Guest column: Science isn't the problem

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Don’t blame science. Science didn’t do anything wrong, because science can’t do anything.

Science is just an idea, a way of studying things that has proven remarkably effective and helpful. But all too often, when humans misuse or misrepresent science, science ends up getting the blame.

I’ve been surprised this past month – while promoting the upcoming Marches for Science (including the one in Portland) – at how many Mainers are angry at science for a wide range of societal problems, from factory closings and job losses to environmental regulations, erosion of morality, and the opioid crisis.

We’re not just angry at products of science (such as automation, birth control, and narcotics), or just angry at the companies that make and market those products, but angry at science itself. And many of those who are not angry at science dismiss its importance.

This is crazy. America was built on science, just as much as it was built on freedom and liberty and pioneering spirit. Other countries envy us because of what we have accomplished through science and scientific thinking – from putting man on the moon, to developing the internet and smart phones, and new ways of farming that protect us from famine.

Science was a big part of what made America great and will be necessary if we hope to “Make America Great Again.” And yet a growing anti-science movement seems to have taken over politics in this country, especially – but not exclusively – the Republican Party, culminating last year in the election of an anti-science president to go along with Maine’s science-dismissive governor, Paul LePage, who has described himself as “Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular.”

This is sad because science not only is not the problem, but science can provide guidance toward solutions – if we use it. Because science works. And not just for scientists.

Scienctific thinking and methods were developed to provide protection against human reasoning errors we all face: confirmation bias, availability and representativeness heuristics, and cognitive dissonance, among others. Tendencies that get us by most of the time, but still – and all too often – lead us into emotional reasoning and decisions we later end up regretting.

I understand that science can be frustrating – not just difficult to put into practice, but often giving us answers we don’t like. And there are plenty of questions science can’t answer, like which is more immoral: permitting abortion or taking away a woman’s right to choose? But even then, science can provide information to inform the decisions we make about such issues – information that’s much better than just going with our gut.

Yes, science has become political. (To those scientists who have objected to the March for Science on April 22, I’m sorry, but it’s too late for that.) But science doesn’t have to be partisan. Science is not owned by any political party, and pro-science voters can decide whether a candidate’s commitment to science (or not) is more important than whether they are Republican, Democrat or independent. And if enough of us did that, wouldn’t that make an important point?

So, on April 22, I will be marching for science, because I believe in science and believe science needs supporters in the current anti-science climate. And I hope you will join me. If you do, there are a lot of Marches for Science to choose from – more than 400 around the world and four here in Maine. I’ll be at the march in Portland, which starts at 10 a.m. at City Hall (you can also march in Orono, Sanford, or Machias). If you do, take your kids. They are our future, so it’s important they learn that science is important, too.

Gordon Street is a clinical psychologist in Raymond, and a former newspaper reporter.