There has been some interesting discussion this weekend amongst the scientific community and weighing the pros and cons of marching for science.
Among fellows scientists that decided not to march, my colleague the Mad Virologist decided on his blog not to march (http://themadvirologist.blogspot.ch/2017/03/why-i-wont-be-participating-in-march.html) because of the infiltration of the March by some groups (including pseudosciences enthusiasts) posing as science groups but fail to uphold on the tenet of scientific thinking via their cherry-picking in science topics such as climate science (supporting the consensus of global warming) and biotechnology (refuting the consensus that genetically-modified organisms are safe for consumption).
As the Mad Virologist elegantly metaphorized in this article “Science is not a buffet where people can pick and choose the parts that they like and disregard the rest.” I completely agree with his point of view but I also disagree with his outcome.
Let me be clear, I like the Mad Virologist. We are in very different research fields (he is in plant virology and work to develop techniques to counter crop loss through viral infection, I am a neuroscientist and stem cell researcher) but if we were not separated by 500 miles, he would be my best drinking buddy.
I loathed plant sciences during my undergraduate classes (Botany 101? Ugh!), but there is something special about plant virologists. These are some special kind of plant scientists. These are plant virologists. They are smart. Very smart. I had a virology class during my senior year (as I was navigating in my post-graduate research direction) and most of the class was taught by plant virologists. However, these guys made a remarkable job to teach us human virology that you would not know these instructors were no human virologists at all. Same with the Mad Scientist, he is doing a heck of a job in science communication and knows very well about anything related to pathogen-hosts interactions and infectious diseases.
But this is where I have a divergence with the Mad Virologist. I feel if we don’t “stand our ground” during these Marches, we will let the same people we are trying to shoo away from science outreach take the upper hand and do the outreach for us…..at our own demise.
If we don’t march to these Marches, we will be sending a signal to our legislative bodies that the proposed deep budget cuts and deregulations of key governmental offices and programs will have no impact on our lives and our societies. We will de facto accept that the protection of our society health and environment is not in need of budget maintenance or regulations.
There is no surprise that science is attacked by different sides. From celebrities making fallacious scientific claims that seems to be coming straight from the middle-age (Flat-Earth theory, denial of the germ theory of diseases…..), from “sanctimommies blog” using their fear and lack of understanding of basic sciences to appeal to authorities (because Youtube videos and Google outweigh your 10+ years college training from any doctor and scientists), from “quacks” making a living from selling bogus therapies through their Youtube videos, books and premium monthly subscriptions, from politicians that deny facts going against their beliefs and moral standings.
In all these cases, such fear and anger is fueled by lack of critical thinking, resulting into demonizing the authority refuting fallacious claims. This is where we, as scientists, have to stand our ground because this is our duty to equip the community with a remarkable tool: critical thinking.
There is unfortunately nowhere seen in any K-12 curriculum a sizable chunk dedicated to scientific reasoning and critical thinking. We are pushing on our teacher to squeeze imperatives to fulfill learning objectives within a timeframe, to assess them with performance metrics through student achievements, asking them to do “more with less”. We are living in an age that was 50 years ago unthinkable. 50 years ago, we were trained to retain information and facts because access to literature was limited by space and time (you had to block a time to seek the information in a library, if you could find it there).
We have now almost access to all human knowledge within the touch of our thumb on a touchscreen making this need secondary. Yet we are failing to teach our students to process at higher level: to analyze the information, contrast and assess the reliability of the sources used to get this information and make a decision based on the pros and cons. This should be no surprise and at the age of “fake news” and “post-truth” it just blew on our face.
We academic scientists have been very good to talk to our peers, yet we fail to reach out to the community despite having the luxury of a notion called “academic freedom”. There are several reasons that can explain our failure to reach out: not enough time (working to fit a 24-hour workload into a 12-hour day is no easy), fear (I am a tenure-track faculty and walking into it is like walking in a minefield, feeling that any wrong move can blow my P&T and my sense of job security away), self-censorship (afraid that a personal tweet may be taken as a political stance from the academic institution with severe financial fallouts).
Yet, we cannot keep on living with fear. If we don’t talk and express our concern we will see our science tortured by quacks to push their agenda and their vacation budget into some luxurious Caribbean island, see our science funding cut by politicians as they fail to understand the relevance of our research and conclude it is “wasted tax payer money” and let the distrust of the community towards up built up, fueling the fallacious picture of “The Mad Scientist”.
I will not march with any label, union or any organization.
I will not march to push any political agenda.
I will not march quietly amongst wolves in sheep clothes and I will denounce their presence loudly if needed.
I will march as a way to connect with the public and explain to them why I march.
I will march to explain why science is a long and tortuous process that is not measured by immediate and short-term gains.
I will march to explain that not all science is equal and there are standard in science that help us sort the “junk science” from the genuine scientific discovery.
I will march to explain that we scientist change our minds based on scientific evidence that surpasses the consensus by its quality and number.
I will march to show that anyone with a spark of curiosity, a feel to plunge in the unknown and willing to persevere can be a scientist.
I will march to show thats science is not only reserved for the middle and upper-class students, that a blue-collar student can become a scientist too.
I will march to help tear down the walls between academic scientists and the community and build bridges for a mutual dialog.
I will march with the hope that my local representative at the State and Federal House and Senate understands how the tax money spent on my research is helping in finding cures to stroke and Alzheimers but also that no one can predict how what may labelled as “wasted tax money” may have significant impact on the society in 5, 10, or 50 years after its discovery.