Tuesday, April 25, 2017

March for Science 2

We marched against science denialism, more, I think, than issues of science funding, education, or even climate change.

Science denialism is not just a war on science--it's doubt about objective reality itself.  It's the view that all knowledge is merely opinion, and that all opinions are equal (except that mine and my tribes' are more equal that the rest).  In opposition to the democratic-sounding view that "everyone has a right to their opinion," I tell students that, in science (as in law, journalism, etc) your opinion is worthless if you can't back it up with evidence.  In fact, the fog of diverse opinions equally valid may be even more harmful than "fake news," since it creates doubt about our ability to ever know the truth, fostering the kind of apathy that is the hallmark of Russian public life under Putin.  (Presented with evidence that Putin may have ordered the series of apartment bombings that justified the last war in Chechnya, a Russian citizen interviewed for public radio replied, "it doesn't matter.")

It's worth mentioning that denialism takes in the "failing" mainstream media,* which has serious and even more immediate consequences than science denialism. Witness the lunacy of "pizza-gate" and other conspiracy theories that thrive in an environment in which citizens do not trust the news.  Journalism is like science in its dependence on evidence, and in the checks and balances of competition among media outlets to be seen as the most reliable.  Though journalism doesn't have the rigor of science, it must operate in the rapidly-changing realm of current events.

What are the issues that led us to march?  I finish with an opinion shared by many:
  • Denigration of science incalculably harms public discourse about the facts, and the choices we have to make to deal with those facts. We simply cannot have useful conversations if we cannot agree on the facts.
  • Denial (including introducing unreasonable doubt) about scientific knowledge leaves citizens doubting the reliability of knowledge itself, and leaving them vulnerable to anyone who seems able to cut through the resulting fog.  (Think about Trump's years-long repetition of doubt over Obama's birth certificate, or his use of nicknames like "Crooked Hillary," and how easily they become stuck in the head.)  Casting a fog of uncertainty over the facts is both a hallmark of Vladimir Putin's domestic policy, and figured into Russia's interference in our election.
  • Specific policy decisions become unmoored from reality, responding only to politicians' political world views.  The EPA is attacked for "job-killing" regulations that protect the environment; forgotten is that the environment is where we live: not protecting it is like cutting off the branch we're sitting on.  Scott Pruitt himself appears poised to dismantle the agency he leads.
  • Climate change may be the most important danger we face--affecting not only us, but thousands of other species that will not be able to migrate or adapt quickly enough.  The timeline is tightening quickly, and preventing the most serious effects of climate change must begin with action right now.  Earth's climate responds slowly, and the results of actions now will affect us for generations to come.
  • Science is the foundation of much of the American economy and is likely to grow in importance in the future.  Failure to support and fund science is bad for U.S. society. 
March organizers have been promoting the march as only a beginning; this week following is meant to be a week of action.  At church on Sunday a poor, unsuspecting person asked me what the march was about.  I'm afraid I held forth for quite a while.  But he left with his own concerns, and I hope to have other such conversations.

Image may contain: one or more people, tree, crowd and outdoor
(Photo from March Against Corruption)

*though only when it contradicts one's preconceptions: when a reporter pointed out that president Trump was crowing about good economic statistics, which during the campaign he called fake, press secretary Sean Spicer replied,  “I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly: 'They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.'"

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