Is science dead?

Local scientists take to the streets

Irene De Haan is a 17-year-old Girl Scout. She’ll be a featured speaker at the rally.

Irene De Haan is a 17-year-old Girl Scout. She’ll be a featured speaker at the rally.

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This week’s cover image is a spoof of a classic, controversial 1966 Time Magazine cover, which asked, “Is God dead?” It’s a cover that’s been parodied and aped many times over the years. Time itself remade the cover earlier this month with the question, “Is truth dead?” But here’s the implication: an entire way of understanding the universe is being threatened.

Like Muslims, Latinos and many other groups, scientists have felt threatened by the current presidential administration. This isn’t just a shift toward business development and away from environmental regulations, as might be expected during a Republican administration—it is that, but it’s also a far-reaching general move away from funding science, especially alternative energy and science without practical applications. About the only science assured continued federal support during the Trump administration is weapons technology.

Science, of course, is not dead. Unlike some deities—we’ll just say Tinker Bell, to pick an innocuous example—science doesn’t stop existing just because people stop believing in it. Science is simply a system for organizing and applying knowledge. That knowledge includes, but is not limited to, facts about the natural world and the known universe. Science itself is not a fact, but a catalog of facts—and any given fact can be refined or refuted without the system falling apart. Inversely, even if the current system of science collapses for some bizarre reason—most, if not all of the facts will remain.

So why do scientists feel threatened?

There are the sizable cuts to the budgets of science-oriented federal programs like the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency, and there are other threats: climate change deniers, anti-vaccinators and the media outlets that give voice to those views. There are businesses, corporations and politicians that benefit from the repression of science.

In response to these threats, scientists are mobilizing. They’re writing letters to congressmembers and organizing rallies. At 10 a.m. on April 22, the Northern Nevada March for Science will occur on Virginia Street from Liberty Street to city hall. It’s just one of hundreds of such demonstrations slated to occur that morning across the country and globe.

The marchers won’t just be scientists. At a March 11 meeting, held at Bibo Coffee Co., near the University of Nevada, Reno, organizers discussed their communications with organizations like NAACP and ACLU, church groups, community groups, student groups, leaders from both major political parties, different UNR departments, professional societies, farm associations, rural county residents, high school science teachers and more. The organizers repeatedly mentioned an inclusive attitude—and although that’s a disparate group, with some conflicting ideals, they all use science.

The meeting drew about 40 people—many of them professional scientists, from a number of different disciplines. They were all there to discuss the goal, messages and methods of the march. A few people mentioned that it’s important to remember that a rally like this one is a patriotic event. One woman in the crowd said she thought it was important that marchers carry American flags. “I don’t like the concept that all those other people are co-opting patriotism and co-opting the flag,” she said.

The anthropologist

“Science matters because we use it every freaking day of our lives in every aspect of our lives,” said Ana Casareto, a biological anthropologist and one of the march’s organizers. “I like to give the example that three and a half million years ago our ancestors were using stone tools that they were just banging together and cutting butchered animals with. And then here we are three and a half millions years later—we have phones. We have weapons. We can make an awesome cup of coffee. … We use science on a daily basis, without us realizing how we’re using science. … We don’t have to be geniuses to use science.”

Things as complex and revolutionary as the iPhone or as simple as a glass of beer are created with science. We also use science to do things like predict changes in the weather, to design the shape of windows, and to eradicate deadly diseases.

“The threat to science is that we are being hushed,” said Casareto. “There’s going to be a lot of cuts to the budget of scientific funding. Science seems to be also this bad word that takes jobs away or that only a few awesome people with great IQs can do. So it has become almost an elitist project. And because of that, there’s a movement that’s anti-elitist right now, so budgets are getting cut. And when budgets get cut, we have a hard time getting access to recycling centers. We have a hard time getting access to clean water. We have a hard time getting access to medical care.”

She says that at the root of these budget cuts are misunderstandings about science—ideas like the notion that vaccines can cause autism, or that genetically modified food is somehow harmful.

“They come from a misunderstanding of cause and effect versus correlation,” she said. “Just because something happened after something else doesn’t mean that there’s a one-to-one relationship. Correlation does not mean causation.”

There are, of course, people and organizations that benefit from misinformation about science. For example, the few so-called “scientists” who deny the legitimacy of the claim that climate change is at least partially caused by CO2 emissions generally have financial connections to the oil industry.

For Casareto, the message of the march is simple: “All of us use science all of the time. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. It doesn’t matter what your religious background is. It doesn’t matter what your political background is. It doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is. It doesn’t matter what gender you are. We all use it. And if we all use it, we all need it. If we don’t have it, or if we’re given half information, or a quarter, an eighth, whatever, then we’re missing something. And if we’re missing something, we’re treated as stupid. And if we’re treated as stupid, then we’re easily governed. An uneducated populace is easily governed. So science is about making sure that everybody—rich, poor, whatever, has access to information—because information is power.”

The Girl Scout

Irene De Haan is a 17-year-old Girl Scout interested in astronomical engineering and architecture. She was an enthusiastic presence at the meeting and agreed to be one of the featured speakers at the rally.

“There’s such a push against science right now,” she said. “There’s a lot of denying that so much of what’s happening is real. There’s so much denying of climate change. There’s so much denying that this is our future and this is what we need. The youth is not being encouraged as much as we possibly could for science.”

For De Haan, her identity as a Girl Scout goes hand and hand with her interest in science: “This is an organization to empower women. I’m a raging feminist and a raging life science lover, so I’m like, yes, get the girls into science!”

For her speech at the march, De Haan hopes to represent the views of passionate young people who believe in science. “My big thing is letting people know that we are interested,” she said. “We do care about our future. We do care about the world. … I think a lot of people, especially older people, look down upon my age of people, in high school—like, ’Oh, they’re doing nothing. They’re getting into trouble. They’re not contributing.’ So I want to say, hey, look, ’This is what we’re doing. We care. We want to take part in our future.’”

For De Haan, the biggest threat to science is the denial of climate change.

“We can’t move forward, we can’t make technological advances, if our world literally dies,” she said.

The science librarian

The threat of climate change exists whether or not people believe in it. “This whole approach of thinking that science has anything to do with our opinions—that’s just not the way it works,” Patrick “Tod” Colegrove said recently. He’s a physicist who heads up the science and engineering library at UNR. He has the soft voice and thoughtful air of a good librarian. “I might not like it, but there’s also the fact of what is. But science is also what’s driven all of progress for the last hundreds of years.”

For him, and other university scientists, it’s unsettling to be pulled out of the ivory tower and onto the protest streets.

“Scientists—we follow our passions,” he said. “We do science because we can’t not do it. But whether or not we share it publicly, and whether or not that leads to the work benefitting the greater good, counts on scientists doing the work that is the opposite of their nature, which is that we’re super introverted. We don’t get out. We don’t wave flags. We don’t protest and march in the streets, and yet, in cases like this, there’d be no movement in our ability to practice our core practices, our ability to support the country itself—the progress. It becomes no longer an option. … The levels of funding from the federal government that go to the NSF, the NIH, or, for that matter, to the National Endowment for the Arts, are tiny in comparison to the funds that are poured into the defense budget.”

Most scientists are beholden to institutional support for their research, whether that’s a federal organization, a state organization, or an academic institution. And it can be difficult for dedicated researchers to publicly go against the moneyholders—even when the people with the money misunderstand the science.

“One of the things that terrifies me is that … there are folks working in labs here on campus that are afraid to publicly come out and say that they’re supporting something like this—not because it conflicts with their passion, not because it conflicts with their discipline,” said Colegrove. “But walk across campus and point out to me some of the faculty that feel comfortable saying ’I’m on board with this’—it’s not going to happen. For a couple of reasons—they worry about their jobs because the legislature is in session, and because of the all too real possibility that politics trumps science. Politics have always played in this game. It’s just a mistake to allow ourselves to be played to the extent that we duck our head and hide. Because you have all the people out here that are saying, ’Vaccines cause autism. Genetically modified organisms are bad’—all these people who don’t understand science are the ones that are making science decisions. They’re the ones deciding what gets funded and what doesn’t get funded—not the scientists.”

The ecologist

Marianne Denton led the discussion on March 11. She was instrumental in launching the Northern Nevada March for Science. She’s an environmental scientist with the state, with a focus on ecology. Whereas some scientists seem like they would be most at home in a lab, Denton has the attitude and energy of a field worker, someone who likes being outdoors, collecting data.

Through her field work, she understands why many people in rural parts of the state are suspicious of science. “When I go out into the field in Nevada, I will do everything not to call myself an environmental scientist,” she said. “Environmental scientists are seen in the middle of Nevada as scientists looking to overreach with government and take away people’s mining and ranching rights.”

Ranchers might fear the discovery of an endangered species on their property. Mining companies might worry about the unearthing of an archeological site. Part of the function of regulatory agencies is balancing the concerns of scientists and businesses like mining and ranching.

“Do I think that businesses in Nevada are affected by too many environmental regulations?” asked Denton rhetorically. “Well, a lot of businesses feel that that’s true, and that’s why we have a state environmental commission to hear a fine and to hear a grievance. And the commission can decide whether or not the fine is appropriate or the grievance is appropriate, and that’s how it should be. But to come through and make policy decisions by people who have no experience whatsoever—[EPA head] Scott Pruitt—it’s different. It’s not diplomatic. It’s not thoughtful.”

Before becoming its chief, Pruitt sued the EPA several times. He doesn’t agree with the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the existence of climate change. He’s essentially a man who doesn’t believe in science and is also the head of a scientific organization. A recent post on the EPA’s website reads, “Administrator Scott Pruitt announces efforts to refocus EPA on its intended mission, return power to the states, and create an environment where jobs can grow.”

The EPA was started—to protect the environment—by President Nixon. This was back in the early 1970s, when science was a less partisan issue.

“I believe that science and environmental protection can transcend partisanship,” said Denton. She herself doesn’t belong to a political party. She stresses that the march is an effort to draw the attention of policy makers, local and national legislators.

“This is the constituency that’s saying climate change is real,” she said. “Yeah, we’ve had this fabulous winter—it’s climate change. Threats to clean water are a serious thing.”

She vents some frustration with the lack of support from Nevada’s U.S. senator Dean Heller and Representative Mark Amodei. “They are not respecting what we’re saying as a constituency. One of the biggest things in Nevada is the sale of public lands. Every conservationist and sportsman I know is against that—whether they’re ideologically conservative or ideologically progressive, they want to keep public lands public and accessible.” (See “Land grab,” News, March 9.)

Her expectations for the event are tempered and direct: “It’s not going to change anybody’s mind, honestly. I think the way this march will help is just that our policymakers will see that the majority of their constituents say that this important.

In their own words: an open letter from the organizers of the northern Nevada March for Science

“We were warned, yet we persist”

We were curious from the start, but we were not geniuses. We were kids marveling at our parents’ heartbeat, or gazing at and wondering about the sky, or breaking glass thermometers to access the mercury inside because it was awesome. We were kids—the first scientists and inquisitors of the natural world. And like all kids, we asked, experimented and tested the limits of our elders to get answers. As we matured we continued asking, but we asked the process of science. Science answers our questions with facts based on thorough research producing empirical evidence. And while some facts are considered inconvenient, they are still facts: the Earth is round, climate change is real, and evolution happens. And just like kids persist in their quest of knowledge, so do we.

On April 22, 2017, thousands of local scientists and supporters of diverse science disciplines will shut down Reno and march from the Thompson Federal Courthouse to the Reno city plaza. We won’t be alone: over 500 marches worldwide will be with us. The world will hear and see us as we take a stand against tyranny, censorship and purposeful misuse of scientific facts to suit political agendas, for, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters, cannot be trusted with important matters” (Albert Einstein, 1955). Together, the world will March for Science. Like our global sister marches, the Northern Nevada March for Science is an all-inclusive, peaceful demonstration organized by local citizens active in our community. Political parties, religious beliefs, sexualities, nationalities, and gender identifications are irrelevant in science, because science does not care about one’s background. Science works especially because it is not grounded on opinions or worldviews. Science gives us clothing and houses. Brewing the perfect cup of coffee is processing science. Cars? Planes? Science! Indoor plumbing? Clean drinking water? Science! Fossil fuel, solar panels, hydropower? Science! Dental cleaning? Anesthesia? Science! Tapes and Post-It notes? Sand paper? Drill press? Arc welding? Science! Brushes, paints? Science! These products and advancements are possible because people get together and work to make things better for us. To shut down and censor science is akin to taking us back to the dangerous proposition of the Dark Ages, when education was selective and questioning the status quo was problematic. We, the people—your fellow citizens—will not let elected politicians censor us: we have a right and obligation to investigate and study science to move us forward. An uneducated and unquestioning population is easily governed, and that is an inconvenient fact.

Northern Nevada March for Science asks you to join us on April 22 as we march for education, for critical thought and reason, for everyone to have open and easy access to information, and for the love of a way of questioning and studying the natural world, galaxy and universe. Our keynote speakers will speak to the importance of science in medicine, education, the environment and our next generation. We will share in the importance of science in our everyday life and we will show the diversity and inclusiveness of the scientific body. We march for wonder, curiosity and exploration. We March for Science.