It’s very easy for us, as social animals, to equate an unwavering position on issues with strength, resolve and conviction. After all, we want to know that what was true yesterday will be true tomorrow. That sense of safety is an essential part of modern society, and a core part of our political lives.
But we live on a planet that is constantly changing, a dynamic system that is continuously being pulled in new directions by forces that we are at a loss to quantify, even less fully understand.
Science has always fascinated us here at The Beacon, and while we’re not trained scientists, we have the utmost respect for the many scientists working to help us better understand the world around us.
They know, better than anyone else, that new data can cause a dramatic shift in our understanding of the world. After all, there was a time people believed the world was flat. The knowledge otherwise still doesn’t appear to have spread all around the globe.
It’s a cliché to say that change is a constant in our lives. As anyone who has lived knows, there’s nothing constant about change. It happens in fits and spurts. It can flip flop your world overnight and right itself again in the next election cycle. The person standing next to you can have a very different understanding of this change. How can that happen to another member of the exact same species? Does this prove that biology is not destiny?
A dramatic change can become entrenched for years, with no sign of light ahead. But walls that divide cities can come down in a day. There’s no predicting this kind of chaos. The only tool against it is a resilient society and a resilient environment.
Now, science can also be a weapon, as the Environmental Protection Agency is proving these days by entrenching chemical industry lobbyists and scientists within the department charged with regulating the chemical industry.
On the East End, we’re lucky to have access to the researchers doing work that benefits our local ecosystem at Stony Brook University, at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and at non-profit environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy. We have a wealth of data, and in our current information age, these data sets are growing by leaps and bounds.
But it takes the ethical minds of scientists to interpret what that data means, to look for patterns, to build hypotheses from those observations and then set out on the best path to prove these hypotheses. Sometimes this takes decades of work, conducted in oblivion, released in scientific papers and then hotly debated by cranky scholars looking to poke holes in research. If you think Shark Tank or American Idol or Top Chef is brutal, try academia.
In the case of science, our understanding of the universe is at stake. These days, the fate of our planet is often at stake as well.
Our public environmental debate here is swayed by many factors. Those who don’t want to see the development at The Hills at East Quogue built felt betrayed when Dr. Christopher Gobler crunched the numbers and found the latest plan wouldn’t result in more nitrogen entering the south shore bays.
Over at the East Hampton Airport, the folks who would like to see the airport shuttered have taken a keen interest in newfound water contamination from historic storage of firefighting foam found nearby. But the truth is that the DEC’s search for these compounds is just beginning, and they’re likely to find them at hot spots throughout the East End.
When they do find these compounds, there’s no guarantee that the federal agency that oversees these chemicals, the EPA, will still be the same agency it is today. These regulatory controls are being dismantled in Washington as we argue about land use here. Already, the Defense Department has refused to pay for work that has been done to protect public health from firefighting foam compounds around Gabreski Airport.
It’s very easy for us, as the public, to hold science hostage to our old ideas of the facts. In a world as dynamic as the one we’re living in today, we can’t afford to take this approach. If we do so, it’s akin to rolling over and joining the flat earth society. Scientific literacy is a civic responsibility, and it’s one most of us have never been taught. That needs to change.