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A nerd goes to Washington

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

The rain pounded us and we slipped in the mud.  When I held up the protest sign, the cold water poured down my sleeve and ran all the way down to my socks.  I nibbled on a soggy sandwich and asked myself why the heck I was standing here.  Why did I spend the last two months planning and organizing buses to take students and Swarthmore community members to the March for Science?  Why was I standing in the rain in a distant city with a plastic sign scrawled in Sharpie? The answer, for me, was fear and hope.

Fear.

I’m scared.  I just lectured in Bio 2 (our introductory biology course) on extinction rates and global warming.  I went to the scientific literature, preparing to write my lecture for Bio 2 from scratch with an open mind.  Even without global warming, the outlook is bleak as a result of environmental destruction.  Add in global warming, and we really are on the precipice of a sixth mass extinction, one that could surpass the extinction that killed the dinosaurs.  Let that sink in for a moment. Humans are killing off species at a faster rate than the extinction triggered by a six-mile-wide asteroid.

And yet, we can’t even get the people in power to listen to facts.  Climate change is a problem, vaccines save lives and do not cause autism; these are facts that are scientifically verified, tested, retested, and yet the current administration and many in Congress act as if these are debatable and subjective ideas. The solutions are complicated and we need people of all perspectives working on smart answers that solve the biological problems while also doing it in a fair and socially just manner.  The political conversation should be about how to deal with these problems, not about the fundamental scientific facts.  For me, one of the main messages of the March was a plea for rational, fact-based decision-making from our government.

I’m a nerd, and perhaps I’ve read too much dystopian science fiction, but my inner Orwell tells me to be very worried.  I shouldn’t have been surprised when the current administration put a gag order on our scientific agencies, but I still reeled from the news. When governments hide the truth, it is never a good sign.  Government scientists dedicate their careers to serving our country through their knowledge and expertise of the natural world.  We need to know what they are discovering and how it could impact our country.  Our tax dollars pay their salaries and now they aren’t even allowed to tell us what they are finding. The recent proposed budget cuts to scientific agencies are also terrifying. Cutting the budget of the National Institutes of Health by 18 percent will slow the development of the cure for cancer.  Gutting the EPA will keep us from understanding the effects of fracking on drinking water.  How can we stop global warming if the Department of Energy’s research into alternative fuels is cut by 44 percent?  How are the science students I’m training going to find jobs if research is no longer a national priority?

And so, I asked the local chapter of Sigma Xi for funding, emailed bus companies, bought all the rain ponchos at Target, hung up posters, and stood in the mud because I am afraid of the future of science and of our democracy.

Hope.

I love science.  I love the nerdy facts, the awkward people, and the goofy fun that happens when people spend hours and hours to help each other add one more number to a spreadsheet just to answer a rudimentary question.  I love the excitement people get when they discover something new, no matter how small.  I love that scientists gasp out loud when beautifully elegant results are unveiled at a conference.  I have hope that if we are smart enough and loud enough and if scientists can effectively share our love of discovery with the public, we can actually save the world.

I hope that the energy generated by the March for Science and similar acts of resistance inspires students to spend their lives making a lasting impact.  Swarthmore students go on to do great things.  One of the speakers at the podium was Christiana Figueres, an architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement and the previous Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. She was also a Swarthmore anthropology major who graduated in 1979.

I hope that the March for Science gets more Swarthmore students to vote.  In the 2012 Presidential election only 46.7% of Swarthmore students voted, less than the average of similar schools.  If there is one thing that should motivate Swarthmore students, it should be avoiding getting an F, even for voter turnout.  Come on! The issues surrounding the March for Science are important. They require everyone to pay attention and make informed choices about who is granted power. And it’s not enough to show up only for national races; we should be packing the polling stations for local elections too.

I hope that once finals are over (or maybe during reading week), students call or write to their local leaders.  I hope they can find common ground with those with whom they usually disagree.  Perhaps enough letters will convince a senator that science is good for jobs, good for democracy, and good for our health.  This weekend (while writing my final) I am going to write Senator Toomey and lay out why funding the NIH is important for the economy of Philadelphia.  This is not because the economy is necessarily my most pressing concern, but because I think it is a subject where there is common ground between us.

I also Marched for Science because I am hopeful we can make science into the universal enterprise it should be.  At the March, there were signs that read “science is universal” and “science is for everyone.” Although this should be true, science is hardly universal; billions of people don’t have access to the findings of science, its beneficial products, or even the chance to get a basic education in science.  We still have serious biases in our hiring and publishing practices. Systems of privilege and differences in economic opportunities to continue make success in science an uphill battle for many.  When the March for Science was announced, these problems came to the fore and forced the community to publicly address them.  The March organizers drafted principles of diversity, acknowledging that science is struggling with its own internal troubles even as we protest against science deniers. And there were hints of change at the March that gave me hope that we will make science better. Many people carried signs celebrating the contributions of scientists who have been ignored because of their identity, others proudly claimed their own identities on shirts and signs, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook coalesced around solutions for greater inclusion and outreach to the underserved.

This is not to say we won’t be discouraged. Even small acts, like organizing buses for a march can wear you down.  Many more people signed up for the buses than showed up at 6 am on the rainy day of the march.  I began to get discouraged, and then I tripped over a small child.  One of the faculty and her partner had brought their son, a self-reported 5 and 1/3 year old. I asked him why he was here.  He replied, “I want to be a biolologist when I grow up.” That did it.  I packed away my frustration and decided to be hopeful.  Hopeful that we can make the world a place where there are enough species left for him to study, hopeful that his findings won’t be censored, hopeful that his leaders will make fact-based policies, hopeful that science will be well funded, and hopeful that when he is a biolologist, science will be an inclusive enterprise where everyone is welcome.

References

Current administration puts a gag order on scientific agencies

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/24/epa-department-agriculture-social-media-gag-order-trump

Proposed Budget cuts to scientific agencies

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/03/trumps-first-budget-analysis-and-reaction

Principles for diversity at the Science March

https://www.marchforscience.com/diversity-principles/

The Value of Science

in Columns/Opinions/The Fan Letter by

The historic March for Science, a worldwide protest led by scientists and activists in support of the value of scientific inquiry and evidence-based policymaking, took place this past Saturday. One of the signs at the March read “I have faith in facts,” alluding to Kellyanne Conway’s notorious “alternative facts” remark. Other signs highlighted the benefits of modern technology, or the urgency of climate change and environmental degradation. While I agree with the overall message of the march, we must not unconditionally extol the benefits of “scientific progress.” Focusing on the end product of science distracts us from what makes science and its methods intrinsically valuable and meaningful.

A quick survey of the history of science shows that science is not always beneficial. Newtonian mechanics and gunpowder significantly improved the power and accuracy of artillery and made them more deadly. Atomic science and nuclear physics contributed to the development of atomic bombs that killed hundreds of thousands people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, countries are using artificial intelligence technology to develop Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), or “robot killers” that can track and kill human targets with minimal human supervision.

Science is responsible for racial eugenics, and the remnants of “scientific racism” persist in the ideology of white supremacy. Science is responsible for the Industrial Revolution, which led to child labor, poorer working conditions, as well as surging income inequality. Science is responsible for the creation of engines, cars, and power plants, but science is also responsible for their emission of greenhouse gases and for climate change.

It is hypocritical to focus only on the benefits of science and ignore all its harms. Science is a powerful tool that can be used or abused, and any application of science is a political act, whether it is the development of new technologies or the use of scientific knowledge for society.  I believe a stronger case can be made that science is valuable for its own sake, rather than for any extrinsic reason. Only talking about what benefits science can bring risks politicizing the subject; science itself  is and must be free from political and partisan interests.

The purest of sciences, maybe paradoxically, should be useless. Pure science is about discovering eternal truths of nature, rather than improving quality of life. Albert Einstein never intended his theory of relativity to be anything other than an exposition of the fundamental laws of nature. He dedicated his life to finding a Theory of Everything, the Holy Grail of theoretical physics. The avant-garde of physics, or string theory, is a more extreme example. There seems to be no way to experimentally confirm whether the theory is correct or not. In other words, whether string theory is correct has no effect on our everyday life.

In this idealized realm of the purest sciences, scientific theory inextricably merges with the beauty of mathematics. G. H. Hardy, the famous author of the now classic text “A Mathematician’s Apology,” counted Maxwell and Einstein among “real mathematicians,” a high praise he reserved only for those who work in areas that have “little practical value … for ordinary men.” His remark was unfortunate; five years after his book was first published, the world saw the creation of atomic bombs, the possibility of which was first indicated by Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence equation. But the point remains. The beauty of science owes much to the beauty of the mathematical language in which it is expressed, and mathematics is (or should be) innocent and harmless. While it was perhaps a little premature for Hardy to deride the ugliness of “useful science” and contend that Einstein’s and Maxwell’s theories were perfectly useless, string theory, with its mathematical success, has the potential to claim the throne of theoretical science.

I suspect that the argument that science is beautiful is not terribly convincing to the more practical-minded of the readers. For these readers, I shall argue that the scientific method is our best tool to dispel myths and ideologies. This is not to say scientific knowledge should always be revered and unconditionally accepted. To make this claim is to argue that scientific knowledge is absolute truth, a claim even the scientists themselves cannot rationally support. Scientific progress is impossible if new generations of scientists uncritically accepts everything that has been said in the past. Imagine if a student of evolutionary biology now still believes in the discredited theory of eugenics.  He or she is not only a morally bankrupt racist, but also a terrible scientist at best.

But as the example of eugenics has made clear, science often is influenced, if not controlled, by some ideological agenda. To some extent, this problem is perhaps unavoidable. As philosopher of science Karl Popper makes clear, scientific observations cannot be purely objective, since our interests and expectations tend to affect what we see. But Popper also argues that the scientific spirit of critical rationalism is the best tool we have for creating knowledge. The standard of rigorous critical thinking employed in science allows us to conclusively refute false theories in the past, and hopefully our knowledge system is made better as a result.

As Popper correctly points out, there is no reason why the methods of science cannot be used in other areas of our society as well. Dogmatic ideologies must be rejected because they resist the test of evidence and criticism (Popper is himself fiercely anti-Marxist because of this). It is better instead to keep an open mind and critically debate each issue on the basis of facts and evidence rather than blindly endorse any particular ideology that is most popular at a time.

The large turnout at Saturday’s march is uplifting given the dark time in which we live. But if we fail to appreciate science for its own sake, the March for Science is just going to be another case where political actors take advantage of science and the independence of scientists from political interests gets undermined. The least we can do is to start a conversation about what really makes science so wonderful.

Students to march on Washington for climate justice

in Around Campus/News by

On April 29th, Swarthmore students will be marching around the White House, along with thousands of other protesters, for the People’s Climate March in Washington D.C. Although the march is a national event, Mountain Justice, Green Advisors, and the Sustainability Office are working together to send three buses of students to the march and a student convergence the day before.

Indiana Reid-Shaw ’17 was part of a group of students who worked to send students and staff from Swarthmore to the first People’s Climate March in New York City in Sept. 2014. By coordinating with the larger 350 movement, an environmental organization, and getting funding from various departments at the college, the group was able to send 200 students and staff to the march.

“The first PCM was a huge success, and therefore we are using the same tactics to garner interest,” Reid-Shaw said.  

These tactics include advertising on dorm halls, sharing slides with professors, and running an interest meeting along with Mountain Justice. September Sky Porras ’20, a member of Mountain Justice, headed this interest meeting and is leading the effort to bring people to the march this year. Porras believes that, despite negative rhetoric about protests, the march is an important occurrence.

“I think that the People’s Climate March is super important right now. I also know there’s a lot of discourse about whether protests are effective or not. For me personally, I think that protests even though they’re made up mostly of people who are already engaged. First off it lets people feel like they’re doing something and being part of something, and second, leads them to engage with other organizations, … so it’s definitely teaching people how to be leaders in their communities and how to elect people who are good for climate justice. And then of course third, everybody who’s in D.C. at the time is going to see this. So if you don’t think this is a big deal, it’s gonna seem like a very big deal,” Porras said.

The college’s Sustainability Office, while supporting the college’s decision not to divest at odds with Mountain Justice’s recent referendum, is working with Mountain Justice and the GAs in this effort.

“We take seriously our role of serving as a liaison between students and the administration and supporting all student sustainability groups on campus. Thus, we look for opportunities to engage constructively with Mountain Justice, including our collaboration on the upcoming People’s Climate March,” Nathaniel Graf, of the office, said.

Reid-Shaw is also excited about the collaborative effort.

“I am excited about this partnership with Mountain Justice because I get the sense that some people think of these two groups as approaching environmentalism in opposing ways. I think both of our groups’ foci are essential and should work in tandem,” she said.  

Along with the march itself, many students will be attending a “student convergence” on Friday, the day before the main event. At this convergence, various organizations such as 350 will be hosting workshops on both climate justice and social justice more generally.

“It’s going to be a bunch of students, we’re going to be taking those workshops, we’re going to be interacting with other students and other student organizations, I know we’re going to be meeting up with a lot of people who have other divestment movements, so that’s going to be a lot of fun,” Porras said.  

Although the 80 people who have signed up for the march this year are fewer in number than before, there is excitement about the opportunity to learn at the convergence.

“I was actually really excited to see so many people who aren’t super involved in MJ or the GAs already being excited to go to the student convergence, and I was like woah, that’s really cool, because I don’t know if I wasn’t involved if I would want to put myself out there. So I’m really like wow, that’s really great,” Porras said.  

According to Porras, in past years, some of the panelists at the People’s Climate March and convergence have been less than optimal. With the help of Stephen O’Hanlon (year), she looks forward to a more improved experience.

“Apparently … there were a lot of questionable panelists, who were, I don’t know, just very white-centrist ideas … yeah, (this year), it’s not going to be that,” she said.

Reid-Shaw remembers the “contagious energy” at the last march in 2014.

“The energy was contagious at the last PCM in 2014. It was empowering to walk with so many people all with a common interest for climate justice, but for so many different reasons. I talked to a beekeeper, an environmental justice advocate, and an indigenous activist. I remember feeling the power of the people as we marched by Times Square and all of the corporate buildings,” she said.  

However, both Reid-Shaw and Porras believe that the new Trump administration makes this 2017 march, which will be held on Trump’s 100th day in office, particularly important.

“I …  think it’s pretty poignant that it’s on [Trump’s] 100th day in office, and we’re going to be marching around the white house very loudly, so yeah I think protests and specifically this protest being so large, and in DC, and on that specific date, it’s just a very very good way to connect channels of people,” Porras said.

Reid-Shaw agreed.

“On April 29th we will march again, but this time in DC and to the White House to demand climate justice for people of color, workers, indigenous people, immigrants, women, LGBTQIA, young people, and more! As the Trump administration and their fossil fuel allies threaten communities and our future, we need to show up in force in DC to demand a renewable economy that works for all,” she said, “Our goals are high.”

The buses to D.C. have the capacity to hold about 150 people, and look to bring a large presence of students to the event.

 

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