Thanks, (Social) Scientists!
This is a guest post by Craig R. Scott
Scientists and their discoveries impact all of us, in various ways, every day. So it shouldn’t be surprising that there is a little bit of a scientist in each of us. For some, we can trace this back to the days of doing projects for school science fairs (where I am afraid I killed a fair number of bean plants in my primitive attempts at growing plants in outer space-like environments). For others, the scientist in us can be seen in armchair theorizing about our own actions, or in the little trial-and-error tests we conduct to figure out the best way to do something. Engaging in these activities may not make us professional scientists, but they do contribute to launching future generations of experts and they remind us about just how important scientific analysis is in our world.
Three months ago, my wife Laurie (a fellow scientist and colleague) and I drove down from Rutgers University to join tens of thousands of other “mad” scientists in Washington, D.C., at the March for Science. We were “mad” that there was actually a need to defend science and to reaffirm its value and the indispensable work that we scientists do. In many ways, the event was a reminder about the importance of evidence and data in its many forms as the basis for knowledge.
From the remarks made by featured speakers, to the many clever homemade signs participants carried, to the teach-in tents and the sheer size of the march itself on the National Mall, the message was clear: Science matters. It is consequential, and it continues to make a difference in our lives. It has made that difference through the diligent efforts of scientists whose work rarely earns them anything approaching fame or fortune and yet benefits our society in both recognizable and invisible ways.
The events in our nation’s capital, like those in hundreds of other venues across the globe, were filled with memorable messages (one of my favorite signs read: “Got Polio? Me Neither. Thanks, Science!”). Admittedly, the signs and buttons Laurie and I proudly displayed at the march were nowhere near as clever, but our big “I Love Social Science” button (thanks to the National Communication Association and the Consortium of Social Science Associations for providing those) did attract a few questions (What is social science?), a handshake or two from other social scientists, and several words of thanks for representing this aspect of the scientific community.
Social science—which includes incredible work in fields such as sociology, anthropology, political science, and communication—looks at societal systems and the relationships among individuals in society. Social scientists may not have discovered medicines to cure polio, but the accomplishments of scientists in these areas have also had a very significant impact on the quality of our lives.
As a social scientist and member of the National Communication Association (yes, I abandoned the bean plant experiments in favor of even less predictable human behavior), I am fortunate to be part of a growing scientific community that continues to draw upon science to advance new discoveries and build knowledge about all aspects of human communication. In many ways, studies of communication and media have helped to establish how we effectively persuade and influence others, how we adapt messages to different audiences, and how we mobilize people to express themselves rather than remain silent—all research-based findings that likely contribute to the success of events such as the March for Science. These examples are, of course, only a handful of the thousands of ways that scientists in Communication have made our lives and our world better—and these accomplishments in my field are only a small subset of the nearly immeasurable ways that social scientists are truly making a difference.
Having said all that, science and scientists are by no means perfect. Nevertheless, scientists are still the best trained experts to help us confront the challenges and mysteries of our world, to ask the right questions and identify the best answers, and to do these things in a way that is guided by sound methods and free of partisan bias. I think that’s why efforts to delegitimize science, defund our research, and discredit scientists are not only disappointing and disheartening, but also are downright dangerous. These tactics threaten the well-being of our society because they raise doubts about scientists and the life-enhancing work they do. Whether it is politicians who delegitimize scientific findings, segments of the public who lack scientific literacy, or other groups that promote claims without data-based support, we must stand up as scientists—and as citizens with a little scientist in each of us—to promote evidence-based knowledge and to push back on efforts that aim to dismantle the scientific advancements we enjoy as a society.
I believe the March for Science was an important beginning of what may need to be a more sustained campaign to ensure that scientists remain among the most trusted professionals in our society. Only with that high level of public trust will science itself continue to be highly valued. Most of us are trained as researchers and not protesters or activists; but we may increasingly need to find our collective voice to help advance good, evidence-based policy, to promote science-based education and outreach in our communities, to grow future generations of researchers, and to build the reputation of professional scientists in our society. I think social scientists can play an especially important role in those efforts.
So, thanks (social) scientists! To paraphrase one of the other notable messages at the march, keep pursuing truth and saving the world.
Craig R. Scott is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Rutgers University and is a proud member of the National Communication Association and the International Communication Association.