In Defence of Science in the face of “Alternative Facts”

We often take certain things for granted in life. One of those for me was the difference between personal opinions and scientifically verifiable facts. I never thought I would have to march to defend the very notion of science itself. Like tens of thousands of others in many cities around the world, I marched with PennFuture’s staff and 20,000 volunteers stretching across ten blocks across Center City Philadelphia to support the scientists who have been under fire from dark-money contrarians, climate deniers, now they are even under attack from the EPA administrator who fired his science advisors and replaced them with corporate special interests. Most alarming in the face of massive glacial melting, dramatic forest fires and increasingly violent storms, President Trump thinks climate change is a Chinese hoax.

Our march started at the Philadelphia City Hall that is crowned with a statue of one of America’s earliest noted scientists-Ben Franklin. It was appropriate that a Franklin look-alike led our march as Franklin was not just a founding statesman, inventor, and author of “Poor Richard’s Almanack”, but he was also one of America’s first scientists. Among his scientific advancements, Franklin charted the powerful Gulf Stream enabling ships sailing for Europe to significantly cut their travel time.

Ben Franklin also launched the American Philosophical Society in 1743 to pursue “philosophical Experiments that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the Power of Man over Matter, and multiply the Conveniencies or Pleasures of Life.” Franklin knew that the advancement of science and the application of knowledge would greatly benefit society. He also believed that curiosity and experimentation would lead to greater light into the nature of things.

In a modern social system as in Franklin’s day, certain principles and values are inherent to the proper functioning of the community.  Since the 18th century “Age of Enlightenment”, science-based decision-making has been central to nearly every societal advancement. Science leads the world toward greater and greater progress as we find new ways to tackle old problems. PennFuture shares Franklin’s view of science, as we are an environmental organization committed to science-based advocacy for the advancement of a safe, healthy and sustainable society. We depend upon science to provide critical answers to the most vexing air and water pollution problems. Soil science properly applied yields greater productivity while retaining nutrients and sediments. Clean energy built on advancing technologies provides clean, carbon-free energy to meet the demands of a 21st-century society.

The highly-respected astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said it best: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Whether policymakers believe in science or not is irrelevant, facts are stubborn and cannot be just legislated away. Should society irrationally abandon authoritative science and turn once again to superstitions and myths then we will certainly drift into the tyranny that created the Dark Ages.

Upon hearing that President Trump wants to cut NOAA’s climate science funding and replace EPA’s science advisory group, the newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron says France wants our top climate and clean-tech researchers to move to France where they will be understood and respected.  The French president knows that science and innovation will underpin the winning nations in the future as it has in the past.

Can we afford to lose our scientific edge and just ignore or discount the warnings of climate scientists? Can we simply publish textbooks that avoid objectionable scientific conclusions and pejoratively label innovators and leading thinkers as “coastal elites”? When a highly vocal chorus of ill-informed voters repeatedly reject basic truths and pursue myths and alternative facts concocted by those who obfuscate, we must ask, perhaps we are a society encountering the very boundaries of human enlightenment. I for one certainly hope not but that is no longer a given.

Franklin was a strong proponent of “enlightened” rationality, we agree. Please help PennFuture carry the banner of enlightenment to confront the myths and disinformation that is causing so many to stumble and threatening the very habitability of much of our planet.

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About Larry Schweiger

Larry Schweiger is President and Chief Executive Officer of Citizens for PennFuture. Previously, he was President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation and earlier the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Larry also served as the Executive Secretary of the Joint (House and Senate) Air and Water Pollution Control and Conservation Committee of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and 1st Vice President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He returned to the National Wildlife Federation in March 2004 with a commitment to confront the climate crisis. He is passionate about protecting nature for our children's future. Larry continues the climate work as the battle moves to the states. Previously, Larry served for eight years as President and CEO of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, where he pioneered watershed restoration and promoted ecological research, land conservation, community outreach and Fallingwater restoration. In the past, Larry was the Executive Secretary of the Joint House/Senate Conservation Committee for the Pennsylvania General Assembly, Senior Vice President for Conservation Programs at National Wildlife Federation, and 1st Vice President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Larry wrote a book warning about climate change impacts on nature entitled: "Last Chance: Preserving Life on Earth" that won 1st Prize for the best non-fiction at the 2011 Indie Book Awards. Larry started volunteering at age 14 and is an active community leader, having served on more than 40 governing boards, commissions and committees. He currently serves on the Boards of Directors of Climate Reality; the John Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment; and National Wildlife Federation Action Fund. In 2012, He was honored by the Blue-Green Alliance for the Federation's leadership on the auto rules and was selected as Pennsylvania’s Environmental Professional of the Year in 2002, Pittsburgh of the Year in 2000, and he received a Conservation Service Award from the Christian Environmental Association in September 1995. Larry is married and is blessed with three daughters, two sons-in-law, and five grandsons.
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