Opinion: Scientists Must Think Beyond Science

If we are to defend science, we must stand together with the other truth-tellers, including our non-scientist colleagues.

By Jon F. Wilkins | March 23, 2017

LEFT: WIKIMEDIA, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY; RIGHT: WIKIMEDIA, NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTSLast week, the White House released a partial outline of its 2018 budget proposal, which included substantial cuts to several government agencies, including some that fund basic and applied scientific research. These proposed cuts are just the latest in a series of moves by the Trump administration that could threaten the future of American science, including reported restrictions on government scientists’ abilities to communicate with the public, immigration policies that undermine our abilities to collaborate internationally, and the appointment of several senior administrators who have expressed anti-science sentiments.

Scientists are justifiably alarmed, and there are multiple mobilization efforts underway to defend science. Scientists are running for public office, scientific societies are condemning specific policies, and a March for Science is being held next month in Washington, DC, with satellite marches around the world. While most scientists have traditionally been reluctant to engage in politics, many are now recognizing that political engagement is going to be necessary if we are to preserve the quality and integrity of our scientific institutions.

It has been particularly encouraging to see scientists from different fields coming together, overcoming the tribalism that often dominates academia. Even in the early days of the current administration, during which refutations of evidence were most keenly focused on environmental and climate science, the response came from across the sciences. However, it is not enough just to defend science; we must defend all academic fields of inquiry. The recent attacks on science are just one part of a much larger agenda targeting the legitimacy of expert knowledge and the very nature of fact.

As scientists, our role in society is to act as guardians of truth. Our mission is to discover things that are true, to share that truth with society, and to protect it from corruption and preserve it for future generations. But here’s the thing: we are not alone in that. Discovering and defending truth is also the mission of our colleagues in the arts, social sciences, and humanities, as well as journalists. Many of these fields have long been targets of scorn and derision from the most regressive elements in society, and the culture wars of the past few decades have engendered distrust of the media and resentment toward those who embrace social justice. It may be tempting to think that these groups represent softer targets, and that if we distance and differentiate ourselves from them, we can maintain the status quo in science. But if we are to defend science, we must stand together with the other truth-tellers, including our non-scientist colleagues.

It is easy to forget this shared commitment to truth, because the tools we use to discover and describe it are so different. The novels of Octavia Butler and Sinclair Lewis or the poems of Adrienne Rich and Langston Hughes don’t resemble scientific “facts,” but they do express truths that are critical for our society to acknowledge and understand. We need to be as outraged about alleged censorship of artists as we are about the reported silencing of government scientists. We need to be as outraged by the proposed defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts as about the proposed 31 percent budget cut at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Research in fields like history and sociology is not always amenable to the type of analysis favored in the natural sciences, but it captures truths about human existence and experience that are inaccessible to more quantitative, reductive methods. Those fields have rigorous academic traditions and standards, and they have expert consensus around bodies of accepted fact. Journalists are also in the truth-telling business, though they operate on much shorter timescales than inquiries of history and sociology.

It seems that every week we are presented with a new attack on facts. If we focus on preserving our own funding, on defending some narrow definition of science, we will lose.

We must fight the impulse that says that we can preserve science if we stay in our lane, that we’ll be safe if we leave our non-scientist colleagues to their own devices. Those who silence artists and journalists don’t embrace a well-funded system of free scientific inquiry. If we focus our defense narrowly on science, the best we can hope for is a politically compromised field no longer worth defending.

Jon F. Wilkins is an evolutionary biologist with the nonprofit Ronin Institute.

See “Science Policy in 2017

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Avatar of: factotum666


Posts: 25

March 26, 2017

I would like to suggest that in the future scientists stop using the word or even the concept of true or truth.   To the best of my knowledge that concept is applicable only in mathematics and logic, and even there, one could replace the concept with another word.  For example, instead of a truth table, one could have a blue table.

as in If A is blue, and B is blue then A and B is blue.

think of how many truths that existed in the past --- and well are no longer true.

I would like to suggest that information / things are reproducible and or measurable and that science deals with such things.  In addition, if something can not be measured and or reproduced than is it anything other than an opinion or maybe hearsay?

Also, I would like to suggest that the readers here explore the concept of e-prime.  The use of English with minimal usage of any form of the verb To Be.  I try and confine myself to using that verb only when I am describing a measurable thing, as in "The shirt is red".   Otherwise, I will be very explicit  how what I am saying is an opinion, as in "I do not like how that person looks", vs "That person is ugly", or "That person is angry"

Avatar of: True Scientist

True Scientist

Posts: 59

Replied to a comment from factotum666 made on March 26, 2017

March 27, 2017

It is a great suggestion do not use a term "truth" when it is not applicable, which is established practice in regular normal science. But it is also so tempting and easy to describe anything as a "truth" by pseudo-scientists to create impression of validity of their statements.

Look at some of them in the article above:

- 2018 budget proposal included substantial cuts to basic and applied scientific research;

- the Trump administration permanently makes moves to threaten the future of American science, impose restrictions on government scientists’ communication with the public, undermine international collaboration, appoint anti-science senior administrators;

- to preserve the quality and integrity of our scientific institutions scientists are running for public office, scientific societies are condemning specific policies, Marches for Science will be held around the world;

- there exists large agenda not only attack the science by also target the legitimacy of expert knowledge and the very nature of fact;

- every week we are presented with a new attack on facts;

- scientists have to act as guardians of truth together with the other truth-tellers, including our non-scientist colleagues.

Somehow all journalists have also happened to be in the same truth-telling business as scientists, their colleagues in the arts, social sciences, and humanities, according to nonprofitable evolutionary biologist who signed this writing.

All these statements are evidently true from his point of view and do not require any justification or explanation (same as biblical texts). The much larger agenda are definetely at play here...


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