My speech to the new AAAS Fellows

I had the privilege of speaking to the new AAAS Fellows. Here is the text of my remarks.

Good evening, everybody, and congratulations!  To those of you who are being recognized this evening – thank you for being here so that we can acknowledge your accomplishments.  The recognition of AAAS Fellows is one of the most solemn and important duties of the association.

We’re so honored you’re here with us when you could be watching Top Gun:  Maverick.

Personally, I’m very happy with my choice, because I didn’t really love the 80s the first time.

More about the 80s in a minute.

But first, today.  You’re being recognized at a strange and wonderful time to be a scientist.  On the one hand, our work has never been more important and relevant.  But at the same time, we have never been more undermined, attacked, and ridiculed.  There was a time not that long ago – when I was in graduate school in those big-hair, big-glasses 80s, for example – when it seemed like science wasn’t that political.  Now, approval of science by political party has gone in the last 20 years from nearly even to a 30-point gap with only 34% of Republicans having confidence in science.

What should we do?  All of us want individuals of all nations, identities, political parties, and religions to benefit from science, but 30 points is a lot of lost ground.  Everywhere we turn, it seems like we’re being cut down and thrown into a political argument whether we want to or not.

It’s tempting to just laugh at it.  For example, when Marjorie Taylor Greene says that Bill Gates is going to somehow zap us through our vaccines, which were made in a Peach Tree Dish.  

Turns out Peach Tree Dish is actually a restaurant in Atlanta.

Or when Science published a paper showing that the covid polymerase has a paramagnetic FeS cluster, and someone went to a city council meeting and said she was now magnetic and silverware was sticking to her.

That would require the covid polymerase to have a very high copy number.

It’s a tense time, and it’s OK to laugh amongst ourselves.  I don’t agree with the moralizers who say we shouldn’t laugh.  We’re human – it dissipates energy and brings us together. 

But laughing isn’t a strategy for solving the problem other than giving us the stamina to keep going.

Maybe instead of asking what we should do, maybe first we have to answer a different question:  What happened?

The good news is this one is easy to answer, because historians and social scientists have been documenting the political appropriation of science in the US for 100 years.  It was exactly 100 years ago that acts of legislation in the American south that prohibited teaching of evolution in public schools were passed.  A few years later, teacher John Scopes was charged and tried with violating such a law in Tennessee.  The part of the story that is familiar to us is that Willam Jennings Bryan went up against Clarence Darrow and that Scopes was convicted but ultimately, the anti-evolution law was struck down.

It’s easy to see this – as many scientists do – as the triumph of scientific evidence over misinformation.  But that is a very simplistic reading, as historian Jill Lepore has recently documented in the New Yorker and her masterful synthesis of American history, These Truths.

The Scopes trial wasn’t really about evolution.  It was about whether the state had a role in education.  And it was about race.  The idea of a common ancestor obliterates the essence of White supremacy.  During the trial, W. E. B. Dubois was deeply concerned. “Americans are now endeavoring to persuade hilarious and sarcastic Europe that Dayton, Tennessee, is a huge joke, and very, very exceptional,” he said. “The truth is and we know it: Dayton, Tennessee, is America: a great, ignorant, simple-minded land.”

As Darrow said at the time, “Scopes is not on trial; civilization is on trial.”

Fortunately, in those days, it mattered to the US that we looked ridiculous on the international stage when Bryan, the populist Trump of 1925, made America look unsophisticated.  It wasn’t Darwin who won the trial – it was global shame.

It certainly doesn’t look like we have that going for us now.  But the even bigger lesson is what the Scopes trial was – the undermining of science in the name of a political agenda.  In this case, the libertarian goals of nationalistic parents who didn’t trust institutions or support public education.

Sound familiar?

The pattern has repeated itself frequently throughout history – whenever science challenges politics.  

When we challenged tobacco, they tried to convince people that smoking was good for you.

When we worried about degradation of the environment, they said we were faking the data.

When we said vaccines and masks would slow down the pandemic, they said they were microchip-wielding weapons made by George Soros and Bill Gates.

And most devastatingly, when we said the earth was warming due to human activity, they said it was just a natural cycle.

They said all these things because avoiding the need for government regulation took precedence over the truth.  It’s less frightening to muddy the facts.  It’s less threatening to take down the institutions.

It turns out there was more going on between science and politics in the 80s than I realized.

We got lucky on a few of these – clever engineers found refrigerants that were just as good as CFCs, we convinced smokers to go outside, and William Jennings Bryan died and evolution stayed in the curriculum — for a while at least.

Not clear how we’re going to have similar luck on pandemics and climate change.  Seems like those are going to take collective action more than innovation.

To me – and I’m sure to most actual historians of science – the most surprising thing about the pandemic was how astonished our scientific colleagues were by the denial of masks and vaccines.  When asked in his exit interview as NIH Director what he wished he’d done differently – Francis Collins, easily the most positively influential science policy leader of my lifetime – said he wished we understood better where hesitancy came from.

Of course, we can and should study the specific problem as it relates to covid, but we already know the answer.  

We just need to ask John T. Scopes and W. E. B. Dubois.

And Rachel Carson, Jane Lubchenco, our own Shirley Malcom, the IPCC, and countless more.

They know the endless cycles of this pattern are set to continue.

Who says there’s no such thing as perpetual motion?

Now, I’ve dished out a lot of shade for our opponents.  But what about us?  What did we do wrong?

We crammed our undergraduate degrees so full of redundant requirements that there’s no space for them to learn the history and workings of the world.

We put such a high priority on accomplishment in research that we made great teachers, communicators, and science policy folks into second-class citizens.

We set up ways of recognizing and funding research that are literally programmed to keep the same monochromatic bigwigs in power in perpetuity.

And we’re so impressed with our own expertise and accomplishments that we think we can solve societal problems without reading the literature.

That’s all pretty depressing.  But if you want to do something about this, you came to the right place.  Because the AAAS has programs that address all of these problems and more.  The Science family of journals is proud to generate a surplus that helps fund many of them compared to our peers who generate surpluses for their shareholders.

After tonight, you can take your rosette home, update your CV, and go back to reading and publishing in our journals.  You’ve earned the right to do all of those things.

But we hope you’re here to do more.  We hope you, like all of us, want to serve science AND society.

The world has never needed us more.

The children of the world deserve nutritious food, a healthy planet, a generative culture of safety, and access to good health.

We can’t give them those things without science, engineering, social science, and history.

And humility.  None of us knows it all.

If you want to serve, you came to the right place.

Congratulations to all of the new Fellows!


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