East End Beacon

Building Good Science

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.


Comments ( 3 )

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  1. Anna Santacroce December 3, 2017 Reply

    I like this! I like the drawing so much. A good friend of my own created brilliant mandala circles, also. This reminds me a little of that: the different mechanics of the mind, etc Also the Environmental Protection Agency actions, also. I am aware of the State Environmental Quality Review, etc also aside from EPA. I often like to think that saving the environment (conserving land for forests/nature walks) can co-exist right along with the ability to build: Build-ability also. We should have more land conserved for nature walks, etc and less deforestation but we can build on other parcels also. The existing, the proposed and the allowed uses of parcels. Some proposals for the existing will have many proposed uses with drawings, changing questions of setbacks, zoning, etc. But what they allow should be healthy for the environment, for stakeholders for the people, the neighborhood, etc. But I like that creative graphic drawing up top: like the mandala circles of educational, physical, mental, social groups, etc The planning, the urban, the environmental, the health, the health care, the writing, the poetry, the journalism, the pedestrian, the basketball, the gymnastics, etc. The people inter-mandala, etc. The working women.

  2. paul adams December 3, 2017 Reply

    Excellent summary of the nature, power and role of science.But science is really just common sense formalized: trying to use objective data to develop and test ideas about the world, in a critical and dispassionate manner. It’s not just one approach, it’s the only one that works in the long run. It requires work, patience, investment and education, like everything worth while. I dream of the day that we have more scientists than lawyers in politics.

  3. reply December 3, 2017 Reply

    Science itself doesn’t fit social/environmental/ecological problems. Yes, literacy is important. But don’t confuse studying or doing science with common sense. Or what they would have you believe. You don’t need a degree to understand that chemical fire retardants will pollute water, or the need for balance between conservation and development. The science is built. That is not what is holding things back.

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