Celebrating – not defending – science and scientists.

Air pollution? An unintended consequence of population growth and economic success, contamination of U.S. air (as well as water and soils) was becoming daily more evident throughout the 1960’s. The establishment of NOAA and EPA in 1970 by President Nixon and the Congress was an important milestone in the national effort to turn things around. The half-century since has seen improvement – perhaps less than we could have hoped, but maybe more than we might have expected. The entire American public pitched in: recycling; making more effective use of resources and switching where possible to renewables; developing local, state, and federal regulation. Significantly, science and technology of every sort contributed to the cleanup.

Much to celebrate! But we’re fighting a more insidious form of pollution poisoning today’s atmosphere that can’t be cured through science and technology alone: defensiveness.

Defensiveness? Fact is, there’s just too much of the ugly stuff all around us, with an outlook for still higher levels – concentrations that could be hazardous to individual and national health and well-being. That matters this weekend, because with Earth Day and the March for Science coming up, if we’re not careful, you and I risk adding more of that noxious effluent to an already burdened environment.

Defensiveness is a choice. It can even be argued that our psychological predilection for defensiveness is so strong that it gives rise to our national divisions, not the the other way around. In the language of air quality, you and I are all too readily inclined to be sources of defensiveness. Give in to that temptation, and we’ll add to the national burden.

Or we can choose to go in another direction. If we do the latter, it’ll often require that we be more than passive observers. We’ll have to be sinks for defensiveness – that is, absorb much of the defensiveness we encounter instead of exercising our natural inclination (and even foregoing our right) to push back.

Easier said than done! How might we do our bit to turn Earth Day and the March for Science from defensiveness to celebration? Multiple approaches are available to us. You are free to choose the one that feels most natural.

One proposal? Give thanks.

This suggestion is rooted in reality, and in example. First, the example. If we look across the suite of national holidays, we discover that all of them build unity through gratitude. We’re thankful for the New Year and the chance it brings for a fresh start. On Martin Luther King Day, we’re thankful to the man (and the men and women) who did so much to bind up the nation’s racial wounds. Come February, we’re thankful for all our presidents, but two in particular – the first, who through his personal integrity set the country on its present course, and the sixteenth, who dedicated his life and ultimately gave it to preserve the Union. Each July, we remember to be grateful for our independence and freedom, and in May and November we honor the men and women in our military, especially those who gave their lives to keep us free. And so on. November’s Thanksgiving itself embodies this idea not just in spirit but in its very name.

As for the reality, both scientists and the larger American public have reason to be grateful.


The most important decision in life is our choice of parents[1].

Are you a scientist living and working in America? You can come up with your own better, more extensive list, but here are some reasons to be thankful. Very few of us can say we clawed ourselves to where we are despite adversity of every sort. For almost 100% of us our circumstances have been the exact opposite. Chances are almost 100% that those parents we “chose” happened to be in a small minority of the world’s most favored. We were born here or our parents moved us here. They instilled in us a respect and love for learning. They had or worked for the means to educate us. Their DNA mattered.

Some scientists can (and perhaps too often) do claim to be super-smart. If so, you owe your parents for that! The rest of us are more ordinary. We owe a great and daily-mounting debt to not just to our ancestry but also to encouraging teachers, accommodating bosses, generous colleagues, gracious sponsors, the kindness of strangers.

Either way, we should be thankful.

Our circumstances include this: this is the best time in history to be alive – except for tomorrow. Thousands of years earlier – even as recent as one hundred years ago – the pace of scientific advance was relatively slow. Long dry stretches separated sporadic, isolated bursts of innovation. Today the pace of progress is invigorating, accelerating, self-reinforcing. Advances in one field fuel progress in every other. We enjoy tools of unprecedented diagnostic power for studying our natural and social world. Every day in science is an adventure.

And throughout U.S. history, our political leaders of both parties and our fellow Americans have paid for our education and the work we now do. This support has been sustained and generous – dating back to the establishment of West Point, the Survey of the Coast, the Lewis and Clark and other expeditions, the National Academy of Sciences, the Morrill Act, and more, leading up to World War II, and since then, the major science agencies: NSF, NASA, ONR, DARPA, NOAA, NIST, USDA/ARS, USGS, NIH, and others. For much of our history, and especially since World War II, Americans invested more than the people of any other country. (Only recently has that picture changed, and largely then on a percentage basis.) Other people, the majority of them making less than we do, and often doing less-enjoyable, more routine, and/or more physically demanding work, are paying us to do that science.

We owe both political leaders and the public our thanks.

Perhaps most of all, we should be thankful that scientific progress, and by implication the work we do, has never mattered more. National and world hopes for better health; adequate food, water, and energy; a high standard of living; resilience in the face of hazards; preservation of vital ecosystem services; public education – all rest largely on continued, accelerated, innovation. The greatest human desire is to make a difference –and our work counts.

Political leaders and the larger American public.

The Congress and the public, too, have reason to be grateful.

The investment – their investment – in science is paying off, big time. The invention of the transistor, by itself, has probably paid for all the science that has ever been done or ever will be done. The mapping of the human genome is transforming what it means to be healthy. New social science – understanding of human psychology and the behavior of social groups – has arrived even as we wonder why our individual lives matter and how we can make life more meaningful, and as our complex society of institutions, organizations, nations, and seven billion souls makes it imperative for us to understand how to function interdependently.

In particular, although preservation of the Earth and its ecosystems, the key concern of Earth Day, remains a work in progress, it seems increasingly realistic and rational to be hopeful – for two reasons. First, our comprehension of the environmental challenge – environmental degradation, habitat, biomass and biodiversity, the connections among them and their contributions to ecosystem services – is advancing rapidly. At the same time, we’re realizing that we don’t have to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s tools. Thanks to science, new tools are coming on line continually of remarkable power and reach. When it comes to Earth stewardship, sustainability, and the rest, our attitude can and ought to change from we’re-losing-the-battle to we’ve-got-this!

This isn’t true just for the Earth sciences. Across the board, the payoff from science, already extraordinary, is only just beginning.

Ich bin ein Berliner. – John F. Kennedy.

So, come April 22, whether scientist or public supporter of science and/or the earth and environment, let’s be positive about each other and the day. Let’s be thankful – especially for each other. And while we’re at it, perhaps we might realize that we are all scientists in a way. Let’s channel President Kennedy, who at the height of the Cold War electrified and energized Berliners with this simple statement. Any “we/they” distinction between scientists and others is artificial, unnecessarily isolating scientists from political leadership of every stripe and from the general population. “Science” is a pointy-headed word for “realist.” It’s only a question of degree. We might admit that the label scientist may be doing as much to unnecessarily and unhelpfully divide us as it does to help us.

On this Earth Day, and every day, let us celebrate together what it means to be living on the real world.


[1] Reading this post? Extra credit if you can find me a source for this. I know it’s not original with me, but when I google the expression, I find nothing helpful.

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2 Responses to Celebrating – not defending – science and scientists.

  1. Bill:-

    Especially liked your scientist = realist. Reminded me of an incident in high school. I had a chance to go to a series of science talks at Temple. I can still remember a crusty old scientist (I think I now qualify for this) explaining the scientific method – “The scientific method is recognizing a problem and doing your damnedest to solve it.” Of course all of us 14- and 15-year olds (boys and girls even then) sniggered at the swearing. But it has certainly stuck with me thru almost 6 decades.

    Doing your damnedest is important, of course, but I took something else from that old (probably all of 45) guy. For he went on to spend most of the rest of the hour talking about “recognizing the problem.” For too many of our problems, the media and the general public fasten on some superficial facet and try to “solve” that. But as that wise old Owl tried to teach us kids, it takes time and effort to get at the root of a problem so that you can see the whole. It also takes a certain humility to recognize what you see and to solve the whole problem as it is and not just what you may have thought it was.

    I think there is also a lesson in this for those of us of “a certain age:” our legacies are not just those to whom we gave life or the good works we have done, but especially those whose intellectual lives we have influenced. Most likely these will be our longest lasting legacies.

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