My Speech at the Austin March for Science

Scientists need to express their values in addition to their data.

Posted Apr 22, 2017

Art. Science. Gallery
Source: Art. Science. Gallery

On April 22, 2017, Marches for Science were held all over the United States.  I was given the chance to speak at the march that was held in Austin, Texas.  Here are my remarks.

Thank you all for coming.  It is wonderful to see such a big crowd in support of science.

We are here, because the importance of science in this nation is in dispute.  There are two major kinds of disputes that people engage in:  cognitive disputes and conflicts of interest.

A cognitive dispute is a disagreement about the facts of a situation.  A conflict of interest is a disagreement about goals or values. 

Science is one of humanity’s crowning achievements, because it is an incredible procedure for resolving many cognitive disputes.  It gets its power, because it helps people to overcome their natural confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias is the observation that people interpret the world in a way that is consistent with their existing beliefs, and they seek evidence that is consistent with their existing beliefs.

Science stands that on its head.  Scientists agree that no matter how strongly they believe in a particular theory and no matter how much they want that theory to be true, they will agree to let the world have a say.  Scientists also seek disconfirmation of their theories.  That is, the experiments we conduct are most powerful when they look for evidence that would falsify our most closely held beliefs.  As a result, scientists are constantly looking for reasons why the things they want to believe might not be true.

A great example of this in action comes from the science of genetics in the 1960s.  After Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, the next big scientific puzzle in that area was the genetic code—the way combinations of 3 base pairs code for amino acids that build proteins.  Francis Crick and a team of mathematicians and cryptographers developed an elegant proposal for this mapping.  A prominent scientist at the time said the theory was so beautiful it should have been right.  However, when scientists found a way to synthesize amino acids from the base pairs, they found that this theory was wrong, and so it was abandoned.

Imagine that.  A prominent scientist responsible for one of the most important discoveries in biology in the 20th century creates a great theory.  But, his stature in the field and his prior accomplishments were not enough to make the field accept the theory.  Instead, the data did not support his theory, and he had to move on.

Despite the power of science, though, it cannot resolve every conflict.  And that is the reason we find ourselves marching today.  There are many people who do not want to support scientific research.  They do not see the value of science as a public good.  And they do not always like the conclusions that scientists reach.

That is not a cognitive conflict.  It is a conflict of interest.  A conflict of values.

As scientists, though, we want to solve our disputes with data.  We talk about the number of discoveries that have been made that make people’s lives better.  We trot out graphs of the economic benefits of science.  We present data about how science improves people’s critical thinking abilities.

But, that means that we are bringing data to a values fight.

We as scientists and supporters of science need to get more comfortable talking about our values as well as our data.

Why do we value science?

We value science, because it leads to an understanding of the influence of human activity on the Earth’s climate so that we can plan for a sustainable future.  And so we will vote for science.

We value science, because it creates an understanding of diseases in humans, plants, and animals, that allow us to protect our children, nurture our planet, and preserve the diversity of life on Earth.  And so we will vote for science.

We value science because it shapes our knowledge of human behavior, so that we can better understand how people can live together, work together, and talk effectively with people they disagree with.   And so we will vote for science.

We value science because it helps us to understand that some of our most deeply held beliefs may be wrong.  And so we will vote for science.

We value science, because teaching our children to think like scientists helps them to approach the deepest questions about the way the world works.  And so we will vote for science.

Today, we march to express our deeply held value that science matters.  That Texas and the United States are made better by continued support of research.  That science lies at the heart of the solutions to the world’s most challenging problems.

Thank you for sharing that value.  Thank you for joining us here today to express it.