The sun revolves around the Earth. Smoking is perfectly safe. Burning coal does not cause acid rain.
There exists a long history of selectively questioning scientific findings that run counter to cherished beliefs, economic interests and personal experience. Only in recent times, however, have we Americans seen so many of our political leaders deny entirely the value of science as a tool to facilitate understanding of the world.
We have recently witnessed people who willfully ignore established science regarding climate change, evolution and vaccine safety placed into positions of power and influence. We have seen in the past month the emergence of a phenomenon called “alternative facts,” whatever those may be. We have seen the work of government scientists censored. But more generally, we are bearing witness to a collective unlearning about the importance of science in our lives.
Now, more than ever, we must remind ourselves that science fundamentally elevates our quality of life. The products that we buy and use every day, the medicines that cure us or ease our suffering, all were born of science. Right here in Vermont, decades of hard work by scientists have taught us how to manage our forests so that they produce sustainable yields of wood and pulp, while also providing habitat for deer and grouse and salamanders and clean water for drinking and swimming. Scientists have helped us understand the causes and costs of pollution in Lake Champlain and how we can fix it, which is good news for boaters, anglers and lakeside property owners. Climate scientists have given us a statewide climate assessment that brings the reality of human-caused climate change to Vermont and offers ideas for adaptive, wise responses. Social scientists help Vermont’s law-enforcement agencies better meet their mission to protect and serve the public. Agronomists and entomologists help us understand how to stop declines among the vulnerable pollinators that underpin our local food systems.
To be sure, scientists don’t always get it right and not every research question has an immediate, practical application. But science is a self-correcting process that, with time, yields objective and reliable information that helps us make better choices. Today, there are loud voices that would like to sow doubt about the legitimacy of science as a way of knowing. Anything that lends credence to this view, including silence, puts at risk our health, our economy, and our environment.
All of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, who believe in rationality, who believe that science can and should contribute to good decision-making and public policy, need to stand up and make our voices heard. We need to reject notions of alternative facts. We need to call out elected representatives when they demean and intentionally misrepresent the scientific process for political gain. We need to reject, firmly and consistently, false claims designed only to destroy public trust in the work of scientists. We need to tell our politicians, and those whom they appoint to positions of power, to stand up for open, transparent, and uncensored science. Too much is at stake to let the cynical partisans of a post-truth world treat science as just another point of view.