Wild Side: Science helps us see the natural world more clearly

    We need science.

    I’ve been drawn to the natural world for as long as I can remember. In childhood, I spent nearly every day in the woods near my house, climbing trees and building forts. As soon as I was allowed to range free with my friends, we headed straight to the river where we’d often look for critters hiding under rocks in the streambeds that would dry up in summer. I’m sure it was those early experiences that led me to study biology in college.

    As a college kid I didn’t appreciate how politics would come to almost entirely shape science and truth finding. I was taught that science is used to study the natural world through observation and experiment — not something good or bad, but a tool allowing us to dig down and excavate the truth.

    In today’s political climate, it is alarming to witness the adulteration and shunning of science and truth for political and corporate gain.

    We can see it in President Trump’s proposed budget: deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research. The United States pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Peer-reviewed science continues to be removed from our government’s websites.

    To be clear, the politicization of science is not new. The Union of Concerned Scientists has tracked over 100 incidents of political decisions to interfere with scientific research, muzzle scientists, or suppress scientific data since 2001. Science has been manipulated for politics and profit for a very long time.

    What is new is the audacity with which politicians are now attacking science, and perpetuating a culture of “alternative” facts. This worries me most.

    The philosopher Michael P. Lynch recently put it well in describing the need for citizens in democracies to inhabit a “common space where they can pass ideas back and forth.” To do that, we must accept that we live in the same reality and believe in truth. What is most risky is that if we can’t collectively accept what is true based on evidence, we are vulnerable to accepting what the powerful tell us is the truth.

    Eerily, I am reminded of Orwell’s famous novel “1984,” where the “party” tells the citizenry what is true and what is not. Let’s not go there.

    In addition to a basic shared reality, we also need to have humility in how we apply science. Science has been used for horrifying actions, like building an atomic bomb. In the name of science, we have performed atrocious experiments on animals. While science has no value system, it is our moral duty to safeguard life alongside our quest for understanding nature and employing scientific advancements.

    Yet, I can’t imagine trying to lead KS Wild without access to science as a guide to our work. What areas are most ecologically important? Which species are most at risk? Science has taught us so much about the rich diversity of life in the Klamath-Siskiyou region. At KS Wild, we use science in our daily work and our mission to protect and restore this world-class region.

    While the current administration continues to try and weaken science, fortunately a great number of our citizens still believe in science and the need to protect it. The recent March for Science brought tens of thousands to the streets across the country, standing up for science and the search for truth. That gives me hope.

    If you would like to learn more about the conservation science in our region, pick up the recent edition of the KS Wild News. By learning more about the natural world, and ethically employing that knowledge, we can ensure we leave a healthy environment to the next generation of kids. I hope they also get out and explore the streambeds, looking for critters hiding under the rocks.

    — Joseph Vaile is executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild, 541-488-5789, www.kswild.org). His Wild Side column appears every three weeks.

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