Suppose that you are taking a walk through the hills above a town, and you reach the foot of a dam. There’s a crack in the dam, and it’s getting wider. You run back down to the town, and you knock on doors, and you yell and make a fuss, and you tell everyone that the dam is breaking. They thank you for the news, and go back to bed. What do you do next? Do you grab some tools and do what you can to fix the dam, or do you turn and walk away?
Strangely, a number of people (including ScienceBlogger Matt Nisbet) seem to think that the role of the scientific community in those circumstances really should be to turn and walk away:
Let’s agree that the goal of the science community is to educate and inform.
That’s not just wrong, it’s downright dangerous.
There are any number of issues – climate change, resource usage, conservation, species loss, energy policy, global epidemics and pandemics, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg – where we, the scientific community, have said we see real threats. In some cases, the threat is distant and preventable; in others, it’s a clear and present danger. In all of them, real people are really at risk. Why on earth would I agree that my goal should simply be to educate and inform others about the threats?
The scientific community is not some real grouping of beings that sits off somewhere isolated from the real world. As hard as this might be to believe sometimes, we don’t live in a bubble. We don’t live in some ivory tower, protected by moats and walls and gates. We really do live in the real world. When we’re talking about threats, we’re talking about things that will affect our world. They will affect our country. They will affect our neighbors, our friends, our families, and ourselves.
Our understanding of science makes it easier for us to see the threats, and it makes it easier for us to figure out what can be done to minimize the risks. We should not simply tell people what the threats are, and what can be done about them. We need to do everything in our power to make sure that the right steps are taken.