Thursday, April 20, 2017

Why I March for Science

I march for science because science is critical to our daily lives. I march because I've been a scientist all my life. I march because I am a science communicator. I march because our climate is changing and human activity is the cause.

And I march, unfortunately, because there are lobbyists who are willing to mislead humanity for profit.

Saturday, April 22, 2017 is the March for Science. Appropriately, it is also Earth Day.

For many years I provided scientific consulting services to companies, primarily the larger corporations and trade associations in the chemical, pesticide, and pharmaceutical industries. I ensured they conducted the required health and safety testing to demonstrate the safety of their products. When the science suggested their products were not safe for their specified use, I worked with the companies to either 1) modify them so they would be safe, or 2) keep them off (or remove them from) the market. All of my colleagues were honest and deeply cared about getting the science right. I was happy that if any client tried to be dishonest - a rare occurrence - I could fire them. For most of my career I felt confident that we were making the world safer.

Eventually it became clear that no matter what we did, the public still didn't trust the regulatory science community. The far left and the environmental/health advocacy groups didn't trust the corporations and were prone to jump on conspiracy theories. The far right and the business community didn't trust the environmental and health advocates and assumed all their products were safe by default (after all, if people started dying, it would be bad for business, right?). Distrust of the regulators came from both sides. In a typical day I might argue with EPA in the morning about their interpretation of data, then argue with the client in the afternoon about whether the data supported - or didn't support - the safety of their product. My colleagues and I worked hard to ensure adequate safety, but all through this process the public was largely omitted from the discussion. Rarely was anything substantive communicated to the public, and rarely did the public seem to understand how science was impacting their lives. Mostly they distrusted the process. I wanted to communicate to the public, something I was logistically not allowed to do as a consultant.

So I left consulting. Now I write science and history books designed to bring knowledge of these topics directly to the general public. I use The Dake Page and my other writing outlets to communicate science to a wider audience.

As scientists we most often write for other scientists. We publish research papers in scientific journals, present data at scientific conferences, and bore our family and friends with the latest excruciating details of whatever sub-sub-sub-specialty of science thrills us. Not surprisingly, that doesn't do much to communicate either the science, or the importance of that science, to the public.

Meanwhile, there are lobbyists who spend substantial time and money trying to mislead the public at the behest of their corporate or political benefactors. So in addition to general science communication, this page focuses on exposing climate denialism, that is, the intentional effort by some to misinform the public and provide cover for politicians who put corporate profit (and campaign donations) over the best interests of their constituents. Lobbyists are expert in manipulating the public into believing what the lobbyists want them to believe. That is their job. And in today's political environment, the fox is now guarding the hen house. Thus, it is critical we scientists bring science to the public.

As we march, I encourage my fellow scientists to reach out more to the public. Don't throw math formulas at your neighbors, explain in plain language how the science relates to their lives. Be proactive, but not professorial. The public doesn't need, and doesn't want, to be lectured at, but they do want to be informed. That's more difficult in this overstimulated world in which confirmation bias is as easy as choosing which cable station you watch, or Facebook feed you scan, to get your news (or "news"). So give them science reality in real language and in short bits. And listen. Listen to what they say and what they don't say. Find out what is important in their lives, then help them understand the science while you learn to understand their thought processes and motivations.

This is why I march. I march for science. I march for people. And I march to bring science and the people together.