Guest Post: The Importance of Science

Guest Post: The Importance of Science

Below is the text of a speech given by Dr. Patrick R. LeClair at the “Shelby, show up for science” march April 21. Dr. LeClair is a professor of physics at the University of Alabama. He has a B.S. in Materials Science from MIT and a Ph.D. in Physics from the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

 


 

I first want to say that Senator Shelby has been very good for science at UA. You can see that from the beautiful science and engineering quad you marched from, right in front of Shelby Hall. And we are grateful. But right now, science is in trouble, and we need Shelby to stand up for us.

As soon as I say the words “science” or “scientist”, you already have an image in your head. Most likely that image involves a lab coat. What I want to convey to you is that science is far more than what happens in a lab, or what scientists do. And it is even more important than the fact that science has driven our remarkable technological development, and is therefore has some intrinsic value. Those aren’t bad arguments, but they are small arguments, and they undersell science. As important as technological progress has been, it is a minor side effect of science. What I want to convey to you is that science is a process, a way of looking at the world, one that is more valuable than the widgets it produces (as valuable as those widgets are).

The primary importance of science, as I see it, is in constructing an appropriate view of the world, one that is fair and based on evidence. The idea behind science is that we try to explain our observations of the world in the simplest way possible, and we try to be totally objective about it. Our observations must be dispassionate and impartial, scientists don’t play favorites. To do otherwise? You’re not objective!

Science requires an open mind, and, crucially, the ability to change your mind. If your ideology does not allow this, you are against science, and against all of the amazing advances science has provided. This leads to the problem we have with attempts to politicize science, for example, climate change. As soon you tie your beliefs about science to your political beliefs, you’re not really doing science anymore, because you’ve ceased to be objective about the outcome. Taking a side before the evidence is in is antithetical to science. It then goes without saying that, no, science cannot be politicized. As soon as you politicize it, it ceases to be science.

Science is an essential honesty about how you approach the world. It is a contract you make with yourself, which says that you will compare your beliefs with empirical evidence whenever possible. If you have solid evidence that repeatedly contradicts your beliefs, the contract says that you have to reconsider your beliefs. Observations of reality outweigh what you want to be true. And reality is harsh. Think about that for a second: when is the last time you changed one of your core beliefs? It is hard! And that’s what we’re asking ourselves to do all the time. More to the point: what common popular beliefs are at this point thoroughly discredited? Climate change is real. Vaccines do not cause autism. These are facts, and they are true whether you believe them or not. Full stop.

I should say that this is not just about science funding, though of course that is bleak at the moment. The attempted travel ban had real and chilling consequences on science programs. I had to tell some of our brightest and most productive students they cannot go home to see their families, because the might not be allowed back. Why would any new students from these countries want to come now?

As for science funding, these are dark and uncertain times. When you hear the president wants to cut the DOE budget severely, you’re probably thinking this is about de-regulating fossil fuel production or something. Well, DOE provides an enormous amount of research funding. They supply a huge fraction of our department’s research funding. That’s just one example, all the other science agencies are in similar trouble. The broad agency cuts are being made by people who only dimly understand what those agencies do, let alone what the scientists they fund do. I think Shelby does know what these agencies do very well, and we need him to show up and stand up for us. As Matt Taibbi from Rolling stone put it, “The Republicans understand this axiom: No politician in the Trump era is going to dive in a foxhole to save scientific research.” Well, unfortunately that’s where we are: someone is going to have to dive into a foxhole if the US wants to continue being a world leader in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And this costs money.

It costs money, but we need to keep in mind science is not a business any more than the government is. Return on investment is hard to define let alone measure. Microwave ovens came about as an accidental discovery during RADAR research. The sensor in your hard disk is the result of esoteric low temperature physics research. No one paying for that research had any idea that’s what they would get out of it, and no one at the time had any inkling to look for those outcomes in the first place. Of course there should be scrutiny, and scientific proposals should have a stated objective and outcome, but there has to be room for the unexpected. That’s the whole point: we do science because we seek to understand something, and I can tell you that 90% of our initial ideas are wrong. But it works because of the essential honesty of science, that even when our beliefs are wrong, we follow where the evidence takes us. Even when our beliefs are wrong, by seeking the truth we learn something. It is big risk, big reward in many ways. We lose more often than we win, but when we win, we can win big. And in Tuscaloosa, we are accustom to winning.


 

The “Shelby, Show Up for Science!” march in Tuscaloosa was organized by the Kudzu Coalition of West Alabama. They describe themselves as “a collection of progressive voices committed to transforming our community through collaborative, direct action.” Check them out on Facebook.

 

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Michael joined Gasp in 2013 as communications specialist. He has lived in Birmingham since 2008, and is an active member of the Birmingham community. He's a passionate advocate for health equity, civil rights and equality. He is currently serving as executive director. Email Michael
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