Jul 20, 2017

Rush Holt wants you to know evidence isn't just for scientists

Lazaro Gamio / Axios

One of the first decisions Rush Holt made at the helm of American Association for the Advancement of Science earlier this year was to officially support the March for Science in Washington. It was delicate ground for the non-partisan organization but Holt maintained it was about defending the scientific process, not taking a political stand.

Holt, who spent 16 years in Congress as a Democrat representing central New Jersey before becoming CEO of AAAS, chatted with Axios last week about how science is bumping up against politics today.

Here are the highlights:

Science is: a way of asking questions so that they can be answered empirically and verifiably. I think it's that simple.

That's something, by the way, that we're losing. The appreciation of it and the ability to do it has been eroding in our society. It's one of the things that has been really dominant in our advocacy recently — to try to restore what I call the reverence for evidence.

On the absence of a science advisor: I wish I could get the new administration to see that they would be well-served by having scientists scattered throughout their agencies. Next month's crisis, or the crisis the month after that — which will surely come — your ability to deal with them will be improved if you have scientists there to offer advice or comments in all of the agencies. Not just a science advisor in the White House sitting on the National Security Council, but also people in the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It's people who get it about science.

There are dozens of positions in the administration that are designated to be explicitly for science experts. I think fewer than a dozen are filled now. That's a problem. You would think that the President and people around him would want to be prepared to deal with the crises that come up, because if you wait to collect information after the crisis is occurring, it's a little late.

This is a good time for science but…federal investment in research is the lowest it's been since Sputnik. The appreciation of evidence by the ordinary person is, I think, the lowest it's been in my lifetime. That's really troubling. If the work of a small number of people is more and more productive, but society at large has a poorer and poorer understanding of what science is and how it is relevant to them, then that doesn't bode well for the future of science.

It is this interesting contradiction and conundrum. We have this reasonably great opportunity with burgeoning research findings, but this is counterbalanced by policies that are more grounded in ideology than evidence and by a greater number of clueless people who are distrustful of science.

The politics problem: Should science avoid being politicized? Absolutely. Even with my simple definition, embedded in some of those simple words is the idea that science necessarily structures the questions and the gathering of evidence in the best way to exclude bias — of your instruments and experimental design, but also personal bias and wishful thinking — all of those things that can contaminate the evidence. You don't want to inject ideology or wishful thinking or party platforms into the collection and the analysis of evidence.

Scientists commit the logical fallacy that the converse is true. If the process of science — this precious, valuable, extraordinary thing — is challenged, then scientists should speak up. Scientists should go into the public square if they can shed light on an issue of importance or if the scientific process is challenged.

America the empirical: Our country was founded with a very scientific outlook. Some of the founders themselves were actual scientists — Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush, but also Thomas Paine. People don't know he wrote a tract on swamp gas. John Adams studied astronomy at Harvard. They not only were scientists, but they had very much a scientific perspective. In the Federalist Papers arguing for the ratification of the Constitution, the word "experiment" appears far more often than the word "democracy."

Evidence is for everyone: It's important for civic education and social education, but it also means that people who are not professional scientists can still ask questions that can be answered empirically. I would like to get to the point where every citizen, every day, asks their political leaders and policymakers, "What's the evidence?"

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