Respect the facts: March for Science

March 14, 2017  - By
Photo: Petr Kratochvil

Photo: Petr Kratochvil

In life, few things are certain. In family, love and friendship, fewer. Add more people — workplace, groups, associations, government, society, nations, war — and the complications multiply, the certainties become more scarce.

Some things, however, remain fixed, and true. We call them facts. They are not subject to denial or claims of fakery. They can sometimes be distorted, or their interpretation disputed, but at the end of the day they remain what they were at the beginning. Facts. True.

They do not require a majority to believe in them, nor even a powerful minority. They exist outside belief, heedless of the powers of persuasion, cajolery, hucksterism.

The facts do not always, to their detriment, speak for themselves. Reason does not always prevail. But the facts continue to exist, ruling the operations of the universe.

It has been said that journalism’s duty is to print the facts and raise hell (Chicago Times, 1861). I submit to you that it is a scientist’s duty — and an engineer is a scientist — to live and practice by the facts, to preserve the facts if necessary. To raise hell? That may be a matter of taste or personal style. But to see that the facts are known, shared, publicly available — that can be undertaken without uncomfortable or unpleasant hell-raising.

Guerrilla archiving and data rescues have mushroomed across the U.S., in response to fear that the U.S. government will remove facts it dislikes from its own websites. All-day hackathons are organized by volunteers; the events focus on downloading federal science data sets, particularly those related to climate change, from government websites and uploading them to a new site, datarefuge.org, an alternative source for data. They’re also feeding tens of thousands of government web pages into the Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library with the mission of “universal access to all knowledge.” And of course someone has devised a custom-built app specifically for this purpose.

Climate-change data has a geospatial aspect, and much of it was collected with GPS equipment. Positioning coordinates lie at the heart of so much key information. So an attack on carefully assembled, scientifically overseen data can be interpreted as an attack on the validity of global positioning technology. Whether or not we take it personally, we should be wary of any attempt to deny or abolish any facts, anywhere.

We’ve seen this before, in other forms. The LightSquared episode in 2011–12 produced blatant denials of the physics of radio-frequency waveforms, for personal and institutional profit. We don’t yet know if this is happening again, whether government data has been erased or simply moved elsewhere.

Whether or wherever they appear or disappear, the facts continue to exist, and perhaps they deserve more respect than they’ve been getting.

MarchforScience.com, April 22.

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