want policymakers to consult with experts before decisions are made. One year later, concerned citizens will assemble at over 200 sites around the world on Saturday, reaffirming their position.
So why is this a big deal? Why is it so important to consult with scientific experts before laws are made or federal, state and local agencies set policy?
Put simply, science works.
You know this to be true, even if you don’t always think about it. Bridges carry heavy loads and don’t collapse. Planes fly. Vaccines and antibiotics have saved countless lives. Although work remains to be done, cancer and AIDS are no longer the death sentences they once were. The internet has given us instant access to information drawn from across the globe and the GPS on your phone can tell you exactly where you are. And this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the ways in which science has made the world a better place.
Americans have a generally supportive attitude toward science. So why are science enthusiasts marching? It’s because of a perception that governmental regulation and policy is no longer guided by the best science. Frankly, people are scared to find out where that path could lead.
I have a nonpartisan view on this. Neither side of the political spectrum is staunchly rational. While it is true that there are those on the right who want to dismiss scientific findings on climate change and evolution, there are those on the left who are opposed to GMOs and nuclear power. The scientific consensus on each of these subjects is fairly strong and the resistance by some people to those conclusions comes from their gut and not their brain. While these subjects are frequently discussed in the media, the broad phenomenon of science denial troubles me more than any specific issue.
So why do I support the marches? It may surprise you.
I don’t want scientists setting public policy. That’s not what we do. What we do is understand the world around us and we are excellent at that. That being the case, I want us to inform politicians of the best scientific evidence. And I want politicians to pay attention. The marches are a way to be heard.
For all the criticism we level at politicians, they have a hard job. They must listen to many voices, make decisions on incomplete evidence, and select solutions that are practical and sometimes imperfect.
It’s all well and good for environmental organizations to demand an immediate end to fossil fuels, but if every coal plant were shut down tomorrow, that would have immediate and devastating consequences on the economy and our standard of living. This obvious truth should not be taken as a reason to do nothing, for there is a very real problem before us; climate change is both happening and a very real danger.
But we live in a real world and effective and practical actions take time. Politicians need to weigh economic costs against the very dire future foretold by solid research and try to chart a course forward that will balance many concerns and lead to the best possible world for our children and grandchildren.
The good thing is that the development of clean energy, and ways to use energy more efficiently, is a booming industry with positive economic consequences. This is a clear case of scientists identifying a problem and working to develop possible solutions for leaders and the marketplace to consider.
While climate change, carbon dioxide emissions and alternative energy sources are probably the most common scientific topics associated with the march, they’re not the only ones confronting policymakers.
There are many questions that need attention, ranging from how society will deal with the very real prospect of the genetic engineering of humans to what to do when current antibiotics stop working.
Doesn’t it make sense to listen to the voice of scientific experts on these subjects? Not to dominate the conversation, but to provide decision makers with clear and objective consequences for any action? Shouldn’t we demand that the people who decide public policy have the very best information to make their decisions?
It’s important to distinguish between true science and politically motivated individuals who are simply invoking science-sounding terminology to justify a predetermined outcome. It’s also critical for scientists to make clear when they are speaking as experts, subject to the rules of scientific discourse, or as citizens, when their opinions have the same weight as any other voter.
In order to ensure that decision makers are hearing knowledge and not opinion, citizens should insist that nonpartisan, professional scientific organizations be consulted. The National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are two excellent resources among the many.
It is easy in this political and fractious time to see all issues as political ones with biases inherently attached, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We live in the same nation, with many of the same hopes and dreams. And there is no denying that our technological society is confronted with many issues for which science can add perspective through fact. Not opinions, but facts.
The discoveries made by scientists have given humanity unprecedented power to alter lives, society, and indeed the world. When policymakers make decisions that include these weighty topics, we should all demand that those decisions are guided by experts.