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The Carletonian

Curiosity, remoteness and the anti-science moment

<ny seniors’ comps topics can appear esoteric to those on the outside of the major, an expected consequence since the compsers become relative experts on their topic. Yet with all due respect, STEM majors’ comps topics—including mine—take on a whole other, downright-intimidating level of esotericism. Glancing at the biology comps talks ads in the NNB, the talk titles all suggest a specific focus, using words I’ve never heard before: “motility”, “benthic”, and “chondroitin”, to name a few. You may see long titles like “Novel Analytical Approaches for Exploring the Complexities of Cell-Cell Communication.” Even I still struggle with comps topics I’ve heard of in my major, like tests for Bell’s Inequality—and don’t even try stopping me on the street to ask me about it. My roommate did a CS comps on augmented reality, and admittedly even after attending the talk, my understanding of the topic still seems meager.

In thinking about the sheer amount of background knowledge you may need to know walking into various STEM comps to have significant takeaways from them, I find sympathy in colleagues who express their bewilderment about those comps. In fact, I empathize with those colleagues, since I get bewildered looks when I try to explain my comps topic—astrophysical nucleosynthesis—to some friends. My sympathies with respect to these topics extend towards more distant but real understanding that I would try to give to those in the world who may harbor distrust or dismissiveness of the “sciences” (a vague but provisional term), engendered by the remoteness of the sciences that tends to happen in its relationship with the public.

I could understand criticisms that are informed carefully and critically—that is, philosophically. As a species, we have mostly accepted the primacy of science in establishing the reality of nature, but scholars in recent years raised genuine concerns with the certainty and infallibility that we take for granted of scientific research modeled on Western precedent. One concern is the question of how we transition between different scientific paradigms. We can simplify the question as asking, “how do we decide to change our scientific framework?” whether to explain the progression from the medicine of the “four humours” to cellular biology, or from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics.

This is not the quandary we face today. Rather, we face a long-lived and lively anti-science and anti-expert moment, which unsurprisingly comes as the term “alternative facts” has entered the lexicon. Across the nation, statehouses saw 60 “academic freedom” bills proposed in the past three years. Such bills, if passed, could empower teachers to teach “beyond” the science curriculum without disciplinary action, opening the doors to science-denial in the classroom on topics such as evolution and climate change, among others. Meanwhile, outside the classroom, the scientific research community emerged as one of the many fronts opposing the Trump administration’s recent budget proposal. The proposals on science funding, heavily influenced by the conservative Heritage Foundation, threaten to slash funding to a wide range of research that includes: climatological and earth science research from NASA and NOAA; energy R&D from the Department of Energy and the EPA; and medical research from the National Institutes of Health.

We are living through the perfect storm of many interconnected factors. As I mentioned earlier, there’s already a tendency for the scientific community to appear distant because of its specializations. Public ignorance and tribalism, catalyzed by our omnipresent media, have led us to use “motivated reasoning” in our debates. Tim Harford summarizes this phenomenon in the Financial Times: “When we hear facts that challenge us, we selectively amplify what suits us, ignore what does not, and reinterpret whatever we can.” Among many consequences, motivated reasoning allows for much of science-denial to flourish today, even in a world more awash with information than never before. Moneyed powers, special interests, and short-sighted, opportunistic politicians all conspire to capitalize on motivated reasoning, sowing distrust in scientific research and the scientists themselves.

What is unfortunate is that this toxic moment can threaten to stifle not only the generation of new knowledge of our world for the long term, but also to stifle the curiosity that drives this generation of knowledge. And this curiosity, along with the knowledge gained, is paramount. Even before we began naming science as a process, curiosity was driving us to be understand our surroundings, motivated by matters of life or death. Tens of thousands of years ago, we paid attention to know which foods to forage, and devised the tools to hunt with through trial and error. We had astronomers then because we needed to know the seasons for planting and harvesting crops—again a matter of life or death. Now, more than ever, our decisions as a nation and as a species must be guided by understanding our surroundings, describing them as carefully and critically as possible. Our practice and support of science will be our best tools as we maneuver pressing issues ranging from food security, to environmental stewardship, access to energy, access to health care and mitigation of the effects of climate change.

Supporting science involves our commitment as members of our local, national, and global communities in keeping informed of sound science, and engaging scientists with the public together. Some opportunities are close to home. Tomorrow, on Earth Day, April 22, Northfield’s Earth Day celebrations will include workshops and a rally for science, in solidarity with the March for Science across the country that day. Consider calling your legislators about science research. Yet in keeping our commitments, we must also keep in mind and in action two more things. We must carry that spirit of curiosity to drive us to understand something better. It drove us to do our comps (in part) and it’s no different elsewhere. We must also acknowledge the interconnectedness of topics, ideas and objects that demand the kind of critical understanding that science can provide among our modes of inquiry. Those questions senior compsers have asked this year, including mine, are better tackled than not, even with their apparent remoteness. We are better off in a world with the best information and understanding, a world with science.

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