Marc Weissburg is a professor in the School of Biological Sciences and an organizer the March for Science Atlanta, set for Saturday, April 22, in Candler Park.
A few weeks ago, I met (virtually speaking) a person who did not know what scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) do. To paraphrase her question for the Facebook community I belong to, she asked “what does the EPA do that is important? Why should I care?” Responses poured in during the time that it took me to pick up my jaw off the table: references to the smoldering Cuyahoga River (a body of water that was so polluted it caught fire in 1969); pictures of Los Angeles under a miasma of brown smog in the 1950s; how uncovering the links between air quality and respiratory disease has saved thousands of lives and millions of dollars.
Although the public may, in principle, respect science and scientists, their understanding of many contemporary issues is often sadly guided by ideology. Bonds of friendship, trust or community membership can trump the dispassionate exposition of facts that we are trained for. Given that 80 percent of our friends and neighbors cannot name a single living scientist, we have some work to do.
Events like the Atlanta Science Fair, and the national March for Science on April 22 are enormous opportunities to engage our fellow citizens. They allow us to communicate how the work of scientists and engineers is essential for making personal and collective decisions that promote equity, justice, and human and environmental health.
To be successful, we cannot rely on the skills that have made us good scientists. Scientists learn to converse in facts; but storytelling is baked into our psyche. We generally become bored and overwhelmed by bland recitation of numbers, but seek connections. Mother Teresa observed that “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” We are often asked on the March for Science Facebook page “why are you marching?” Those who respond on page tell stories of their daughter who didn’t die of breast cancer; of watching their livelihood vanish because of a changed environment; of wanting a better discourse between science and religion; of the influence beautiful places have had on their lives and their desire to pass this to their children. We must learn to use our unique perspective to tell similar stories as friends, family and community members. Empathy is strongly present, even in young children — we disregard such tools at our peril.
Do you recall that one year when the awful flu epidemic took away many of your neighbors and friends? Me neither. Thank a scientist.
Weissburg and two other organizers recently shared more of their thoughts about the importance of science as they prepare for the march.
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