October 30, 2020

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Science, facing doubters, should assert its truths

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Despite local doubts, science showed that the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse could be safely moved back...

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Despite local doubts, science showed that the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse could be safely moved back from the encroaching sea in 1999. (National Park Service photo.)

American Science is at a peak of accomplishment in many fields. But according to Holden Thorp the editor-in -chief of Science Journals (and a former Chancellor of UNC), “The scientific community is losing the battle against misinformation” in spite of the rapid pace of science advancements in America.

Thorp suggests that normal scientific communication by well reasoned op-eds, well researched newspaper articles, and science articles in magazines written for a lay audience is not working. He suggests that the problem is a “massive churning, finely tuned, digital misinformation machine that has seized social media” and is responsible for the fact that a large portion of the population doesn’t accept science. A genuine war against science is in full swing.

Take global climate change science. We have delayed a substantial response to climate change and endured three years of unnecessarily increased CO2 emissions, resignations from international efforts to combat climate change and even denial that change is occurring. But warming oceans, melting sea ice and glaciers, increased intensity of storms, increasing sea level rise and drum beating by scientists all point to global change.

Warmer air temperatures are expected to lead to more than 100 million heat refugees fleeing sub-Sahara Africa and 4 to 5 million sea level refugees fleeing from south Florida in this century. More to the point in the U.S. we are expecting more major hurricanes on this side of the continent and ever greater fires on the western side. Today both are happening.

Take face masks. A large segment of our population ignores face mask wearing, especially in crowded events, along with social distancing in spite of recommendations by the medical profession. A number of documents on social media have argued against the use of masks. A related problem is the fact that an increasing number of Americans have doubts about the safety of vaccinations.

To me, the situation is reminiscent of the problem of moving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse 20 years ago. Initially there was much local resistance to such a move. An expert was found who claimed that such a move of a 5,000-ton structure was not possible over sand. Another expert appeared on the scene and suggested that the move would cause bricks to fall off the structure during the move. Finally there was an erosion expert who said the shoreline retreat threatening the lighthouse could be handled OK. .

In response, the National Park Service requested technical opinions from both the National Academies of Science and Engineering to offer expert opinions from Americas top technical experts. They academies said the lighthouse must be moved if it is to be saved and that the move could be carried out with off-the- shelf-technology. The academies proved to be right.

There are perhaps two ways to respond to the war on science. Holden Thorp’s suggestion is that scientists should recognize that the world is changing and that many Americans get there understanding of science from social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The time has come for scientists to consort with the enemy and recognize that there’s a whole new way to communicate science that will impact on society. Perhaps academic credit toward tenure might be allowed for certain focused social media writings.

A second approach might be to follow the Park Service’s example and employ the National Academy of Sciences and/or the North Carolina Academy of Science as truth squads to render expert opinions on appropriate issues.

Orrin H. Pilkey is a professor emeritus in the Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

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