The Language of Evidence

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Who needs evidence? What is evidence, anyway? What is it good for?

Let’s take it from the top.

What is Evidence?

We all know what evidence is. It’s that thing President Trump lacked when he claimed voter fraud cost him the popular vote. Or when he claimed China fabricated climate change.

Evidence, the noun, can be defined in the following ways:

As an aside, I find it rather unfortunate that I have to pay for use of the Oxford English Dictionary—a dictionary (and so much more) distinct from the Oxford Dictionaries. Fie on them for charging for such a treasure trove of English!

Who Needs Evidence?

Everyone!

Why is Evidence Important?

Before I begin: no. The previous section is not suspiciously terse. Everyone needs evidence whether they like it or not.

Human civilization depends on evidence for quite a number of things including philosophy, law, science, and technology. Without it, where would we be? Without evidence, we could expect defendants in a court of law to be convicted based on caprice or whimsy rather than by establishing guilt through facts, information, and argument. Many medical practices and treatments are wholly dependent on well-designed experiments and empirical data validating their efficacy; this field is known as evidence-based medicine. How apropos! The whole scientific enterprise is grounded in claims that can be verified or falsified through measurement, observation, experimentation, and the replicability of such experiments.

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Science and Politics

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

In recent weeks, science and politics have intersected in some very dreadful ways. A growing number of government and political figures have shamelessly tried to thwart, distort, and undermine science. Alas, this is nothing new. Politicians have typically looked askance at scientific endeavors, often regarding space travel, evolution, vaccinations, climate science, and renewable energy resources with contempt. The Trump administration has brazenly—backdropped with deafening silence among Republicans—committed themselves to the despoliation of the environment and the extirpation of climate science from governmental websites, proving themselves inimical to scientific interests and concerns. And we can be sure more executive orders against science are forthcoming.

This is a fucking scandal.

It seems that the rift between politicians and the scientific community, especially in the aforementioned regard, has grown sufficiently large such that any attempt to bridge the divide appears impossible.

Or is it?

Science is grossly underrepresented in government, rather ironic in a country with various institutions dedicated to scientific and medical research. Although not completely absent from the political arena, the list of U.S. Senators with any kind of scientific competency—let alone anything resembling proper STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education—is so appallingly small that it’s worth listing them here. Behold:

  • John Boozman (R-Arkansas) – Doctor of Optometry
  • David Perdue  (R-Georgia) – Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering
  • Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) – Doctor of Medicine
  • Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) – Doctor of Medicine
  • Steve Daines (R-Montana) – Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering
  • Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) – Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering
  • John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) – Doctor of Medicine

Four doctors and three engineers.

With the exception of Rand Paul, I’m sure a majority of these names are foreign to us. The most prevalent degree among the other senators is a Juris Doctor. No surprise there. But it should be concerning, especially as the Trump administration makes aggressive moves to sabotage climate science. I admit I didn’t look at the House of Representatives; luckily, The Atlantic did a bit of that for me. There was a particle physicist elected to the House in 2014; at the time, “even with a very generous definition of scientists… roughly 4 percent [of Congress had] technical backgrounds.”

It’s a start, I guess.

Back in 2011, China—President Trump’s favorite country after Mexico—had an array of government officials with substantial scientific tutelage. (I’m sure Trump would be bigly disappointed at this fact and I speculate this may be why Trump has made foolish statements about climate change and China.) In 2012, approximately 30 out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have science, medical, or technical backgrounds. The current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, has a doctoral degree in quantum chemistry. The President of Singapore, Tony Tan, has a doctoral degree in Applied Mathematics, and his Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science. Scientist-politicians indeed exist and we need more of them.

Science makes the world go round. We need science, technology, and medicine for pretty much everything. Therefore, we need more government officials who are scientifically literate should we hope to have any future whatsoever. Thankfully, 314 Action is a non-profit organization that aspires to rectify this shortage of the scientifically enlightened in the political sphere. Their mission:

  • Strengthen communication among the STEM community, the public and our elected officials;
  • Educate and advocate for and defend the integrity of science and its use;
  • Provide a voice for the STEM community on social issues;
  • Promote the responsible use of data driven fact based approaches in public policy;
  • Increase public engagement with the STEM Community through media.

I’m all for this. We desperately need scientist-politicians to defend and endorse scientific pursuits and legislation. I daresay it’s the only way to guarantee future prosperity, whether socially, culturally, and economically. It will take more than open letters, opinion articles, and marches to combat this anti-scientific administration. Science has the evidence, now it just needs political will to make that evidence heard. This is the next step in science communication.

 

Scientific Literacy

Science, bitch!

Everyone should be scientifically literate. QED.

In a perfect world, the post would end there.

Unfortunately, when one thinks of science, I fear that people think about packed lecture halls with professors spouting outrageous chemical formulae and jargon that is typically lost and forgotten by the binge-drinking student. Perhaps one thinks about monstrously heavy textbooks and endless lab reports with poor calculations and fabricated data, obscure charts, and incomprehensible words. Worse still are the countless hours lost memorizing lecture notes and textbook passages only to disappear within a network of overloaded neurons the following semester.

A significant portion of the terminology used in the sciences is not understood by the average person. Even individuals with a background in the sciences can seldom navigate the dense thicket of specialized research. Regrettably, this broad topic can seem daunting to most for the aforesaid reasons, and still more daunting for those trying to make educated choices based on the latest research.

Today, science truly makes the world go round. Human civilization heavily depends on the contributions gifted us by rigorous scientific inquiry. As the products and services of these endeavors encompass all aspects of our lives, it behooves us to ask one very important question:

Should we be scientifically literate?

This question is very close to my area of undergraduate study and my truest interests in life, biology, and my latest interest in public health. And yes, I had the idea to write this article since August of 2014… before Bill Nye decided to comment on the dangers of a scientifically illiterate population. The bulk of this was drafted and sat in limbo, mostly because I was still contemplating the route my blog would take. I dusted this off and finally finished it after more than two years. So, here’s the answer to the question; it won’t be brief, and it certainly shan’t be terse.

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The Simple Pleasures

A dear friend of mine has spent—and continues to spend—a portion of his free time cultivating a vegetable garden. Nothing short of a private horticultural marvel, it has yielded large and delicious victuals that have resulted in tasty creations. Although impressive, perhaps I’m talking this humble garden up too much. When speaking about vegetation destined for consumption, especially when discussing food in general, it’s easy to regurgitate gobs of meretricious superlatives which more often than not appear so contrived that they would even confuse the diamond-encrusted gurus of the world. Speaking of superlatives, I also immediately think of Louis C.K. and his skit about us going for the “top-shelf” words. But I digress.

My friend derives quite a bit of pride and joy from this little plot of land, carefully tending to the various vegetables and herbs, and planning dishes based on the days harvest. All mortals that have never beheld the garden are promptly given a tour and are generously offered vegetables to take home. One could say that the garden gives material form to my friend’s kindness and generosity. These wonderful qualities are further exemplified in the meals prepared for friends and family utilizing the home-grown ingredients.

It’s quaint and endearing that my friend has found such a satisfying recreation and I can’t help but feel happiness and gratification. It is truly wonderful.

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