State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Our Democracy Needs Science Now More Than Ever

By Jason Smerdon

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U.S. Capitol Building Photo: Kathrin Tausch via Wikimedia Commons

The following is an edited version of an essay that appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency on July 13th, 2018.

Science is currently the best hope we imperfect humans have for uncovering objective truths and realities about our natural world. But it is being misrepresented, undermined, and ignored by those who have found such things to be inconvenient to their ideologies, businesses, or political ambitions.

I hesitate to follow up with this reminder, but it’s 2018, so here goes: truth and reality matter. They’ve lost their luster on internet dating sites and other sprawling expanses of social media, on certain cable news channels, and within the highest levels of American government, but I expect that most of you count on truth and reality as important parts of your day. They determine modest things like whether the brakes on your car work, whether your flu shot kept you healthy last season, and the going price of your favorite avocado toast.

But how do we know what is true and real? This is, of course, a question that philosophers, scientists, theologians, and artists have debated for centuries. Nabokov famously wrote that reality is “one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes.” He later said that “reality is a subjective affair,” an “infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable.” Let’s avoid the timeless epistemological and ontological debates on which this commentary touches and simply agree that this relativism arises in part because we all perceive the world around us through a limited number of imperfect senses whose inputs are processed through brains riddled with biases. The upshot is that we are all awful individual observers of reality.

Enter science. The scientific method is built upon the assumption that we are flawed observers, and that only through systematic observation and experimentation, hypothesis testing, verification, and reproduction can we overcome our shortcomings and inch closer to consensus about how the world works. The method isn’t perfect, and its practitioners even less so, but no other approach has revealed so much, so quickly, about our natural world.

We ignore science at our own peril. We fail to embrace and cultivate scientific enterprise at the cost of our economy, national security, environment, public health, human well-being, and international competitiveness.

From the hunk of solid-state technology currently beaming this commentary into your consciousness to driverless cars, Botox, quantum mechanics, and quick-dry boxer briefs, science and the technology that it engenders have, for better or worse, altered human existence and the character of our planet like nothing before. The result is a world in which science pervades our day-to-day experiences and defines the massive challenges of the twenty-first century. Nuclear arms proliferation, climate change, disease pandemics, loss of biodiversity, and much more: these are partly due to our science. But our best chance of understanding and addressing such challenges rests in our ability to apply science and technology with wisdom and caution.

Of course people know this. You, dear reader, know this. President Lincoln and the 38th Congress knew it in 1863 when they founded the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to advise the nation on science and technology. President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew it in 1941 when he appointed the first science advisor to the president. The 94th Congress knew it in 1976 when they established the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), after President Nixon—who apparently didn’t know it—eliminated the President’s Science Advisory Committee in 1973.

And yet our moment is defined by a selective digestion of scientific understanding—if it is digested at all—while the contemporary glut of information makes truth and reality even harder to separate from drivel and malice. Like so many other elements of our informed democracy that are currently under attack, the findings of science are either selectively used when convenient or openly dismissed, or the mantle of science is misappropriated as a mechanism to confuse. All the while, President Trump has yet to appoint a director of the OSTP, and its staff has dwindled from 135 people to 45. Federal funding of scientific research has languished over most of the last decade; pseudoscience is regularly regurgitated by mass media and celebrities; politicians adopt the talking points of special interests, even those that contradict the findings of their own government scientists; and it is becoming ever more common for antagonists to simply attack scientists who publish results inconsistent with their worldview or business model. The result is a progressively weakened scientific enterprise and a diminishing body of human capital that is less able to address current challenges or prepare students to address those of the future. The result is a portrait of truth and reality that will become ever more obscure.

We ignore science at our own peril. We fail to embrace and cultivate scientific enterprise at the cost of our economy, national security, environment, public health, human well-being, and international competitiveness. As a society, we choose either to make decisions based on our best efforts to define truth and reality, or to muddle through in darkness. But no matter how much a person closes their eyes and plugs their ears, the world around us is still governed by immutable natural laws that define cause and effect. No amount of gaslighting, cherry-picking, or repetition of alternative facts can change that.

Nabokov also remarked that the reality of a lily increases for a naturalist, more so for a botanist, and even more so for a botanist who specializes in lilies. He was elaborating on his point about relativism, but it is perhaps apt that he chose scientists to do so. Science does not provide us with the only truths, but it can better inform us on the nature of lilies, or the many threats we face in the modern world—threats that persist regardless of political rhetoric or tweets composed in capital letters.

It therefore is critical that each of us works to support a democracy that is built on a foundation of truth and reality, not one that willingly takes refuge in the active distortion thereof. Toward that end, and regardless of our political orientations, we must elect politicians and appoint decision makers who seek credible scientific counsel, who speak strongly in support of scientific consensus, and who support scientific research and education. In the year 2018, our democracy cannot function without such leaders, let alone without truth and reality.

Jason Smerdon is a climate scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. He is co-author of the forthcoming book Climate Change: The Science of Global Warming and Our Energy Future (Columbia University Press).

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