The Crisis: an open letter to fellow scientists

by Arthur P. Ruiz, Ph.D.

 

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

The Crisis, Thomas Paine, 1776

 

Trump’s election has unleashed a catastrophe in the adjoining arenas of American politics, society, science and culture, the true repercussions of which will not truly be known for years or decades to come. Whatever the legitimate problems with vested interests and professional sycophants in the halls of government, the elevation of the utter embodiment of the worst elements in human nature – avarice, hubris, deception, fraud, abusiveness, vanity – to the highest office should shame the ethical sensibilities of every citizen in this country. Ignoring any worthy debates about ideas or policies or the legislative directions that mark every election, Trump has loudly and enthusiastically announced an unprecedented attack on the fundamental democratic institutions of our country – governmental checks and balances, transparency, accountability, rule of law, a free and critical press, and, most importantly, the very existence of facts themselves. Trumpism is an assault on the foundations of empirical Western thought that originated with Aristotle and were refined during the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and the Age of Reason –reality, however imperfectly, can be captured, assessed and described by human faculties. Logic, rationality and experimental testing can allow us to determine degrees of confidence in ideas. While we are all entitled to our own opinions, we all share a basic set of facts. As practitioners and defenders of science, the emergence of this toxic new paradigm, where up is down, oppression is compassion, arrogance is humility, incompetence is capacity, scapegoating is accountability and hatred of others is love of country, should shake us to our very cores.

We have weathered various broadsides on science from various quarters throughout our country’s history. From the Scopes Monkey Trial that tried to smother the Theory of Evolution and Natural Selection in the oppressive embrace of religious fundamentalism, to the recent efforts of corporate energy interests to engender an artificial “debate” about the crisis of anthropogenic climate change, we have seen the forces of reaction try to stymie the progress of scientific thought and rationally informed action. But what we now face is an attempt to annihilate the very framework of competing thoughts. We confront an emerging zeitgeist where objectives truths are shamelessly denied, where multiple statements of vile bigotry are dismissed as embellishments of the “liberal media”, where recordings of loathsome boastings of sexual assault are waved away as “locker room talk”. We anticipate that the traditional restraints on power in a democratic system, the demonstration of competence and the periodic demand for accountability, will be lost in a morass of enforced subjective relativism and the willful denial of the very criteria of responsibility.  For many of us who have pursued the study of the scientific method, of the disinterested testing of competing hypotheses, of the objective assessment of data, we find ourselves stunned and bewildered by this strange Orwellian world.

But though we may grieve and bemoan the circumstances that have befallen us, we do not have the luxury of despair. We cannot just throw up our hands in disgust, denounce the system as irredeemable, and retreat into apathy. Crisis clarifies priorities, and right now is the time to engage and to organize. We cannot trust that there is some inexorable march of progress and mutually shared humanity that naturally lifts us from the prejudices and bigotry that litter our history. Progress comes from an involved and active people who demand change and who force agendas on leaders rather than wait for direction. The exercise of popular power is not restricted to elections every 2 or 4 years – it happens every day.

You are in a unique position to take action. You have been working for years to develop an expertise and proficiency in science. You understand some of the major problems that confront us, in terms of public health, access to health care, emerging diseases, and climate change.  You cannot hide at the bench or at the bedside, content practicing your craft and stay quiet. You need to log off of Facebook and Twitter, to escape the bubble that echoes your own thoughts back at you in a mirror chamber of numbing narcissism, and engage with people outside of your comfort zone. Talk to the relative whom you’ve been avoiding, and try, in a respectful fashion, to find a common ground of decency and shared values. Start a conversation with someone on the bus about health care, or ask a stranger on the subway if they’d like to hear about your research. People may be surprised and taken aback, but more people than not will take you up on it. Autocracy thrives when people are atomized, when they feel helpless and alone and that no one shares their concerns. The great contradiction of our digital, social-media age is that we are simultaneously more connected and more isolated than ever before. People who interact with others across the globe can’t even look their own neighbors in the eye. Engagement, communication and empathy are the most powerful tools we have at our disposal, but only if we use them.

You need to find out who your local, state and federal representatives are, and contact them regularly about issues that concern you. Call (don’t email) them today, and then call them tomorrow while you’re drinking your morning coffee, and keep calling until their aides know you on a first name basis. The media promotes a fascination with huge national issues that feel remote and inaccessible, while there are local concerns in your community that you can change. Pick one or two key issues on which you can focus, and figure out small concrete steps that you can take – maybe you can’t fix climate change singlehandedly, but you can start a neighborhood composting program. Find out when and where your next City Council meeting is, and go see what gets discussed. Attend a local school board meeting and get engaged in developing curricula for young people, who now more than ever need to be armed with powers of logic and critical thinking. Consider running for office – yes, you!  Why leave politics to the politicians? Entrenched interests fester in an environment of despondency and learned helplessness. Don’t allow yourselves to be seduced by the familiar rhythms of everyday life and let this become “the new normal”. This is not normal. This is a crisis. And just because you can’t change everything is not an excuse to change nothing.

 

“Don’t agonize. Organize.” Florynce Kennedy

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