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Scientific inquiry should be an American value, too

By: August Brunsman
April 20, 2017 Updated: April 20, 2017 at 6:31 pm
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photo - Lead Protein Production and Centrifugation scientist Paul Koelle operates a centrifuge control panel where they are working on developing a vaccine for the Zika virus based on production of recombinant variations of the E protein from the Zika virus at the Protein Sciences Inc. headquarters in Meriden, Connecticut, on June 20, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mike Segar
Lead Protein Production and Centrifugation scientist Paul Koelle operates a centrifuge control panel where they are working on developing a vaccine for the Zika virus based on production of recombinant variations of the E protein from the Zika virus at the Protein Sciences Inc. headquarters in Meriden, Connecticut, on June 20, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mike Segar 
(RNS) Science makes America great. That’s why I am going to be part of the March for Science this Earth Day, April 22, on the streets of Washington — and across the country.


Liberty. Individualism. Concern for the common good. Hard work. Honesty. Duty. Optimism. Compassion. These are all excellent American values. Science needs to be an American value as well.

Science enables us to share an understanding of the world, and no nation on earth has done more to advance that common language than America.

If we’re open to what science tells us, it can help us find common ground regardless of whatever religion we do or don’t practice. Science can bring us together because it rules out guesses about how the world might work.

Our founders set the words “E pluribus unum” (out of many, one) on the Great Seal of the United States. The only way this sentiment works is by arguing about what is true that actually gets us all closer to the truth. As difficult and messy as science can be, its track record of improving our shared understanding of our universe is unrivaled.

Democracy works better when its citizens value and understand both the discoveries and methods of science.

Trump’s scientific illiteracy seems to stem from a damaging combination of serving the interests of the fuel extraction industry and whatever screaming headline he’s read on that day’s conspiracy website. He suggested climate change is a hoax. He has made inaccurate statements about the danger of vaccines, and has also made inaccurate and potentially panic-inducing statements about Ebola patients in the United States. Trump has spread unfounded lies about the dangers of wind farms and has underplayed the well-documented dangers of fracking.

Trump’s relationship to language and policy seems to be that he will say and enact whatever he thinks will maximize his power.

The march is an opportunity for us to pivot away from the fallacious trajectory of fact aversion. While it’s unlikely that Trump will ever turn toward evidence-based public policy, the American electorate can create its own shift, toward science being as American as apple pie.

Despite its unifying potential, some scientists have pushed back against the march, arguing that science is too pure to become political. Other scientists, like astrophysicist Adam Frank, have reluctantly decided to participate in the march, even though he’d rather be “figuring out what’s wrong with that vacuum pump on the ion-trap.”

In writing about what he’d rather be doing than marching, he suggests most scientists see communicating with the public as an afterthought. We all lose out because of this.

The real power of science is in allowing all of us to communicate about our world more accurately. And that dialogue must begin with a connection between the public and the scientific community.

In fact, climate scientist Robert S. Young has suggested that rather than march, scientists should go to their civic associations and tell people face-to-face about their science. As we improvise our way through the next four years, our activism needs to embrace the “yes, and” instead of the “no, don’t.”

We need to talk about science face-to-face, and in the context of politics. Indeed, just as activists all over the country continue to push for women’s rights after the Women’s March on Washington, so too must science advocates.

Renowned astronomer Carl Sagan urged his fellow scientists to reach out. He argued that explaining their work was an existentially important act … not just for science, but for all of humanity.

This is exactly why I’m so excited about the March for Science: Its mission is to support publicly funded and publicly communicated science. In other words, science for everyone, not just scientists.

To embrace science is to embrace the great endeavor of basing our beliefs about the world on good reasons rather than ideology. To make good on the promises of both the American and Industrial Revolutions, we need mass understanding of the notion that science is not merely a tool to enable an elite class of wizards to make YouTube videos of landing their rovers on Mars.

The real power of science is to create common ground between us all — to make one from many.

Please join me at the March for Science.

(August Brunsman is executive director of the Secular Student Alliance)

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