Last week a colleague of mine gave me some pointed feedback that set me back a bit. “I’m not following you for your political beliefs,” she said. My initial reaction was to deny that I was making any political statements, but the truth is, I was and I knew it. I’ve been increasingly frustrated with a trend to treat science as a political hostage, as though your understanding of climate change, the safety of vaccines or the accuracy of a crowd count depended on your affiliation with a particular party. In reality, the pursuit, respect for and understanding of science should have nothing to do with politics. And yet, in these crazy times, apparently it does. And that’s a huge problem for all of us.
After reflection, I realized that what she was reacting to was my tone. I had become increasingly sarcastic and disrespectful, rather than focusing on the facts. I’m working hard to change that. But I can’t stop supporting science. For me, that would be like choosing not to breathe.
So here I come.
Fake news is still fake; truth is still truth
The statements I made were focused on calling out clearly fake unsubstantiated (and flatly contradicted) “news.” I also supported the scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who were forbidden to share their research or participate at scientific conferences in their field. As I write this, the gag order is still in place and I’m not apologizing. You can look up my comments on Facebook and Twitter and you can expect more of the same from me if warranted. I will call out anyone who is publishing demonstrably false “facts” and I will call out anyone who tries to silence or halt the progress of scientific research. I have great respect for our democratic process and so I must have respect for the outcomes of that process. I will try hard to call out false statements and shoddy logic without attacking the speakers.
Science is the pursuit of truth
On the other hand, I’m aware that in some circles it has become fashionable to consider any scientific study that conflicts with your point of view just another “opinion.” But that simply isn’t accurate and saying so repeatedly doesn’t make it true. To a scientist, “truth” is a moving target, but we do the best we can with the information we have and draw conclusions using the best evidence we can find. We use the scientific method to keep us honest and then publish the results so that all our colleagues can pick holes in it and disprove it. Results that can be validated and stand up to this scrutiny are accepted – unless new evidence comes to light. Then we start the process over again. And until new evidence convinces us differently, we recognize that evidence as the best approximation of truth available to us at the time. So while it is regrettable that science has become a political football in today’s contentious world, there is simply nothing inherent in the scientific method that would make it a subject for politicians to argue about. We can discuss how to respond to the evidence, but once established, it is rather pointless to debate the evidence itself.
The great physicist, Richard Feynman, put it this way, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”
We’re all children of science
You see, every single one of us – every person on this planet – has benefitted in many ways from science, whether they acknowledge it or not. Take just a few seconds to consider your surroundings right now: The Internet that delivered this post to you, the device you’re reading it on, the comfortable building you live in, the car you drive, the medical treatment that is keeping a loved one alive. All of those are direct results of science. We are all children of science. All of it. We don’t get to pick and choose which parts of it we “believe in.”
Well, actually, we are absolutely free to do this; it just makes us sound politically brainwashed, crazy or woefully uneducated when we do. Sorry to be so blunt here; I just can’t find any other words that match the behavior.
We’re all science workers
Now let’s look at our line of work as teachers, trainers, instructional designers and other learning professionals. It would be impossible for us to do what we do without science. In fact, the way we approach our work is changing rapidly as we incorporate the latest discoveries in the learning sciences. We don’t get to “believe” in that either; it’s going to happen whether or not we decide to recognize the evidence. Instructional design is based on the science of learning, which includes insights from a wide variety of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, biology, neuroscience, even quantum physics. Working in this field and rejecting any particular scientific result seems particularly disingenuous, even if you’re just lying to yourself.
On April 22, people all over the world will be marching for science. We won’t be siding with any single political party or elected official, but we will be standing up for the right to publish scientific work and ask our elected officials to allow the scientific method to proceed. But science, much like the Christmas spirit as described by Dickens “does not live in men’s hearts only one day of the year, but in all the days of the year.” That’s how we get at the truth and we should all want that.
If you are working in the learning profession, I can’t see how you can see it differently.