Thanksgiving is the the time of year that we reflect on what we are thankful for. I personally am thankful for my family, relatively good health, and the ability to teach students (and public). Upon further reflection, I am also thankful for science. Science is probably not likely to dominate your turkey and dressing (stuffing for some of you but I am a Southerner) conversations, but it is something that each of us should be thankful for. Here are 3 reasons why.
Look Around You. I challenge you to survey your surroundings and everything you did today. Did you use your cellphone? Did you get to a location with the help of GPS? Did you pull up a weather forecast? Did you take some type of medication for health reasons? I could go on and on with questions like that. Scientific research and development positively impacts every fabric of our lives daily. I reflect on an essay summarizing lectures by legendary voices James Burke, Jules Bergman, and Isaac Asimov in 1985. The Foreword of the NASA piece summarizing their thoughts states:
Science and technology have had a major impact on society, and their impact is growing. By drastically changing our means of communication, the way we work, our housing, clothes, and food, our methods of transportation, and, indeed, even the length and quality of life itself, science has generated changes in the moral values and basic philosophies of mankind. Beginning with the plow, science has changed how we live and what we believe. By making life easier, science has given man the chance to pursue societal concerns such as ethics, aesthetics, education, and justice; to create cultures; and to improve human conditions
It also reminds us that such technology and science can also destroy us if we are not careful or respectful.
It is not inherently biased or tribal. I often lament when I see people stake out positions based on biases or ideological tribes. This might surprise you (or not) but there are people that I talk to that honestly cannot articulate credible reasons why they don’t believe climate change is happening, but it seems that they are just “supposed to.” Speaking of climate change, let’s step back and look at the narrative about climate change narratives. Reports and peer-reviewed literature are fairly clear about the science, and Earth is responding in kind (check out the climate indicators at this link for example). However, political affiliations, special interests, and even belief systems shape the narratives for some people. Cognitive biases, cherry picking isolated events or facts and mistrust also lead people to believe climate change, vaccination, or weather-controlling contrail myths. Science, at is core, is based on questions, data, experimentation, testing, verification, and repetition. Reproducibility has been a focus of attacks on the peer review process recently. However, a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences placed that concern in perspective. A summary of their key findings is presented below:
- Magnitude of biases varied widely across fields but on average was pretty small,
- Small, early, highly cited studies that were found within peer-reviewed journals were most likely to be overestimated, and
- There was very little evidence that biases were associated with scientific productivity
Let me be crystal clear. There can certainly be biases introduced into the process by human beings, measurement error, and so forth, but in its purest form, a temperature reading or a sample of pollen “is what it is.” Whether you believe in gravity or not, the ball is going to drop from your hand when you release it. It is why the question “Do you believe in climate change?” is such a head scratcher to me. With the science results so compelling on that topic, a better question that I saw recently on social media is “What do you believe we should do about climate change?”
It is not inconsistent with your faith. For readers of particular faiths, there is often a tension between science and religion. The scripture that I read talks about stewardship of the Earth and that “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” Yet I still get the occasional, “it is blasphemous to say that mankind can change our planet.” Irrespective of your faith position, science is not the enemy. Dr. Amanda Glaze-Crampes is a professor at Georgia Southern University and an expert on evolution education. She is also a scholar of faith. She has a pinned Tweet on her page that says:
Science is not an atheist movement, science is not a conspiracy, science is not the enemy. It is to seek understanding of the world we share
The scientific process is not perfect. It can be flawed at times. However, the majority of the public still trusts scientists even as some try to undermine it. According to an article at NPR, a recent Pew survey “found that 86% of the participants have a fair amount or a great deal of faith that scientist that scientists act in our best interests.” That number is up 10% since 2016. The study found that public trust of scientists is comparable to numbers received by the military. The study authors noted that this support is soft, and there are pockets of distrust or skepticism. Some of this may be warranted (but is likely exaggerated). I suspect social media-ology, institutions with agendas and efforts to undermine science likely play some role too.