Shane Bergin is a physicist and Professor of Science Education at University College Dublin. He is also a founder of City of Physics and the presenter of Bright Sparks on RTE.
As scientists rally to protest President Trump’s anti-science stance, it’s worth considering what we are defending.
In 2061, Halley’s comet will re-appear in our night sky. The American Association for the Advancement of Science have set an ambitious target for that date. They aspire to an America where the public not only understand science but have acquired scientific habits of mind. Over the past number of years, this idea of scientific habits of mind has been at the core of my scientific research and teaching. For the broader scientific community, they are our habits of mind, of practice, and community – they describe how we see the world and how we create new knowledge within it. I believe it is these habits that US President Trump wishes to devalue. Formed and reshaped through centuries of collaboration, centred around universities, industries, and schools, they are our agreed framework for advancing scientific knowledge. Familiarity with them quickly shows that science is not dogmatic nor a long-list of facts. It’s a robust process where experiment arbitrates on opinions and hypotheses.
As scientists and their supporters rally and protest the Trump administration’s anti-science stance, it gives us a chance to consider the awesome power of science as a force for public good and to also consider the many habits scientists value and will defend. To capture these, I asked my UCD students, colleagues, and scientific Twitter friends to share their scientific habits of mind with me. As a post-factual Trumpian era dawns, they are the antidote to truthiness. They are weapons. They are what you learn through education. Practice them. Use them. Teach them. Defend them.
- Scientists are open to criticism and changing your mind. Scientists aspire to not take criticism personally rather than defending some theory or approach to death.
- Ideas can be tested by experiment. Scientists have an open mind to new ways of understanding the world but show us the data that verifies your claim.
- Scientists see uncertainty in a positive way. Scientific results quote their level of uncertainty to indicate how reliable they are. There are rarely absolutes. This does not, however, mean that all hypotheses are equally valid. They must be experimentally tested.
- Scientists are sceptical and critical. Scientists show a willingness to question assumptions and check premises, no matter how attached they may be to them. This flies in the face of statements like ‘I don’t care what your facts say. I know what I feel’.
- We work together. Scientists don’t see international boarders, skin-colour, or background as a prerequisite for ‘joining the club’. Good ideas are divorced of age, gender, nationality, etc. We share our findings and peer-review each other’s work. We trust each other.
- Scientists are creative. We look at world and imagine. We cure disease and build ships than can take us to the Moon. We look outward and are optimistic.
This list contains just a few of the habits of mind my scientific colleagues and students have shared with me. You’ll notice that we don’t tend to speak of ‘facts’. We’re weary of absolutes. Scientists spend their entire careers practicing these habits. Their fluency with them defines their expertise. They are broadly similar to other experts from across the academic spectrum. The American President’s assault on various US scientific agencies is not just an attack on the knowledge they have produced, it is an attack on the scientific process that formed and verified that knowledge. I believe the greatest danger President Trump’s administration poses is to erode trust in public institutions – be they scientific, judicial, environmental, or rights-based. Each of these relies on resilient processes and the habits of mind that define expertise. Undermining experts, their habits and processes, gives plausibility to ‘alternative facts’. History points to the dangers of going down that road.
One positive attribute of habitual behaviour is its resilience. Habits, be they good or bad, are hard to break. Scientists will not take this affront to the way we work and live lying down. We will resist.