Scientists: Be Effective with Your Rage

01/30/2017 10:56 am ET Updated Jan 31, 2017

It is heartwarming to see a little discontent inside scientific community.  To those of us with long careers in the discipline, the daily assault on reason is part of the experience, and the scourge of fake news and evidence denial are well known.  We’ve watched it for decades with the frustration that empirical evidence and inconvenient truths were cast aside in policy discourse and public discussion, propagated by news outlets that value Kardashians over quarks.  Willful ignorance has spawned a hot planet, expensive ballot initiatives for warning labels on safe food, calls to teach about a 6,000 year old planet in science class, and outbreaks of diseases long believed to be defeated. And that’s the tip of a melting iceberg.

<strong>It is good to see something finally poke the sleeping science giant awake, but let’s think before raising a fist. </s
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It is good to see something finally poke the sleeping science giant awake, but let’s think before raising a fist.

Scientists themselves have even ventured into the public discussion only to be falsely maligned everywhere from crank websites, to conspiracy radio shows, to the Old Gray Lady herself.  The outrage from the broader community is typically gooey and short lived, if it even happens at all.  It is about what we’d expect from non-confrontational nerds engrossed in more important pursuits.

But now a new attack on science appears to be well underway, and some long overdue mental magma is finally pumping in the community’s normally molten core of soft serve.  

Recent Presidential mandates drew quite a reaction from the scientific community, some appropriate, but some overstepped.  That’s a major problem.

USDA Bungle

The big screw up happened upon the notice from the USDA.  The internet exploded with news that the Agricultural Research Service (the USDA research arm) was suspending publication of any “public facing documents”. 

Scientists interpreted this as a broad swipe at suppressing the flow of data.  I did it too.  I retweeted and shared the rage!

I was inundated with tweets and emails, asking about the gagged silencing of USDA employees. As the internet’s network inflamed the story, it was clear to all of us that USDA scientists were blindfolded and bound, loaded into unused Amtrak trains (which is most of them), and relocated to Area 51.

Oops. We just royally effed up.  We over-interpreted the message, which ultimately was nothing.

Bad move, scientists.  We are so poised to react, that our outrage was misspent.  Most of all, we flipped a slab of red meat to those that wish to discredit us, and a strike against our claim of measured reactions.

March on Washington?

Everyone from internet science sleuths to Bill Nye are calling for a Science March on Washington, a chance to show solidarity among those that value the scientific method and embrace the truths that science gives us. Good on them. 

Not me. The best way I can support science and scientists it to create durable work and actively create the change I want to see.  I’m in this for the long game, not an expensive afternoon in DC. The cure to science ills is deliberate and visible investment of our non-existent time in public-impact pursuits.  I protest non-scientific perspectives daily, and have paid a professional and personal price for doing so, but we are making wonderful advances in the understanding of various publicly-controversial topics.

For me to get to DC, stay a night, and uber around will cost me at least $500, and that’s if I bivouac with other smelly scientists and dine on stale peeps and trail mix.

What if we invested those protesty travel bucks on an imaging microscope for a local classroom and then spent the day showing kids how to use it?  That’s the way we create the change.  Rather than coming off as whining complainers for 20 seconds on Fox News, let’s be the proactive teachers we are, and then use social media networks to tell the world about what proactive teachers we are.

Or in the worst case, can we please do both?

The Science March might be more effective as a website showing the beautiful things we did specifically in response to the anti-science movement. 

Again, it is nice to see a little rage bubbling from within the lab coat. I like a little smoldering brimstone in the Ivory Tower.  The challenge now is to channel the energy properly.  At this point we need to be sure that our efforts are appropriate and consistent with the evidence.  Then let’s avoid knee-jerk reactions and implement effective and visible means to protest, flooding social media with overwhelming acts of good.

We have the cred.  Others are trying to take it, and erode the trust we deserve in science discussions.  Let’s not make it easy for them.

Bite the Hand that Feeds Carefully

We all complain about the federal support of research and how we need more resources to do it. We must reject the invasive and non-scientific attack on science, but we have to make sure we don’t jaundice improved support for public science. This is why the high road is so important. Our protest should elevate us, improve public opinion, and gently coerce more support for public-sector research. Misplaced rage, social-media-propagated foibles, and assemblies with pitchforks and torches get us a one-way-trip to knowhere.

In Conclusion

In research we are taught to challenge evidence presented, even from trusted sources.  We claim to guard against self-deception, and over-interpreting data.  We portray ourselves as responding in measured, calculated ways that maximize impact of our actions.

I’m just suggesting a little self check here and watch out for jerky knees.

Like I said in the opening, we’ve lived in the midst of science denial for a long time and are poised to fight back against coordinated encroachment from a demonstratedly science-soft administration. Let's not jump the gun and look bad doing it. 

Rather than simply creating a stir, let's invest that energy and create change.

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