Remarks at the March on Science – Aspen

Hello Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley!

Thank you to all of you for coming to show your support. I want to start by acknowledging Erica Boram, who took a leap of faith in organizing this event. Without her, we wouldn’t be standing here today.

My name is David Houggy, and I am a scientist! And my message is that every one of you is a scientist too!

Being a scientist doesn’t mean you need to have a PhD. It doesn’t mean you work in a lab, and wear a white lab coat, and conduct sophisticated experiments or work on multi-billion-dollar global research projects.

Edwin Hubble, a famous scientist, for whom the Hubble Telescope was named, said, “Equipped with five senses, mankind explores the universe around them and call the adventure Science.” This applies to every one of us that uses critical thinking and the process of science to examine and better understand the world around us.

For what is science? Science is more than a collection of interesting facts about something. It is more than a bunch of formulas and equations that you memorize from a textbook. Science is a process. A way of rigorously investigating the world in order to comprehend what we see, and then use that knowledge to advance intellectual pursuits and better mankind.

A scientist is someone who observes the world and questions why things work the way they do. Maybe she sees something unusual. Something that wasn’t expected or that contradicts the common understanding. So, she develops some ideas, or hypotheses, about what might be going on, and then figures out how to test those ideas. If the test goes as expected, she can say, “well, my test agrees with my hypothesis, so maybe I was right.” But if the test result doesn’t agree with the hypothesis, then that guess as to what is happening was wrong, and the hypothesis was incorrect.

Because, despite what you may have heard, science can’t prove anything. You often hear people say that “science has proven that this is true” or “the science is settled.” But while science can give us deep insights into the world, and a highly certain view of how things work, science is never really settled. All we can do is make educated guesses about what we think is happening, and then try to DISPROVE them.

Richard Feynman, a Nobel-winning physicist for his work on quantum mechanics, said that “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, for only in that way can we find progress.” By whittling away ideas that are wrong, we are left with what we think is right – at least until we someday refine or disprove that idea as we get more data and do more experiments.  This is the fundamental way that science works – by invalidating the wrong ideas and leaving only the correct ones.

This is very different than the way many people approach life. They seek to try to prove that they are RIGHT, that their ideas have value. They look for evidence that supports their point of view. They often DON’T question things around them, and seek to explain away inconsistencies, rather than question them. But a scientist is continually trying to prove himself WRONG. Furthermore, when a scientist has new ideas or evidence, he shares it with the world, and with his peers, and asks them to also try to prove him wrong. This collaborative process of peer review helps to ensure that scientific results are robust.

But scientists need to be clearer and more careful in our language. You will hear even good scientists saying that “Science proves this,” or “this law is true.” Take GMOs. Many people and even scientists will say that “GMOs have been proven to be safe.” This isn’t technically true. What we have shown so far, through very careful study and experimentation, is that GMOs have not been shown to be harmful, as far as we know. There is always new evidence coming in, but there is a preponderance of evidence that backs this up. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t other reasons to be against GMOs. It leads to mono-cropping, which can open up our food supply to disastrous problems, like the potato blight in Ireland in the mid nineteenth century. It leads to a reliance on man-made pesticides, which may have unintended consequences of causing pests and diseases to mutate and become resistant to treatment. We see this in humans with diseases that are resistant to antibiotics.

Or, given that it is Earth Day, take climate change. Can we prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that man is causing climate change? No. But we can say with very high probability that this is probably the case. We KNOW that atmospheric CO2 levels are at unprecedentedly high levels. We understand how CO2 molecules works to trap UV light and heat in the environment – this can be duplicated in the laboratory, and the equations of chemistry also bear it out. We know that when you add more and more energy to a closed system like the earth’s atmosphere that it becomes more unstable. We know all of these things, and taken together they make it very, very, very likely that humans are causing the planet to warm.

We can never be 100% sure, but we can say with a very high probability that something is LIKELY true. This is a failure of communication on the part of scientists, who are talking in shorthand where it is assumed that people understand all of this, and that what they really mean is “we think with a very high probability that this is true.”

But I’ve got some bad news. Every three years, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conducts a survey of 15-year-old students around the world, known as the Program for International Students Assessment, or PISA. Over half a million 15-year olds around the world take a two-our computerized assessment to determine scientific achievement levels. I’m going to read a list of countries, in order of their achievement in scientific education, starting with the best and working down.

  1. Singapore
  2. Japan
  3. Estonia
  4. Chinese Taipei
  5. Finland
  6. Macao (China)
  7. Canada
  8. Viet Nam
  9. Hong Kong (China)
  10. B-S-J-G (China)
  11. Korea
  12. New Zealand
  13. Slovenia
  14. Australia
  15. United Kingdom
  16. Germany
  17. Netherlands
  18. Switzerland
  19. Ireland
  20. Belgium
  21. Denmark
  22. Poland
  23. Portugal
  24. United States

The U.S. is 24th on that list. We used to be at the top. 25% of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians used to live in the United States. Today that number is 5%. We’ve done a great job of spreading democracy and education around the world – but we need to do a better job at here at home. Studies have found that the U.S. is going to need one million MORE STEM professionals in the next decade than we are currently projected to produce. This is the primary mission of the Aspen Science Center, to advance the public understanding of science through lifelong discovery, exploration and education. I invite you to join us and support us in this mission. We and all of the organizations represented here today need your support.

Science itself is not political. Like every other human endeavor, it can be swayed by our personal beliefs and biases, if we are not careful. But scientists try very, very hard to be objective and take human bias out of the equation. Science is a beautiful framework that strives to gain information that is better than our biases. Many scientists for a long time have felt that they should not be political, that science speaks for itself and should be self-evident. But when we have people confusing local weather with climate change, we have failed. When we have people questioning the value of scientific research, we have failed. When we have United States Senators throwing snowballs on the floor of the Senate as proof that there is no global warming, we have REALLY failed.

It can be uncomfortable to say that we don’t understand something – at least not yet. It is daunting to consider differing, conflicting ideas and try to resolve them. It is against human nature to try to prove yourself wrong, and then tell the world that by being wrong you have done a good thing. But this is what we do. This is how we find progress. This is our mission. We must embrace it, and explain to the world what we are doing, and why. We must stand up for science.

 

My name is David Houggy and I am a scientist. And you are too.

 

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