Science Under Attack

Science Under Attack - The Devaluation of Expertise in 2020


Science is under attack! 

I remember when I first fell in love with science and math. My father was a public relations officer at the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories, a place where I later worked for three happy summers during university. 

An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.

I Always Loved Science

When I was eleven though, I wanted to be a nuclear physicist and I went around spouting about chain reactions and isotopes. One of my childhood heroes was Albert Einstein. I’ll never forget my joy when I discovered with math and science I could understand how the world works and also predict how things would behave under different conditions.

I am still in love with science and math. Even my kids tease me about being a nerd. But now things are changing. Now, many folks don’t just tease nerds, they tear into us, scoff at science and turn instead to mysticism and internet hokum. The decline in trust of science and math is the root of many of the problems we are struggling with in 2020. 

We Need Science to Solve our Problems

This year, we face very complex problems. More than ever before, we need good research, empirical analysis, and math to understand the threats we face and find workable solutions. But some folks prefer to believe that our problems will simply disappear one day, like a miracle. They argue we have all the strife of 2020 because of our lack of faith. Yes, we’ve made mistakes. But simply turning away from science and math cannot and will not solve our problems. We need something concrete to build with. 

We Need Softer Skills Too

I am not saying we turn our backs on softer skills. You know, empathy, understanding, and listening. Both technical and soft skills are urgent. This is not black-and-white. We don’t have a choice. We need both. 

We need to listen to folks and understand their concerns. But, in doing this, we can’t simply ignore 

science and math. We all must work with our own unique skills to contribute to solving the problems we face. As an applied scientist, I can and must offer my technical skills. Also, I have to listen to the gifted folks with those soft skills I so admire. Together we can move mountains. Alone, we will simply dig deeper holes.

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

We now have a failure to communicate between experts, politicians, and the folks they represent. But communication must go both ways. We can’t solve problems if we don’t understand each other. There are always broader social factors that we have to consider. So science alone can’t solve anything.

The Internet Expert

Today, I read about somebody who argued:

We should never listen to people with degrees, they all lack integrity.

And I have heard more times than I care to count, folks argue:

I don’t need to listen to experts because they have common sense, can read, and I can make up my own mind.

This is a problem. It can take decades to understand the nuances of the science well enough to propose sensible solutions. A two minute Google search doesn’t make anyone an expert. In these areas, common sense alone doesn’t cut it.

In a long career in applied science I have encountered many cases where the common sense approach and the right technical solution were very different. If we had followed the common sense approach, people would have died. Now folks consider these same technical solutions common sense. This is the nature of growth.

Love of Science has Sustained Me

My love of science and math has sustained me through the ups and downs of a long career. But folks who had terrific soft skills supported me through much of that career. They knew how to frame complex ideas to show the average person the way forward. With cooperation we can get this right.

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