Marching for Science

 In Preventive Medicine Column

Marching for Science: of Advance, and Retweet

While I am proud to be a participant in the March for Science in New Haven, CT, I think in 2017 the argument for science is perhaps best made with fingers, and a tweet, rather than marching feet. I don’t mean the 140-character-or-less content of any given tweet that says: science is great! Or: climate change is real. Or: vaccines save lives. I mean the stunningly blunt fact that we CAN tweet. It is an extraordinary ability. It is science, literally at your fingertips.

Before moving on, I hasten to note that: science IS great; climate change IS real; and vaccines do save lives, millions of them. But those who already know these things need no prodding to support the advance and applications of science, or funding the NIH, CDC, or EPA. Those who deny them are unlikely to be swayed by argument or logic, partly because of the native workings of the human mind, and perhaps compounded by the modern echo chambers of cyberspace.

Tweeting, and by that reference I really mean every aspect of social media, and for that matter the blogging I am doing now- would have looked like magic, or at least science fiction, to any prior generation. But it is the practical magic of science we use routinely, and take for granted. One of the liabilities of science is that we habituate to its marvels, and thus learn to overlook the marvel of them. These are not only the days of scientific miracle and technological wonder, these are the days of taking miracle and wonder for granted.

We all have the remarkable capacity to arrange electrons to represent our thoughts, and beam those thoughts to anyone, anywhere in virtually no time. We can beam them to whole populations, or select individuals. We can beam them to a train; we can beam them to a plane.

Throughout history, scientific advance has mostly been supported by the prevailing means of information diffusion. The first successful use of radio, and telephone, for instance, were scientific triumphs that both declared, and helped to disseminate, themselves. So, too, the printing press, and telegram.

Now, though, it is paradoxical, bordering on oxymoronic, that new, more powerful, and more fundamentally “scientific” ways of exchanging information are being used to undermine the credibility of science. The advance of science is now threatened by an endless barrage of tweet, and retweet.

What’s different? Information about science used to flow from scientists to others. Social media hands everyone with an opinion the same microphones formerly reserved for actual experts. There is no peer-review; instead, there is amplification in echo chambers. There is no editorial filter.

This is profoundly ironic, because social media is not only a product of science, but rather rarefied science at that. Accessing emails, texts and tweets in general is already extraordinary. Doing so in flight, as many reading this will have done, is all but miraculous. Leaving aside the science that devised the plane in the first place, or the GPS system guiding it, there is the phenomenon of organized electrons finding YOUR specific device out of millions upon millions as you zip along at 500 miles an hour or so, and reassembling themselves into a cogent message intended just for you. That such a message might say, “climate change is a Chinese hoax,” or “don’t be fooled, vaccines DO cause autism”- is a sad joke.

Tweeting doubts about science is like refuting gravity while pulling the release on your parachute. It’s not just silly to the point of absurd; it is hypocritically silly.

The power of science is so pervasive in modern life that we benightedly use that very power to disparage the reliability of the methods that gave us the power to share those opinions. Forgive the harsh candor, but every tweet, text or email disparaging the basic merits of scientific methods and consensus is a little act of hypocrisy. If you wish to deride science and avoid hypocrisy, forgo tweets in favor of smoke signals.

Advances and applications of science could add years to countless lives, and life to countless years. Science can help stabilize our climate and the global population, protect aquifers, sustain our food supply, and preserve the biodiversity that is this planet’s great, native treasure.

Those of us who view applications of science as crucial to our best collective destiny will march to demonstrate that conviction. But the advance of science may gain less from our feet than from recognizing its role in every tweet, and retweet. You can’t deny the reliabilities of science in social media; you will be awash in them at the time.

-fin Dr. David L. Katz;; founder, True Health Initiative

Dr. David L. Katz
DAVID L. KATZ MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM, is the founding director (1998) of Yale University's Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and current President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He earned his BA degree from Dartmouth College (1984); his MD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (1988); and his MPH from the Yale University School of Public Health (1993). He completed sequential residency training in Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He is a two-time diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and a board-certified specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He has received two Honorary Doctorates. Dr. Katz has published roughly 200 scientific articles and textbook chapters, and 15 books to date, including multiple editions of leading textbooks in both Preventive Medicine, and nutrition. Recognized globally for expertise in nutrition, weight management and the prevention of chronic disease, he has a social media following of well over half a million. In 2015, Dr. Katz established the True Health Initiative to help convert what we know about lifestyle as medicine into what we do about it, in the service of adding years to lives and life to years around the globe.
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