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Science to Live By: April March

This is the Inquisition gunning for Galileo.

– Denis Hayes, March for Science, Earth Day, 2017.

© J. Dirk Nies, Ph.D.

Selected by Time Magazine as one of its “Heroes of the Planet,” Denis Hayes gained national prominence when, at age 25, he served as the National Coordinator for the first Earth Day held April 22, 1970. Back then, 20 million Americans—about one out of every ten citizens—took part in the largest simultaneous demonstration in the nation’s history. Rallies and teach-ins were held in cities and towns across the United States, and at tens of thousands of primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities. A senior in high school at the time, I remember the excitement galvanized by this nationwide protest against flagrant pollution of the environment and unjust allocation of the Earth’s bounty. Eagles were dying, rivers were catching fire, smog was choking our lungs, people were starving. Responding to this broad-based, groundswell of public concern, President Richard Nixon and the U. S. Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency in December of that year.

Today, Earth Day is observed in 192 countries and is coordinated by the nonprofit Earth Day Network. Denis Hayes, Chair Emeritus of the EDN, describes Earth Day as “the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a billion people every year.”

This April, the March for Science was held in conjunction with Earth Day at locations around the world. March for Science “champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.”

At the March for Science/Earth Day rally held on the Mall in Washington, D.C., Hayes was a featured speaker. He told the assembled crowd who carried signs proclaiming Science = Truth, “We’ve got a president, a vice-president, a cabinet, and the leadership of both houses of Congress who are all climate deniers. … America has had 45 presidents, but we have never before had a president who was completely indifferent to the truth. Donald Trump makes Richard Nixon look like Diogenes. … Today is the first step in a long-term battle for scientific integrity, a battle for transparency, a battle for survival.”

I wish to make two observations about Earth Day and the March for Science.

First, Earth Day. I realize now, as I did not back in 1970, that we can no longer “protect” the environment. Our global economy—being, as it is, deeply misaligned with Nature’s economy—has grown too big, too relentless, for that approach to work into the future. Here is an analogy that captures a bit of what I mean. Imagine a grassy football field on which high school games are played once every other week. Now picture that same field on which games are played continuously every day of the week, rain or shine. In short order, lush turf will be ground down to mud and dirt, especially in the middle of the field where most action takes place. As long as games are being played daily, no amount of protection of the football field (restricting the weight of football players, banning cleats on shoes) can ameliorate fully the damage caused by overuse and misuse. So it is with Nature. There is only so much pounding she can take.

As helpful as environmental regulations were to ensure clean air and water in the past, they cannot cope with a rapacious, overly consumptive economy operating on a global scale. The only answer is to transition to an economic system that truly protects the diverse ecosystems of a finite planet by mimicking the precepts, limits and boundaries established by Nature over billions of years. This is a core mission of the Floriescence Institute: to design the underpinnings of our human economy to thrive in ways that comport with Nature’s ways of flourishing.

Now, my thoughts on the March for Science. Its organizers say they offer a nonpartisan voice and venue for people who “have remained silent for far too long in the face of policies that ignore scientific evidence and endanger both human life and the future of our world. We face a possible future where people not only ignore scientific evidence, but seek to eliminate it entirely. Staying silent is a luxury that we can no longer afford. We must stand together and support science.”

Science has given us so many things so fast that I do not fear that we will ignore scientific evidence so much as I worry we will be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of facts and the huge scope of technologies it offers. Governmental policy, which always is a lagging indicator, will have an increasingly hard time keeping up with the opportunities and challenges science and technology present. This I take as a given.

The more important point is: scientific evidence and truth do not tell which way to march. Unless the organizers of the March for Science also provide and defend a system of values and meaning by which to interpret scientific evidence, how do they hope the public will achieve consensus on what to do with the avalanche of scientific data and myriads of technological expertise?

Should we build more nuclear power plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise be generated by gas-fired power plants? Should we genetically modify food to increase yield and alleviate malnutrition and starvation? Should we give Ritalin to attention deficient/hyperactive children to make their behavior better conform to the requirements of sit-down, textbook learning? Should we preferentially abort females because males are perceived to be economically or culturally more desirable (in India, through abortion of female embryos and fetuses, millions fewer women are alive today because of this medical practice)? We cannot answer these questions using scientific evidence alone.

Furthermore, my personal experience tells me that broad, wide-ranging scientific literacy is poor among all walks of American life, including scientists, who are rewarded for being specialists! This makes crafting complex, science-based public policy a dicey business. How can voters evaluate what they do not comprehend?

Beyond this, science at its best is an on-going process of searching for the truth, making humility a necessary virtue. Scientific understandings mature over time. For example, dietary guidelines from the government and other experts seemingly turn on a dime every decade. And we now know, as Einstein did not when he came up with e = mc2, that energy (e) and matter (m) comprise only a few percent of the “stuff” of the universe. What originally appears all-encompassing or set in stone can change as science marches on revealing deeper truth.

Finally, there are issues that touch all our lives that go beyond public policy based on science. For example, should we as a nation continue to borrow money and increase our 20-trillion-dollar national debt so that the University of Virginia can continue to receive federal grants totaling in the hundreds of millions to conduct scientific research?

I am glad for Earth Day and for those who wish to promote the value of science. I applaud their desire to advance the common good. Sadly, however, Hayes lamented to the March for Science/Earth Day crowd: “Forty-seven years later, to my astonishment, we are back in the same spot.” After a lifetime of effort, he felt he was back where he started all those years ago.

Perhaps a new approach is warranted. Comparing, as Hayes did, the nascent Trump Administration—so far often characterized by inconsistency and flexibility—to the rigid orthodoxy of the 17th century Italian Inquisition is not an effective strategy for building broad consensus about science policy at a non-partisan event. I am repulsed by those who use science as a sledge hammer to impugn the motive and character of others, including those in elective office. Hayes may be right in certain cases about some individuals. Nevertheless, saying either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to nuclear energy or GMOs does not necessarily indicate mendacity or indifference to the truth, but may instead reveal a grasp of the complexities involved.

It is these motivations, concerns and optimism for a better future that have prompted me to develop the Floriescence framework of science, ethics and aesthetics. The Floriescence Primer, which will layout the groundwork for flourishing in the 21st century, I hope to publish this fall.

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