After the March

The March is over, the signs have been recycled and new challenges occur every day. Those of us with thermometers continue to be worried about climate change; 2016 was the hottest year on record according to US government scientists. Meanwhile, the EPA has removed climate information from its website because what we don’t know can’t hurt us.  Government at the highest levels refuses to value the role of expert analysis. Consider that the newest political appointee to HHS, Charmaine Yoest, holds opinions on women’s health that are simply incorrect and contradicted by a great deal of evidence. Actions to suppress science  extend to critical areas of national need, such as the development of novel methods to produce and manage energy. Although it was always clear that the March for Science was a first step, these developments emphasize that we must respond  with tenacity, vigor, and persistence.

Reactions to the March give insight into strategies for the way forward, since they inform us about the attitudes that have undermined science in the public sphere. Unsurprisingly, the responses were varied. Some were critical and accused marchers of ”politicizing” science. But many noted that the march was to support science as a reasoning process not to advocate policy. In fact, this distinction has historic significance and clearly distinguishes the March for Science from earlier efforts. A few responses indicated that support for science can be interpreted as fetishism, where science is placed on a pedestal and immunized from all criticism. What lessons can we learn from these reactions?

Political or Partisan?

First-the science cannot be politicized argument is a misdirection. Here, demands for accountability in decision makers is confused for demands about policy. We cannot solve problems we refuse to acknowledge or do not understand. Of course, how we solve problems depends on many factors, including our values. But not acknowledging or understanding problems leads nowhere. As citizens, we are entitled to make sure decision makers use the best available information, and while one might call this political it is far from partisan. Policies can be partisan, but making sure that our policy debates reflect the facts as we understand them is simply the best strategy for finding solutions.  One would think this is important to those charged with governing us effectively and humanely. This remains hard to discern; the current administration recently dismissed half of the EPA science advisory board and cut its budget by 80%.

In fact, suppressing or ignoring causality documented by scientists is both strategically unsound and anti-democratic. Problems always affect particular stakeholders more than others, so the failure to incorporate the results of factual analysis deprives someone of due process.  This is not the way democracy is supposed to function, and the only way to give all stakeholders a voice is to proceed first from a factual standpoint.  Consequently, we might take a page from the environmental justice movement, which emphasizes the link between environmental degradation and social and political disenfranchisement. We must, though, cast the net broadly; Kentucky coal miners suffer as much from policies that ignore basic facts about the future of the fossil fuel economy as do communities living next to coal fired power plants.

Citizen or Scientist?

So, everything should be OK if scientists simply communicate science facts and avoid advocating for specific policies, right? This could be called the science should be neutral argument, and a variety of opinionators have expressed this concern. Even scientists have stated that marchers reflected partisan politics of one form or another, which endangers the science brand. Let me say flatly that I think this is an absurd concern even from those who are not simply trying to discredit the March for Science based on their own brand of partisanship.

Confusion, deliberate or not, occurs because scientist wear two hats. A scientist has a professional responsibility to explain cause and effect as we understand it. But we also are human beings concerned about our children, parents, spouses, friends and neighbors. (OK, maybe that’s one lab coat and one hat, but you get the idea). How then, is it legitimate to claim that scientists must be neutral with respect to the issues they know about and which concern all of us?  Is it not the duty, right, and responsibility of all of us to advocate for the solutions we see as necessary? I don’t, for instance, recall anyone telling cancer survivors to stay neutral and not argue for better health care polices or more biomedical research.  Telling scientists to stay neutral is to rob them of both their humanity and their capacity to participate in civil society.

Lessons learned

Although I reject the notion that scientists not also advocate, there is a lesson to be learned from this objection.  Scientists and other experts must carefully separate their analysis of causality from their value based advocacy.  We should be clear that values do not influence the facts we present. But, we also should explain how our values suggest actions based on those facts we know.

As a personal example, I accept that humans are changing the climate. But my concern for intergenerational and social equity moves me to address this problem by reducing fossil fuel consumption.  I think I could have a fruitful discussion with someone who supports energy independence, or a healthy industrial economy, but only if we can first agree that the problem is real. We should take the initiative in framing discussion on this basis, and not excluding others from the conversation even when they might have different values, as long as we have broad agreement about causality.

The current political, social and environmental problems make it essential we have clear discussions about the role of science in a democratic society. This requires we first distinguish between political and partisan, and between scientist and citizen.

I’ll take up some of the other issues in my next post.

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