As I write this, the March for Science is nearly here- and will have marched into history by the time some of you read it. I am proud to be participating at the March in New Haven, CT.
But while talking about marching invokes feet, I think in 2017 the argument for science is perhaps best made with fingers, and a tweet. I don’t mean the 140-character-or-less content of any given tweet that says: science is great! Or: climate change is real. Or: vaccines save lives. I mean the stunningly blunt fact that we CAN tweet. It is an extraordinary ability. It is science, literally at your fingertips.
Before moving on, I hasten to note that: science IS great; climate change IS real; and vaccines do save lives, millions of them. But those who already know these things need no prodding to support the advance and applications of science, or funding the NIH, CDC, or EPA. Those who deny them are unlikely to be swayed by argument or logic, partly because of the native workings of the human mind, and perhaps compounded by the modern echo chambers of cyberspace.
Tweeting, and by that reference I really mean every aspect of social media, and for that matter the blogging I am doing now- would have looked like magic, or at least science fiction, to any prior generation. But it is the practical magic of science we use routinely, and take for granted. One of the liabilities of science is that we habituate to its marvels, and thus learn to overlook the marvel of them. These are not only the days of scientific miracle and technological wonder, these are the days of taking miracle and wonder for granted.
We all have the remarkable capacity to arrange electrons to represent our thoughts, and beam those thoughts to anyone, anywhere in virtually no time. We can beam them to whole populations, or select individuals. We can beam them to a train; we can beam them to a plane.
And speaking of planes, there’s another bit of practical magic. The combination of planes and tweets is more extraordinary still. Cruising along at 500 miles an hour at 35,000 feet of altitude, an assembly of electrons has no difficulty at all in finding you, catching you, and spelling out some message intended for you in email, text, or tweet. In fact, when the Internet service on a given plane is not up to the task- we tend to find it annoying. We expect miracle and wonder.
Throughout history, scientific advance has mostly been supported by the prevailing means of information diffusion. The first successful use of radio, and telephone, for instance, were scientific triumphs that both declared, and helped to disseminate, themselves. So, too, the printing press, and telegram.
Now, though, it is paradoxical, bordering on oxymoronic, that new, more powerful, and more fundamentally “scientific” ways of exchanging information are being used to undermine the credibility of science. The advance of science is now threatened by an endless barrage of tweet, and retweet.
What’s different? Information about science used to flow from scientists to others. Historically, few non-scientists were involved in writing books about science, or populating the peer-reviewed literature covered by media editors and producers.
Social media has changed all of that; it hands everyone with an opinion the same microphones formerly reserved for actual experts. There is no peer-review; instead, there is amplification in echo chambers. There is no editorial filter.
This is profoundly ironic, because social media is not only a product of science, but rather rarefied science at that. Accessing emails, texts and tweets in general is already extraordinary. Doing so in flight, as many reading this will have done, is all but miraculous. Leaving aside the science that devised the plane in the first place, or the GPS system guiding it, there is the phenomenon of organized electrons finding YOUR specific device out of millions upon millions as you zip along at 500 miles an hour or so, and reassembling themselves into a cogent message intended just for you. That such a message might say, “climate change is a Chinese hoax,” or “don’t be fooled, vaccines DO cause autism”- is a sad joke.
Tweeting doubts about science is like refuting gravity while pulling the release on your parachute. It’s not just silly to the point of absurd; it is hypocritically silly.
How odd, really, that people who deny the science of climate change listen to the weather forecast like the rest of us. What justifies trusting the one while doubting the other, other than the cavalier convenience of dismissing truths that are…inconvenient? People who impugn the merits of expertise seek it as fervently as the rest of us when their child is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Those who blithely refute the incontrovertible evidence for evolution in the genetic record are as interested in personal genetic risk as the rest of us, and rely on the very same kind of science to get it.
The power of science is so pervasive in modern life that we benightedly use that very power to disparage the reliability of the methods that gave us the power to share those opinions. Forgive the harsh candor, but every tweet, text or email disparaging the basic merits of scientific methods and consensus is a little act of hypocrisy. If you wish to deride science and avoid hypocrisy, forgo tweets in favor of smoke signals.
Advances and applications of science could add years to countless lives, and life to countless years. Science can help stabilize our climate and the global population, protect aquifers, sustain our food supply, and preserve the biodiversity that is this planet’s great, native treasure.
Those of us who view applications of science as crucial to our best collective destiny will march to demonstrate that conviction. But the advance of science may gain less from our feet than from recognizing its role in every tweet, and retweet. You can’t deny the reliabilities of science in social media; you will be awash in them at the time.
David L. Katz
Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital
Immediate Past-President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine
Senior Medical Advisor, Verywell.com
Founder, The True Health Initiative
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