Out of the Lab and Into the Light, Why Scientists are Marching

 Mar 20, 2017    by Gil Ouellette

“Science” is a word that means many things to many people. If you were to ask a practicing scientist how they define science, you might receive one of myriad responses. How each of us conceptualizes science may be unique, but most scientists recognize a shared set of methods and a core of objectives, analytical, and empirical values that unify our diverse fields.

To many outside the vaunted halls of the academy, however, science can be a nebulous and unclear beast. Stereotypical notions of science suggest it is something practiced only by old men in white coats, locked in laboratories far from the “real world”. To my eyes, stereotypes such as this one and a lack of effective science education and communication have lead many members of the public to lose sight of the tremendous value science has to us all. As Carl Sagan put it, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology”1. Sagan, and others who expressed similar sentiments, picked up on this problem long ago, but we scientists bear at least some of the blame for expecting our data to speak for themselves. Rather than enter the public arena to communicate our science directly, we’ve often been content to publish our work in academic journals, leaving the public at large to rely on journalists and social media to convey both the complexities and subtleties of science. This tactic has sometimes resulted in less than ideal outcomes; however, groups like the Department of Interior’s Climate Science Centers, Yale Climate Change Communication Program, and increased efforts by a range of other organizations have sought to better engage with the public and make science more approachable and accessible. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go to put science into a position of wide public understanding and acceptance.

In response to the recent decline of support for science and science-based policy, myself and numerous other scientists around the globe sparked a grassroots effort to bring science, and importantly scientists, into the public arena. We seek to make this field and the people in it, more accessible to everyone. The most compelling arguments to support any endeavor are those that illustrate its basis in, and value to, the human element. We can’t expect a public that is not regularly engaged by scientists to appreciate the subtleties and humanity of science.

Photo credit: Bryan Francis (March for Science)

In part, to meet these challenges, a grassroots effort has blossomed into the March for Science, planned for Saturday, April 22nd, 2017.Over 300 marches are now planned in more than 30 countries, spanning 6 continents. The March for Science is the first step in what will be a continuing effort to humanize science, and show the public that scientists are not just old men in white coats locked away in an ivory tower; we are a diverse group of women and men with unique backgrounds and from many walks of life looking to understand and improve our world and ourselves. Through diversity, we share an intense curiosity and passion for truth and knowledge as revealed by observation, experimentation, and evidence scrutinized under an objective lens. We are scientists, we are citizens of the world, and we are people just like everyone else. Everyone is welcomed to march on April 22nd, whether it is to voice your support of science, help make science and scientists more accessible to the public, or any other reason that motivates you. My goal is to make the current truth in Sagan’s prophetic words a mere footnote in history for generations to come. 

1Sagan, C., Why We Need To Understand Science, Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 14.3, Spring 1990

Gil Ouellette is a doctoral candidate in paleoclimatology and paleoceanography at the Louisiana State University. Gil studies how the ocean and atmosphere have changed in the past using the chemistry of coral reefs.

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Photo credit: Bryan Francis (March for Science)