To the Ramparts: Defending Science!

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To the Ramparts: Defending Science!


Don Lincoln, Senior Scientist, Fermilab

Photo by Fermilab/R. HahnThere is a cultural war going on for the soul of America, and you are a soldier.

That might seem to be an overly martial metaphor, but bear with me. On the one side, there are the voices of reason and science, guided by logic and with a deep respect for the interplay between mathematics, modeling, and empiricism. On the other side are those who reject the tools that have advanced our understanding of the universe. They are the antivaxxers and flat-earthers, the homeopaths and climate-change deniers. Influential people talk about alternative facts as if they were a real thing. There’s astrology, creation science, and zero-point energy. The list of topics with antiscientific supporters is depressingly long.

Is this a problem? After all, we’ve always had nutty people on the corner, standing on their soapboxes, yelling to all who will listen (and even to those who won’t) that the end is near. Is this anything new?

Well, yes and no. The forces of pseudoscience have always been among us. But the internet has given them a larger voice than before and allowed them to grow their communities. With increased voice comes increased influence. Should their voices carry the day, this has real consequences for you and for future generations. In the US, the rate of people contracting measles has doubled between 2001 and 2015, with the majority occurring among the unvaccinated population. And the dangers of climate change cannot be overstated. As ragingly liberal an institution as the US Department of Defense has identified climate change as a nonpartisan military threat to the nation. Climate-caused social instability will arise; indeed, it already has. Forget the polar bears, climate change will cause vast migration and wars and unimaginable human suffering.

So what can you do? The first thing is to get engaged. Find a way to have a voice. Write an op-ed or start a local science café. If you have the inclination, make videos or write books or magazine articles. Engage science skeptics online. If politics are your thing, contact members of Congress or representatives of government agencies at all levels. If you don’t speak up, the only voices that will be heard are the ones that espouse pseudoscience. And it is crucial to remember that, when you speak, your audience isn’t comprised of the purveyors of nonsense but the silent readers. They’re the ones you’re talking to. You won’t convince the zealots, but the neutral spectators can be persuaded.

If you feel uncomfortable doing this alone, there are organizations that can help, including the Society of Physics Students, the American Physical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Talk to people who are already doing it and learn from them. Then go forth and do likewise. The features that follow provide helpful tips, best practices, and valuable resources to help effectively communicate science.

The struggle for the soul of America will not be won in a single conversation. It will take all of us, and each must do their part.

To the ramparts! I’ll meet you there.//

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