Why I Am Marching

Andrew Hamilton, president of New York University and an organic chemist, writes of the urgency and importance of tomorrow’s March for Science.

April 21, 2017
 
 

There's a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that I always enjoyed.

A mob brings a woman before Sir Bedevere the Wise, claiming that she is a witch and they want to burn her. The knight leads them through a chain of “logic” about how to determine if she really is a witch. If witches burn, they must be made of wood. If wood floats, it must weigh the same as a duck. So, if the woman weighs the same as a duck, she must be a witch. I can't remember all the details, but the woman is “proven” to be a witch, and the mob gets its way, ostensibly backed by science.

For an organic chemist working in academe, it is a twofer: a hilarious send-up both of the Socratic method and scientific reasoning.

What brings this bit of comedy to mind is something a good deal less droll: the pervasive spurning of science, the misapplication of the scientific method and the rebuff of fact-based decision making in our own national discourse.

At the risk of engaging in some unscientific generalizations myself, I would posit that it is unusual to see scientists organizing a march -- as they have for this weekend, in Washington, D.C. Scientists are prone to cautiousness and dispassion, and we prefer our facts, logic and discourse served cold. We are not naturally suited to posting ourselves at the barricades.

I am no less a product of my training than my fellow scientists. In my youth, like many people, I variously protested the Vietnam War or cuts in social funding. But in the years since, as I have pursued teaching and research, my energies have been focused in the lab. So why, after all that time, am I marching tomorrow?

Because we seem to be at an unusual point in my four decades as a working scientist: a moment where respect for the scientific tradition is ebbing, and recognition of all that our investment in science has produced is fading.

Through its methods and its ceaseless cycle of questions posed and answers sought, science has brought us so many gifts. Vaccines and therapeutics have saved millions of lives and spared incalculable misery and debilitation. Technological innovations have sustained the United States’ economic leadership. Advances in digital technologies and telecommunications have enabled wondrous access to knowledge and communication. Technologies have kept our nation more secure. And all of this in addition to those purest of scientific quests: the exploration of the cosmos, the probing of the fundamental laws and elements of nature, and the understanding of life’s basic biological processes.

In spite of all this, American science is confronting pointed challenges.

First, dramatic cuts to science funding agencies are proposed in the federal budget. I understand the pressures of a budget -- saving money is as much on the mind of a college president as on that of a U.S. president.

However, these budget cuts stand out for their unwise ratio of short-term savings and long-term harm. This disinvestment could well cost the United States its long-held position at the forefront of science. The cuts will deprive us of our edge in scientific innovation, which has propelled our economy time and again. And in combination with new immigration policies, we may be sacrificing the next generation of scientific talent.

Second, less tangibly but more fundamentally, there is diminishing respect for how science has benefited our national approach to problem solving.

Science hasn't just brought us great discoveries and technological achievements; it has also, importantly, brought us a better way of thinking through our challenges: fact-based discussion and evidence-based decision making. Both modern democracy and modern science emerged from the Enlightenment, and science has been a beneficial companion to our democratic policy making in the centuries since.

Yet today, respect for that evidence-based approach to dialogue is waning. Whether on the issue of vaccines or climate change or a number of others, the growing disconnect between evidence and policy making -- coming, contradictorily, against the backdrop of increasing calls for STEM education -- demonstrates the erosion of trust in scientific reasoning.

As Walter Isaacson neatly said in his wonderful biography of Albert Einstein, “What science teaches us, very significantly, is the correlation between factual evidence and general theories.” Far more than a particular set of academic disciplines, science -- and the scientific method -- is a habit of mind.

I don't think our national scientific enterprise is going to end up looking like a Monty Python script. But the confluence of severe budget cuts in the sciences, growing disrespect for scientific evidence, increasing disregard for evidence-based decision making and policy making, and new immigration restrictions on the movement of students, scholars and researchers present an unusually perilous moment.

And that's what brings this scientist -- as reserved, cautious in my claims and prone to objectivity as anyone in my profession -- to Washington to march tomorrow alongside my students and my colleagues.

Bio

Andrew Hamilton is president of New York University, a professor of chemistry and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

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