It is hard to ignore the frequent attacks on science, its implications and conclusions. So, please forgive me if I join the chorus of worry and express my deep concern about the increasing decline in trust for science in this essay.
We live in extraordinary times. It seems that all one needs to do to reject a personally disagreeable science conclusion is to cry out “fake news,” “alternative facts,” or exclaim “you have your opinions and I have mine!” Perhaps it is our strong democratic tradition that has allowed so many to become de facto science-deniers to think we can vote on everything (including the “truth”) and require that we must honor any opinion no matter how little empiricism it contains.
Attacks on science and reason are not new. In 1887, Indiana considered establishing the value of pi as 3.2 until Purdue professor Clarence Waldo warned the legislature against voting on the validity of a mathematical reality. The folks in Tennessee in 1925 were not so lucky when their legislature passed the Butler Act prohibiting the teaching of human evolution. This law stayed on the books for a half century and impacted the teaching of biology across the nation. Even though it makes no sense to vote on the “truth,” apparently some would still legislate it. This dire prospect seems likely to arise again.
What many fail to realize in these cases is that are both examples of the “tyranny of the majority.” It is unlikely that the good people of Indiana cared much about the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, but there is evidence that the majority in 1925 really did want evolution excluded from the science curriculum despite vast evidence supporting it. However, just because many or even most believe something does not mean that such views are correct. After all, it was once “common knowledge” that the Sun moved around the Earth. Even though many consider climate change a hoax—probably because admitting it would demand a change in life style—this “inconvenient truth” is still reality.
So, how does all this relate to my title? These past months have been bookended by two extraordinary science-related events—one I could never have predicted and the other had been on my calendar for years.
In late April, I and many others affirmed a philosophical position, protested very politely, walked quite a bit, and engaged in some exercise while we marched for science. We recognized that we would be preaching to the choir with fellow science supporters and predicted that we might be assailed in the blog-o-sphere or with a Twitter storm, or worse, ignored. However, it was important to be counted. Science ruled the day and garnered frequent mentions on local, national, and even international news. I was pleased to note that such marches occurred across the globe in a dramatic but necessary show of support for science—one of the most successful investigative, problem-solving enterprises ever developed by humankind.
With memory of the march fading, I looked forward to another science experience. Late in August, I drove to Missouri with plans to see my first total solar eclipse. The weather did not cooperate in my chosen viewing spot, but two things saved the day, both provided by science.
For hours I frequently and even obsessively consulted the weather forecasts for the region and reviewed the NASA map showing the path of the eclipse. I was also willing to drive every county road in central Missouri to find the place where sky and sun might cooperate. Several hours later, many miles from my starting point, the sun came into view. Right on time, the sky darkened, the insects noticeably changed their chirping, and a small group of us thrown together by weather, desire, and science, collectively gasped as the diamond ring effect burst forth and totality plunged us into more than two minutes of nighttime in the middle of the day.
Seeing the eclipse when and where it was predicted should give even science-doubters reason to question their position. The Babylonians discovered the eclipse cycle, but determining the position of the even on the ground was problematic. However, by the 18th century, science advanced to the point that Edmond Halley (of comet fame) could predict both the time and location of London's total eclipse of 1715. This increasing degree of accuracy is one of the hallmarks of science. Certainly not all scientific conclusions are yet as precise as those regarding eclipses, but even so, betting against science or denying it outright is a fool's game to those in the know.
The March for Science was an appeal to reason, just as the eclipse was a validation of the methods of science. For those who would rather not accept the science of climate change and vaccinations, it might seem reasonable to ignore the data, acclaim it all a hoax, or even halt research, but this will not stop ice cap melting, sea level rise, and the inevitable increase in the prevalence of several preventable diseases. The message is clear. Ignoring the incredible results of science is counter-productive, illogical, and even dangerous
From April's March for Science to the eclipse in August, my view was strengthened that every citizen must understand how science works while appreciating its strengths, limitations, and conclusions. This should be our collective mission as educators.
For my part, I am already looking forward to April 2024, when their will be another eclipse just a few miles from where I now live—thanks science for the heads-up (yes, this pun was very much intended)!