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Think Too Much: The fight on behalf of science

Think Too Much: The fight on behalf of science

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The Trump administration's assault on science — its methods, its practitioners and its findings — is troubling but not unprecedented. And lessons from those other assaults, in this country and abroad, can help identify strategies that could be useful to scientists and their allies as they begin to push back.

That's the case made by a new paper published in the journal Conservation Biology. The paper, which earned a mention in The Atlantic, was co-written by Daniel J. Rohlf, a professor of law at Lewis and Clark University in Portland. (The lead author, Carlos Carroll of the Klamath Center for Conservation Research in California, is a frequent collaborator with Rohlf.)

Trump's administration thus far has been marked by a general indifference (if not downright contempt) toward science, both in proposed budgets and appointment to key positions.

But, Rohlf noted in an interview, leaders in the United States and abroad have pursued similar anti-science agendas in the past: Rohlf noted instances during the George W. Bush administration when appointees in the Department of the Interior with no scientific expertise would alter scientific reports for political reasons.

A recent example from Canada is instructive: During his time in office, Prime Minister Stephen Harper cut research funding, eliminated the nation's science adviser and blocked government scientists from talking to the press.

In response, in 2012, researchers poured into the streets of Ottawa for what they called the Death of Evidence rally. (Comparisons to this year's March for Science in the United States may be valid.) Building on the success of the rally, organizers pushed for restoration of the science adviser position and reforms to give government scientists more control over their work. The current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, used some of these themes in his successful 2015 campaign.

Friends of science can take heart from the Canadian example. But Rohlf said more needs to be done, and scientists must bear some of that work.

"Scientists are naturally reticent to get involved in what they see as an advocacy position," and with good reason, he said. But, he said, there is another role for scientists to play: "It is really important for scientists to speak up as an advocate at heart for the integrity of science, and for the lawful and ethical treatment of scientists themselves." (This echoes the call to action in a recent paper by Oregon State University's Jane Lubchenco.)

There's a role here for members of the public to play as well, Rohlf said.

"We all as citizens and voters have a sizable role to play in this issue," he said. "The scientific literacy of the public itself is a really important factor to prevent the misuse of science."

And that scientific literacy needs to start with the basics — for example, by brushing up on your grade school lessons about the scientific method and by remembering that what scientists mean by a "theory" isn't quite what the general public sometimes thinks it means. In science, a "theory" isn't the same thing as a guess; a theory explains some aspect of the natural world that can be rigorously tested and conforms with available evidence. So the politician who, in 2011, told a campaign event that evolution was "a theory that's out there" was profoundly misinformed about the nature of scientific theory.

Of course, that politician was Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas who now serves as the head of the Department of Energy. But thank goodness that position doesn't require any real knowledge of science.

"As a society, I think we need to continue to emphasize science education," Rohlf said, and the education needs to go beyond just the basics: "It's important to educate students about the nature of science itself."

Taking to the streets in support of science is important, and it was gratifying to see. But it's just the first act. It's also important to support scientists' ability to pursue and publish their research without fear of political interference. Other countries have won that fight, at least for the time being. Now it's our time to step into the ring. (mm)


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