Blog 117. Barking up the wrong tree?

The scientific societies are barking, complaining about the anti-science movement in the federal budget.  These societies are nonprofit groups that publish results, share news, have conferences, and generally support scientific learning–organizations such as the American Geophysical Union (AGU, about 62,000 members), the American Physical Society (53,000 members), the American Chemical Society (157,000), and the Society for Science & the Public (publishes Science News magazine).  These organizations recently increased efforts to inform the public regarding science and oppose the expected reductions of funding for science.  See, for example, a statement by the CEO of the AGU.

“Wrong tree” usually indicates the dog is barking where the squirrel didn’t go.  What could be wrong with the scientific societies educating the public and advocating federal support of science?

It’s the advocacy part.  Not that advocacy is wrong.  But it might be misdirected.

A fraction of the public distrusts science, in large part (I say) because science is factual, and factual speech is regarded as presumptuous words from privileged people who do not have to deal with the frustrations of jobs, crowding, and prices.  When the scientific community advocates budgets for science, particularly when it advocates research that appears to be tinkering in an ivory tower, it comes across as just another interest group wanting its share of the pie.  The public, particularly the jobless public, doesn’t see a higher principle behind the advocacy.

There is a higher principle.

The American congress and administration are reducing the budgets and functions of the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, and the U.S. Geological Survey, turning their research efforts either off or toward other missions.  Politicians know that trips to Mars sell.  Manned space travel garners cheers, provides identity, makes the country seem great.  So do bread and circuses.  Earth monitoring programs and climate analysis are threatening to politicians who blame economic problems on regulation rather than blaming the lack of regulation in banking, fossil fuel subsidies, and environment.

The scientific societies would do well, methinks, to outline the science that shows mankind is a complex system, and what you must do to prevent unwanted emergent effects in a complex system.  In particular, you must adjust the rules of interaction within the system.  Do not terminate the earth-science programs that monitor and investigate the world in which we live, the world stressed by human dominance of current geological process, a time now known as the anthropocene.  Instead, bark at the maneuvers to selectively terminate the particular information that politicians find discomforting.

America has a technological society that is scientifically illiterate.  In response, the AGU encourages scientists to present their individual research projects to the public.  The public needs broader information, identifying what science is, and what is known about the world as a result of science.  As a result of science, we know that events (including climate) are based on causes, not witchcraft, so you don’t worry about your neighbor’s voodoo curse.  You do need to worry about his—and your—tailpipe emissions and the emissions of the entire fossil fuel economy.

Scientists bark the facts, not just budgets.  Otherwise, the money will flow  to the wrong projects—the projects that divert attention away from the facts.  Or the money might be sent to squirrels with “alternative facts.”

One thought on “Blog 117. Barking up the wrong tree?

  1. Lucia Mouat ·

    Don makes any number of excellent points re science, regulation, and budget cutting. I’m sending a copy to the White House!

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