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"The planet's hope and salvation lies in the adoption of revolutionary new knowledge being revealed at the frontiers of science."
Bruce Lipton, cell biologist
Science, especially publicly funded science, has improved our lives. Our federal government funds basic research through congressional allocations for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health and dozens of other scientific agencies that are respected around the world.
Vaccines against smallpox, polio and measles have saved millions of lives. Recently, scientists announced a vaccine against Ebola that is 100-percent effective, derived from studies that drew largely upon federal funding.
And how many times a day do you use your cell phone? The Global Positioning System (GPS) initially developed by federally funded scientists and now supported by federally funded satellites, provides navigation systems in our cars and smartphones.
Do you use e-mail and watch YouTube? Although largely privatized today, federal funds supported the research groundwork for the internet.
Publicly funded "basic" science has given us tools to reconstruct the past, evaluate the present and peer into the future. It expands our vision from the scales of subatomic particles to giant supernovas. It has revealed that we share the planet with three million other species, and that our lives and fates are inextricably intertwined with them.
Basic science provides the seed stock of future inventions, technological advances and sound policy decisions. Just as importantly, it sparks our imagination, adding a sense of wonder to the world, whether a distant star or the light of a firefly winking across a summer lawn.
But science with all its benefits is now under threat. Our new administration has advisers who know little about the practice of science, and many who are openly hostile to it. Nominated leaders of key agencies the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior are climate change skeptics whose policies put the planet's future environment at risk.
Invitations to meet with leading scientists have been ignored or rebuffed. No wonder that climate scientists are taking unprecedented measures to protect their critical datasets as a defense against their elimination or defunding under the new administration. Scientists are so concerned by these anti-science messages that they are coming out of their labs and field stations for a first-time "March for Science" in Washington, D.C., and numerous sister cities on April 22.
What makes science different from other forms of intellectual activity? Science is a "way of knowing," or a process through which we gain knowledge of our world. Scientific thinking comes in three pieces. First, empirical evidence, gathered with scientists' senses or tools, can be verified by anyone. Second, logical thinking allows them to build theories that explain empirical evidence. Finally, scientific thinking draws upon skepticism, the constant questioning of their assumptions and conclusions.
Scientific thinking is not infallible, but good science gives scientists permission to get it wrong and then search again for the answers hence, "re-search." In fact, scientists like nothing more than when their data allow them to refine their hypotheses or create new ones.
Scientific thinking is not confined to scientists. A car mechanic uses scientific thinking to figure out what's wrong with your car and how to fix it. Medical doctors use scientific thinking figure out what's wrong with your body and how to fix it. Crime scene investigators use scientific thinking to determine how a crime occurred and who are the likely suspects.
There are other ways of knowing, including faith, authority, revelation or intuition, but science has been a remarkable engine of discovery about the natural world. Science has extended our lives, made them safer and more comfortable. As with other human endeavors, such as literature, art and philosophy, science allows us to reach parts of the world that were hidden to us. Without it, our lives would be, as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes stated "poor, nasty, brutish, and short." With anti-scientists as our leaders, where will our planet's hope and salvation lie?
Donald H. Feener Jr., Nalini Nadkarni and John T. Longino are professors in the Department of Biology at the University of Utah.