‘Post-Truth’ Science Shout-Out

scientist-clip-art-di6kb7yi9Evidence indicates a series of significant operator errors in some of our nation’s civil structures, and alarms are sounding loud and clear in the scientific community. The Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 “Word of the Year” was “post-truth” – defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Several of the highest offices of the U.S. executive branch are now occupied by individuals that deny evidence of climate change and seem unlikely to revise that particular stance anytime soon.

Based on these observations, Oregon State Distinguished University Professor Jane Lubchenco published a guest editorial titled “Environmental Science in a Post-Truth World” in the Ecological Society of America’s journal, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, this month, with some advice for scientists dismayed by these attacks on falsifiable facts and deductive logic.

The honorable Lubchenco is a globally renowned marine ecologist and environmental scientist with the OSU College of Science with a diverse background in academia as well as government. She was nominated by President Barack Obama in December 2008 as part of his administration’s “Science Dream Team.” Lubchenco also served as the U.S. State Department’s Science Envoy for the Ocean from 2014 to 2016, and Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 2009 to 2013.

“We must engage more vigorously with society to address the intertwined environmental and social problems that many have ignored, to find solutions, and to help create a better world. We must truly listen to and address the reasons why a post-truth world has emerged,” Lubchenco wrote, urging scientists to meet the occasion head-on and climb down “from lofty perches above society.”

“Today’s challenges demand an all-hands-on-deck approach wherein scientists serve society in a fashion that responds to societal needs and is embedded in everyday lives. Humility, transparency, and respect must characterize our interactions.”

Lubchenco suggests strategies on three fronts for scientists to address these complex challenges:

Stand up for science by demonstrating its value and our relevance. Science needs to be trusted and valued, not seen as imperious, threatening, wasteful, or doom-and-gloom.

Provide hope by highlighting the profusion of existing successes. Scale them up. Create more.

Modify scientific reward structures and training to meet current needs. Many academic scientists already do some of the above, or want to, but must do so in addition to teaching, research, and service. We need to change our own incentive structure to recognize and reward engagement as a core responsibility.

The full text of Lubchenco’s guest editorial, “Environmental Science in a Post-Truth World,” is available online at onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/fee.1454/full.

Hey, you – yeah, you in the lab coat, rubber boots, and goggles – grad students, post-docs, PIs, professors, technicians, and undergraduate research assistants out there among our readers – we’re glad you’re here, and thanks for reading. We want to help. Do you or your lab have something scientifically scintillating to share with a local audience? Want to be in the newspaper?

The “reward structures” around here may be of the non-monetary sort, but at least there aren’t too many in-text citations or appendices to format. Heck, this is almost as fun as doing field work. You can always email us here at The Advocate with science stories and ideas at editor@corvallisadvocate.com. 


By Matthew Hunt