Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Science March, Oxford, OH: Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like

It was DATA that led Rachel Carson to write these words in Silent Spring (1962): 

"We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts. It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks that the insect controllers calculate. The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts."

Her words helped start the environmental movement and led to legislation that would require scientific evidence to evaluate the risks of pesticides on living organisms.

Science does not tell us what to do or what is sacred, but it allows us to act or not to act based on the things we value in our society, informed with the available information. We can decide that a widespread pesticide that increases the risk of cancer or that interferes with reproduction should continue to be used (there may be societal reasons to justify it)—or we could decide to closely regulate or ban it.  But a society that fails to fund the research & collect the data or that ignores the data in its decision making, is a society accepting a witless fate, rather than a determined destiny.

I grew up in neighborhood built on a drained swamp, and I think of that every time I hear a politician say s/he is going to “drain the swamp.”  The natural world is slowly being emptied as a perceived necessity and by human-domination of land. Nature is pushed to the periphery. A few trees from the swamp persisted. The green anoles could climb on the balusters of my porch and flash their surprising red dewlap like a warning; but ecologically, the drained swamp is a poor substitute for the swamp—a rock in lieu of a gem.  From science, we know that the swamp had provided ecosystem services to humans by absorbing waters from storm surges, which reduces flooding; through filtering and purifying water; by providing food resources like fish.

The former cypress swamp was a Wonderland: home to the shocking yellow of the prothonotary warbler; a refuge to more than 140 species of birds, 50 reptiles, 44 mammals, 40 amphibians, 39 fish, and even more invertebrates. Nearly all were lost once the swamp was gone. 
A drained swamp was not a bad place to grow up, despite the frequent flooding. But still, there has to be another way where humans can find their place in the ecological community. It doesn’t have to be humans vs. biodiversity, and science is helping us get there.

Today, my child, is carrying a sign that says “Nature Rules!” Thanks to science, we can study nature’s rules through surveys to evaluate patterns and associations of factors; through mathematical models to make predictions about expected outcomes now or into the future; or through experimental studies that allow us to determine cause and effect relationships.  There is no better way that humans have ever developed to understand the natural world than science—it is our brightest hope. Science has allowed us to venture beyond our atmosphere and to the oceans’ depths; it has allowed us to discover and then reverse the damage in the ozone layer; it helped us to restore populations of bald eagles and other birds exposed to organochlorine insecticides. It is science that informs us of human-induced climate change and it is science that could allow us to remedy the impacts.

There are children here today who will grow up to be scientists—girls & boys of every sort—we need each of you. There is a place for you at the science table. I, maybe like you, never expected to be a scientist. But, I was worried about the plight of, first whales, later amphibians, in a world of so many humans constantly expanding their residence and reach; I wanted to understand how we could fix some of these problems and science is one road to that solution. There are reasons that I have cast my lot with science. Reasons all of us can put our confidence (even our faith) in this field of study:

First, science is a field of skepticism. That skepticism allows us to evaluate data from multiple angles for flaws and short-comings. We collaborate with skeptical people and then our work is peer reviewed by different and anonymous skeptical people—which, I will admit, can be kind of irritating—but it leads to a body of research that has undergone reasonable vetting that results in the best interpretation and analysis of the data.

Second, science uncovers “Truth” through repeated and independent tests. We do not prove things in science; rather, we collect data that either supports or rejects a hypothesis.  One study is never enough. But through accumulation of data, with many studies by many independent scientists, a theory can emerge. It is an important reason why we can feel confident in scientific consensus. When and only when you have sufficient data – and if your work is corroborated – you can change the mind of the (fairly conservative) scientific community.  A scientist’s views are always pliable in light of a new body of data. 

I remember keenly a morning as a teenager when I was up early sitting on the steps of our porch and a blue heron surprised me as it flew over the house.  It was large and low and close on a misty foggy morning, moving as if surveying, looking for a place it thought was there, but finding little besides rows of small houses and paved roads—its world, slowly transforming.  The fate of so many species is in peril.

I marched for science today, in part, because I know science can provide the data that allows for evidence-based decision making that can help humans live in ways that reduces the risks to the rest of biodiversity—and that data CAN lead to informed policy.

At the end of the day, nature does rule: ideally, we try to understand how nature responds to what we do and how we can minimize the consequences for ourselves and the rest of biodiversity.  We must hold our public officials accountable for making decisions based on data and informed by a scientific consensus of experts. We have put the power of policy in the hands of politicians and if they do not use it sensibly, they must be removed from office. It is the only way to protect our planet, our resources, and ourselves.