why putting science above politics today is a suicide pact

If scientists don't get aggressively involved in policy and soon, there might not be much science left for them to do...

head buried in sand

When you have a public specialty that isn’t economics or politics, you will all too often hear that you need to shut up and stick to it not to “politicize” your discipline. And this is especially true in science and technology. You’re told to stick to writing code, or doing your research and staying “above the fray” as you float in the realm of code and numbers. Unfortunately both get hard to do when famous, brash anti-intellectuals who seem intent on leaving our digital infrastructure to the wolves come into power and will now dictate the funding you get and the policies that impact you directly. Seriously, a crazed religious fundamentalist on an anti-science crusade has been put in charge of a task force to reevaluate higher education, the engine of the innovation economy, as if Trump took all those jokes about not turning the clock back a hundred years and letting foxes guard chicken coups not as warnings, but a personal challenge. What are the odds a man convinced that STEM is simply atheist propaganda ran by Marxists will come to that conclusion? Yes, that’s a purely rhetorical question, there are no points or awards for guessing here because this is one of those games where we all lose, especially those of us convinced we’re finally “winning” by attacking our own brainpower.

Hence there’s now an organization called 314 Action, which intends to help scientists and engineers run for office, and talk of scientists marching in D.C. in April because people in STEM have had it with pundits and politicians in expensive suits boldly parasitizing our work. But as many scientists feel they no longer have a choice but to make their voices heard in public, a geologist writing in NYT is urging them to take a different approach. Cower from big shows of unity and grovel to your elected officials who’ll recognize that you are indeed a person because obviously, the only reason they’re denying facts and abusing your work is because they just haven’t had the rare pleasure of meeting you yet. Consider his experience trying to inform his community of a rise in sea level that may have conflicted with real estate planning boards’ agendas and developers’ plans for new condos, houses, and hotels…

The coastal commission ignored it. The authors, myself included, were widely slandered. And the Legislature passed a law that barred state and local agencies from developing regulations or planning documents anticipating a rise in sea level. “I think this is a brilliant solution,” the comedian Stephen Colbert said at the time. “If your science gives you a result that you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved.”

So let me see if I understood this correctly. He was expecting for politicians and developers to cancel hundreds of millions of dollars worth of real estate deals simply by coming to town halls, or making a short appointment with a legislator or two, shaking their hands, and saying that he’s an awful nice guy and his co-authors are great too, and it’s a little silly they banned speaking about his findings because, again, he and his colleagues are such nice folks? On the list of things equally as plausible is finding Bigfoot on your morning hike in the woods, the Loch Ness Monster washing up on the shore, and the celebrity of your dirtiest dreams ending up in a seat next to you during a red eye flight after you were upgraded to first class by a stroke of luck, and offer to join the mile high club as all the other passengers were dozing off. I may be coming across as really harsh here, but if there’s one thing my experience has taught me is that a lot of people who are not experts in science and tech have absolutely no interest in you or your work. They just expect you to do it without bothering them with your pesky facts.

This is in no small part why fake science news is such an epidemic. We live in an environment in which we allow those in power to pick and choose the reality they find most appealing and preach their “alternative facts” as policy proscriptions to the public. It’s utterly asinine and it has to stop. The modern world relies on constant research and development, and if protesting the cut and deny policy of our leaders makes scientists and engineers “too political,” then so be it. The alternative is to keep your head down and hope that your work won’t get attacked or eliminated entirely because some appointed hack who has trouble telling his head from his posterior decides that your studies are a waste of time and money despite potentially being the foundation of a future cure for an awful disease we can only manage right now, or watch an algorithm you designed for better security sabotaged for some insipid “good guy backdoor” that will only enable criminals, or your warnings disregarded for the sake of appeasing campaign donors. These politicians do not care if you’re the nicest, friendliest person ever. To them, you’re irrelevant.

They don’t care that your work is what powers the modern economy. They don’t care that your warnings can save them trillions down the line. They’re not interested in learning anything about you unless you have big money to offer, and even then it better be more than what they’re getting from a flack lobbyists for some industry group send to dazzle them with charts, graphs, and a steak dinner. Explaining to them that they should fund your research which isn’t yet ready to become a billion dollar industry because one day it might be — like the Theory of Relativity, Babbage’s experiments, and Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi eventually gave us GPS and Google Maps that aid so much economic activity, it’s difficult to try and calculate their benefits — they’ll just say something abstract, noncommittal, and praise science in general at best because to them, you sounded like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon. It’s just how they see STEM experts nine times out of ten, and even you have a rare gift for public communication like Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson, it still won’t help and you can prove this by the limits of their successes.

No, if you want to keep the knowledge economy from cratering and causing another Great Recession followed by a decade of stagnancy, you have to be willing to speak the only language politicians can understand: voting. They may not understand much about decoherence in quantum systems, but they sure as hell understand a large horde of angry voters marching past their offices, and scientists showing up to a town hall asking why they just banned any discussion of their findings and if they will be ready to explain to those who’ll be affected by sea level rise, or bugs in some grand cybersecurity tool they mandated, that they were all warned of the risks and chose to respond to them with censorship and denial.

Likewise, even their most science-hating constituents will not care much for your explanation of chemical analysis, but they will definitely care when you tell them their odds of being poisoned if a cleanup project isn’t undertaken, or the likelihood of having their identities stolen and bank accounts emptied if a cybersecurity measure concocted by a technical illiterate came to pass. Are you going to sound political? Yes. Does it matter? Fuck no. Humans are political animals anyway. A famous scientist said it a very long time ago and it’s seldom been as true as it is now…

# science // fake news / research / stem


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