ALAN SCOTT: Science, politics inseparably linked

ALAN SCOTT: Science, politics inseparably linked

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Dr. Alan Scott

Dr. Alan Scott

Many of my geology and astronomy lectures commence with the statement “In the beginning,” followed by a pause, inquisitively turning to the students to ask “Beginning of what?”

It elicits a host of responses, but my primary intent is to get students thinking big, deeply, profoundly and scientifically.

In the beginning … of our country, Thomas Jefferson stands among the top intellectuals whose work infused our founding principles and institutions. He was steeped in the philosophies of government and nature.

In a letter to John Adams in 1821, Jefferson writes, “And even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and libraries of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them.”

Jefferson intimates the kinship between science and liberty. One could say our Declaration of Independence and constitution are science experiments in much the same spirit as Henri Cavendish’s experiment in 1798 that first weighed the Earth.

Both experiments leading to a more enlightened existence.

Using science for the public good lies at the heart of what motivates and inspires great minds throughout history and all over the globe.

Each Earth Day, supporters and practitioners of science march and hold rallies to preach this gospel.

It is what motivated Congress and Abraham Lincoln to create the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, at the height of the Civil War.

Many posters at these Earth Day rallies are explicitly anti-President Donald Trump. Therein lies a different civil war.

In its purest distillation, scientific knowledge transcends politics, religion or culture, making it profoundly refreshing.

Moreover, science is composed of both knowledge and process. Science is an enterprise that rewards those who can find flaws – using intellect and not ad-hominem attacks, openness not concealment, utter honesty and not half-baked social media memes or caricatures.

Scientists are susceptible to the cognitive imperfections that plague all humans. Notwithstanding, their mindfulness of such imperfections make them less susceptible.

Science is empirical. If it cannot be measured, then it is not science.

It demands that public policies be argued from evidence and data.

Science is all about accurate assessments, while politics manages competing interests.

Some argue that scientists must not become politically active. This philosophy is misguided.

Consider the case of Dr. He Jiankui, who recently genetically edited human embryos using CRISPR science and implanted them into a woman, who then gave birth.

We now live in a world of genetically engineered humans! This is a clear case where scientists need to enter the political realm, as they have, to demand better oversight and regulation in such civilization-changing actions.

Science is indispensable in formulating public policies. It reveals our modern society is driving climate change. It informs us about emerging pandemics, avenues to fight cancer, energy policy, etcetera.

It is integral to innovation and a flourishing economy. Science and technology are pivotal in helping defend the country against potential adversaries.

Science can even measure the degree of gerrymandering on voting districts.

The Center for Election Science, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization, will show you that “instant run-off (or ranked choice) and approval” voting is vastly superior to the traditional ballot.

It reduces the monopoly of the top two political parties and, thus, likely to go nowhere.

Neil deGrasse Tyson believes the wheels have fallen off the rationality bus whenever a legislator says “This is what these scientists agree to, but I don’t agree with them…”

Former President Barack Obama maintains that one of the biggest problems facing our democracy is that we no longer “share a common baseline of facts … We are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch FOX News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you, you know, listen to NPR.”

A common baseline of facts is squarely in the science domain.

There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew tasked with using science and civic institutions to manage our journey in sustainable and human-friendly ways.

Dr. Alan Scott is a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.


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