Initially it made no sense to me that scientists would want to march on Earth Day — a day we honor the Earth, when environmentalists and advocates speak up and demonstrate their support for environmental protections. The energy of the day comes from environmentalists, people who cherish the environment and love the Earth (but sometimes promote ideas without a lot of scientific support).
Science is important to what is advocated, but Earth Day is more than science. And science is more than just environmental science; it is the rational approach to understand ourselves and the world in which we live. The physics and math that I apply to ocean dynamics is also applied to fertilizer factories and the flow of traffic on freeways. Although linked, science and environmentalism are different pursuits. Wouldn’t marching on Earth Day with its focus on the natural environment dilute our aim to communicate the big-picture importance science to many dimensions of modern society?
Yet, strangely, the juxtaposition of science with Earth advocacy articulated the need for science more strongly, because it is this science of the environment that is under attack. Our point is that science is important irrespective of what we learn from it.
Science is welcomed by all when it helps us directly, through obvious and short-term benefits such as improved medicine and computers. But science is seen by some as domineering and elitist — and unwelcome when it leads to regulations.
There is no difference in the scientific approach, but there is a difference in the economic, social and political effects of the science on society.
Much of the science that is under attack today is addressing environmental challenges that are important to the health of the Earth — our human habitat. This type of science provides many important benefits, including improved health and safety, but they accrue over longer time and are less clearly seen today. This science looks beyond the here and now and suggests when a course correction is needed in the trajectory of society. However, the short-term impacts of altering course are usually perceived as negative by those who support the status quo, and they are felt most intensely by established power and wealth backing the status quo. Hence the attack on this kind of science — such as the science that shows that humans are polluting the atmosphere enough to change the climate, which will have significant economic impacts on the future times in which we and our children will live. The problem is not science — the rational approach to understanding how things work — but the conclusions of the science. It’s a classic case of an unwelcome message leading to criticism of the messenger.
Regulations or market incentives introduced to make a course correction are often derided as a constraint on profit and a loss of welfare to us the people — an over-reach by a remote and out-of-touch government. But regulations are not inherently good or bad. Their “goodness” and value must be assessed in terms of how well they steer the engine of here-and-now profits and benefits to yield greater benefits over a longer term and to broader society. When negative impacts to people in other places and times exceed the immediate positive impacts to people here and now, then regulations secure our general welfare.
We want to reduce the risk of heading in the wrong direction. And we do so through the rational approach of science — just as when we make calculations before launching a rocket to land on Mars. Modern society is a sophisticated and complex system and is changing at a rapid pace. The best way to project future impacts of present actions is through rational analysis of how things work, i.e., science.