I’m not a REAL doctor. I have a master’s degree. In Science!

Insect Drill Rig Mining for a Nursery
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Apologies if you were never a Duck’s Breath Theatre listener; Doctor Science was an old favorite of ours. And making fun, as this radio skit did, of the puffery of science and the gullibility, incredulity or scientific ignorance of the general public let us laugh at ourselves–for me, a double-barrel barb, because I am lay public with two masters degrees–in science!

But what’s no laughing matter almost forty years since that first graduate study and a lifetime of following the vagaries of science and technology in the human experience is the fact that for many today, science is fiction. Both the findings and the field of science are suspect. So let’s just turn the calendar back four hundred years and get on with our lives, shall we?

I acknowledge the right of anyone to exercise a healthy skepticism when they are told on the evening news that “scientists now believe” some new conclusion about the workings of the organic or cosmic world. Kick the tires, by all means.

If there is reason to challenge some bits of the claim, rest assured there will be other scientists trying to find the weak spots, chipping away at every two-tailed double-blind test used to reach the announced conclusion. That’s the way science works.

And if you follow the thread back a decade or often much longer, you’ll discover that the new scientific understanding was reached as the result of hundreds or thousands of much smaller, incremental and * much less newsworthy bits of evidence in far-flung labs by nameless graduate students or corporate labs.

The conclusions (often finally referred to as theories–but NOT the way that term is generally misunderstood) are reached, not by looking at a singe study but at patterns of relationship representing large numbers of reproducible, independently substantiated observations from dozens or hundreds of studies on the subject.

It is true that some of those smaller contributing studies were flawed by design or conclusion and like a mason building a wall tossing away bad brick, the collective edifice of peers discarded those studies which  did not become part of the structure of the ultimate theory announced to the public.

And yet, when it suits in our current era of improvizational truthiness, a single dissenting study will be pulled to center stage, forwarded ad nauseum in emails, repeated without fact-checking on blogs, rising up to fill the first dozen pages of google, even if the report represents one of those defective bricks. It is with guile and ill intent made to (seem to) stand on its own as “proof” against the prevailing conclusions of a hundred contrary findings. You can cherry pick your way to the truth?

Some studies of science, when elevated by the media into the public radar, gain ratings points, the sillier they are made to sound. “Scientists study shrimp on treadmill” read one news blurb and the term threatens to become the whipping boy for perceived public waste of our tax dollars.

Heading this witch hunt is a growing anti-science political force that “doesn’t believe in” inconvenient consensus findings of science as if, presto-chango, denial makes the unpleasant, business-dampening, job-suppressing conclusions about overfishing, ozone depletion, species extinction or dead zones go away. Nor do they support science at large, arising as it does from liberal universities across the world, which are known by them to be agents of United Nations Agenda 21. Or was that Area 51?

Informed democracy today pays the price for our national abandonment of science education of decades past, at a time when more than any in our short, brutish sojourn on the planet, we need to learn, hear and act on impartial but carefully-examined fact, not the just-so stories of those whose creeds dictate ultimate truth while they blah-blah-blah with their fingers in their children’s ears when science speaks.

Science is not democratic. It does not stand or fall as a matter of belief. It should not be for sale; should not be trusted implicitly, or doubted reflexively. And we cut science off at the knees, this will be one of the least helpful things we can do to ourselves when opinions are all over the map at at time when we need to gain traction against solid ground and move with a common purpose against the rising tide of challenges ahead.

* And I dare not make it known that my research theses in vertebrate zoology and physical therapy studied toad metabolism of radioactive zinc, and laser-induced experimental pain. THEY may come and annul my diplomas!


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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I recently spent a whole Sunday immersed in the world of quantum physics and it was fascinating although exhausting. Over here, there has been a resurgence of interest in the sciences among young people and applications to university to study physics are increasing. Science is now cool, thanks to our young scientists who present great TV programmes.

    But the mindest amongst some people ‘over there’ reminds me of the terrible treatment of Galileo at the hands of the Pope and how the Medici family, whose son he had tutored, abandoned him because it was not financially wise to continue to support his ‘heretical’ views.

    Sad to say, the earth really does orbit the sun