When the facts can’t speak for themselves

My generation of scientists, and those before us, were trained to stay in the lab. To publish in scientific journals. We learned to speak the language of science. A language that would show other scientists – we get it. We are now part of this somewhat exclusive community. To move into the public area was to stray from the straight and narrow – and from credibility. But this so-called Ivory Tower life of a scientist, has become a luxury scientists can no longer afford.

We should be sharing our science far more often than we do. Much of our work is (or was) publicly funded. We need to share not only the breakthroughs and gee-whiz science that makes it to the daily news – but the bits of science that provide the foundation for many of these discoveries. We need to share that science is a process. That there are discoveries and there are setbacks. That we don’t have all the answers, and that is why we do the science. And sometimes we help unveil the beauty in nature’s workings; a cure for a debilitating disease or an unwelcome truth.

But learning to communicate outside the tower takes time. Time away from the research that drives discovery, publication and the ever-present search for funding. I traded my lab coat for a keyboard years ago. Yet writing still doesn’t come easily. I labor over each word…what does that really mean? How will it be interpreted? Do I need to provide more background? More explanation? Is it too much? The list goes on. But it is becoming increasingly clear that communicating only among ourselves is no longer an option; whether we do it in print, or at the local library or a nearby school in our Nation’s capital, we all need to get out and speak up.

In a recent editorial for Science Rush Holt (physicist, former U.S. Representative and now the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) highlights some of the reasons why this is so difficult and why we should not lean on these fears as an excuse for inaction:

…perhaps the greatest source of hesitation is the traditional scientist’s unwillingness to venture beyond the comfort zone of the technical world she or he knows. To fight the immigration order would mean stepping into political terrain, a scientist will say; taking part in a public event to promote science could tarnish science or appear confrontational. Based on a long career in science, with a substantial interlude in elected office, I say that these are excuses for inaction. Taking action is the best course when science is threatened or when science can illuminate public issues. Scientists should not fool themselves with the misconception that politics is dirty compared to the scientific enterprise, and they should therefore avoid the fight. Nor should scientists think that by standing back and letting the facts speak for themselves, they allow reason to prevail and proponents of flawed policies to wilt.

A scientist must take great pains to prevent ideology, bias, or wishful thinking from contaminating the collecting or analyzing of evidence—that is, one must avoid politicizing the science. But it is a fallacy to say the converse is true. One need not avoid—indeed, should not avoid—applying relevant science in political or societal situations where it can help address problems. The need to maintain the purity of the majestic scientific enterprise should not be used as an excuse for inaction.

For those of us, particularly in the environmental and medical sciences, we may strive to avoid politicizing science – but our sciences have become inherently political because they reveal what we don’t want to know: how our human industry alters the environment from air quality, to climate to emerging infectious diseases. If a political party wants to rein-in regulation, they don’t want to acknowledge the science that suggests why regulation is needed.

But that won’t change the outcome. So yes, we do need to speak up. Now.

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