Memo to Scientists: Don’t March. Educate!

Women marched on Washington to demonstrate their deeply held feelings for our just minted President.  And it was eugh!  The pussy caps endure, but what else survives of that exhilarating  moment to improve any of the conditions that brought them there?

Now scientists are on the march, first in Boston; then with a climactic event planned for Earth Day.  Some unsolicited advice: save your sneakers; you’ve got much more important things to do with your time.  Don’t march.  Educate!

Marching is a great visual, but it’s not likely these days to move legislation in your direction. The President doesn’t give a damn.  I doubt that he watches Neil de Grasse Tyson or Science Guy Bill Nye on cable.  Senator Snowball from Oklahoma doesn’t give a damn. Chief of Staff Priebus will tell you to go home, shut up and listen. Lamar Smith isn’t likely to show up at the Mall for a listening exercise.  And conducting teach-ins among the devoted is just sooo sixties!

So here’s your marching orders, if I may be so bold.

Educate yourselves.

Learn how to communicate with the average person.  You may be whizzes at what you do, but too many of you are too often incompetent about how you communicate what you do to the average person in terms that are relevant and meaningful to him or her.  Why should you care?  Joe and Jane six-pack don’t pass appropriations and climate legislation and environmental regulations.  But they elect the clods that do, and that’s where the battle needs to begin. If you can’t communicate with them and make science important in their lives, you’re toast.  You’re just another part of the elite they’ve come to despise, and with some good reason.

We didn’t become a nation of science dolts over night. It has taken sixty years for the lessons of Sputnik to wear off.  That’s what whip-lashed us into caring about science then.  It will take something equally existential to bring us back.. Climate Change should be doing it, but you’ve been too complacent as a group for too long, and what is existential to you does not seem too important to a lot of other people.

Prepare for  the Long March.

That’s what you’re on.  Not just some giddy road trip to DC with some selfies and cool t-shirts.

The Long March is to Town Halls and State Capitols where decisions are still made close enough to constituents that the perpetrators may have to look them in the eye.  The Repugnantlans made that Long March over the past twenty years,  and we now have what we have in D.C. by way of local voting precincts and state legislatures. The Democrass couldn’t organize enough people with enough energy and focus around a theme to constitute a march.  The result has impacted science and much more.  The cure will have to tread the same path. And the cure will have to fix much more than science; it’s just part of the syndrome.

 Educate Others

Get out of your labs. Embed yourselves in your community’s affairs.  If not your specific subject matter ( string theory and quantum physics is tough to apply at the Planning and Zoning Commission), bring your discipline of critical thinking, of cause and effect, of data informed (but not data driven) decision-making.  Equally importantly, observe and learn from the actions of non-scientists in the competition of ideas in the broader community. That’s the theater in which the politics of science will play out, as with everything else.  That’s where it must begin to find respect and acceptance, and gradually transform processes and results.  But it will take time…as does much of your research.

Clean Up Your Act.

The ethical constructs of the broadly and loosely organized ‘scientific community’ have come under scrutiny and strain of late,  as well as assault.  You need a code of ethics and a governing body as never before to protect you and your science from the onslaught of interests and self-interest that have perverted science as it has most other human endeavors in our complex and contentious society.

The forces of fear and desecration are about in the land, capable of inflicting fatal harm on reputations and causes with or without justification. That shouldn’t be news to you any longer.  Don’t give them justification.

Clean up the peer review process.  Avoid hyperbole in putting forth your hypotheses and projections.  I know you’re only as good as your last grant or publication, as is true of salesmen in any other field, but let your product sell itself.  Don’t oversell it in order to break through the din.

Inform the Political Process, But Don’t Become Political.

You can be scientists or you can be political activists.  But you can’t be both without compromising your position as scientists.

I was deeply disappointed when Dr. James Hansen concluded his career in science with an act of civil disobedience in defense of his science. I could empathize with his frustration, but I viewed his act as an affirmation that his science was insufficient.  Rather than advance his science and his proper message, he diminished it, in my view. Please do not follow his example. You risk far more in the March on Washington and its potential for unintended consequences in our current environment than you stand to gain.

Stand Your Ground.

Defend what you know. Acknowledge what you don’t know. And fight at every  opportunity the falsehoods perpetrated by others with the weapons your science provides. I have witnessed climate scientists in public forums sit passively while self-styled nabobs of science denial rose to proclaim this or that piece of nonsense courtesy of the Heartland Institute or some other propaganda mill, when they should have risen to professionally counter false assertions.  As we have seen too often of late, lies perpetrated and left unchallenged become accepted as truths among the ill-informed.  Successful lies encourage their liars to more audacious levels.

Maintain Your Sense of Humanity and Humility.

Knowledge without purpose is no better than wealth or power without purpose. Scientific knowledge that does not advance the human condition cannot justify its call on the commitment and resources of others that it depends on to advance.

Your knowledge confers on you significant power, but it is ephemeral.  Do not forget the difficulty of attaining your achievements.  Do not become the difficulty impeding the next step of progress.

With all this said, I have no doubt that the Short March on Earth Day will proceed as intended.  But if it is not followed by the Long March, a Death March will surely await us.

Onward

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