I went to the Boston science rally

2017/02/20

There was a rally for science in Boston this past Sunday. I had a few reasons for going. I won’t deny a selfish motivation: I do science for a living, and I like doing science for a living, and my ability to do science for a living is strongly dependent on federal funding for science. The NIH, where my funding will mostly come from, is not particularly on the chopping block, in part because the value of healthcare research is more broadly recognized than the value of other kinds of research. That’s the second reason I was at the rally: solidarity for my peers who, selfishly, want to do their work.

The more important reasons are not selfish. Scientists, as a set of individuals, are more politically liberal than the population at large (apparently around 10% of scientists but 40% of the population at large self-identify as conservative), but, my experience is that scientists are motivated mostly by a desire to understand the world as objectively as they can. Science is about getting information that everyone can use. Science can’t tell you what our values should be, but it can tell us about the impact of the actions we choose on account of the values we embrace.

Importantly, there is no important controversy amongst scientists whether climate change is real and is human-caused. (NASA has an easy summary. Wikipedia has a data dump. The National Review has the opposing viewpoint.) I don’t think it’s useful to quibble over the exact polls and their numbers. I think there’s something more fundamental going on here. And here’s how I summarize it:

Scientists are people. They are mostly people trying to do good for the public. Their financial stake in the outcomes of their research is relatively small.

I add the last point because I think there is some confusion: scientists say that climate change is real, and that to continue on our current course will likely cause significant human and economic cost. If we continue in the status quo, fossil fuel industries stand to make trillions of dollars, and scientists stand to continue to make their middling salaries (relative to what they could earn in other sectors). If we change the status quo, fossil fuel industries stand to lose trillions of dollars, and scientists stand to continue making their middling salaries. Because industry has so much to lose, people might assume that scientists have so much to gain. We scientists don’t have that much to gain, except that we hope to not lose with everyone.

And, for a change of pace, some nice cocktail facts:

The fundamental force of capitalism is to maximize profit. The fundamental goal of science is to advance knowledge. We can have profit in a way that is consistent with our human values. However, science sometimes shows an inconvenient truth, which is that profits will cause a tradeoff: drilling and burning is going to have bad consequences for most humans. Science is not a special interest; it is in the general interest.