March for Science Speech by Dr. Phillip Danielson, April 14, 2018

First of all I want to thank the organizers of the March for Science for working so hard to make today a success. Thank you!

I love being a scientist but even more than that I love being a science teacher. There is a real reward to sharing the joy that underlies the search for knowledge. Sharing that adventure with the young and with those who have acquires a bit more of an “experiential patina” about them.  

Dr. Phillip Danielson, University of Denver
Dr. Phillip Danielson, University of Denver

When it comes to science, though, there are two very important things that I emphasize.

Thing One is that Science in not a prepacked belief system of what is and isn’t true. Science is not simply a huge body of facts from which professors pull trick questions for exams. Science is not even a field at all. Biology, that’s a field but Science is way bigger. Science is a process.  it is a way of seeking knowledge and ultimately truth. Science is how we can understand the workings of the world around us. Science is is a way of better understanding ourselves and each other. Science is really a boundless adventure that each and every one of us can experience for ourselves. If you have an open mind, if truth matters to you. If you can be comfortable with the notion that there is always room to learn a little bit more –  nothing in life is ever 100% certain – then you are already a scientist.

I know that it is all too easy to look around and say we live at a time when opinion trumps critical thought when ideology trumps evidence and when it is just too easy to simply seek out validation of the facts that we wished were true and call it a day.

This is why science matters so much.  Science is a “Way of Learning and Understanding” that relies on facts rather than opinion or ideology. We don’t start by picking those answers that we like best just because they give us a warm and fuzzy feeling. We don’t work backwards embracing anything along the way that supports our preconceived misconceptions while ignoring inconvenient evidence that doesn’t fit our world view. With science, we start with a question and work forward to an answer. We don’t care what the answer is. We just want to know “What is the Answer?”

That brings me to the second thing that I emphasize to my students about science.

Thing two is that it is PEOPLE who do science. We bring different perspective, different skillset and yes different personal and societal biases to our search for knowledge.  Now I want be very clear about this.  As amazing as I think science is, there is nothing intrinsic to science that guarantees that we’ll get it right the first time out of the gate. As well intentioned as any scientist may be, history gives us examples of cases where we got it wrong – sometimes horrifically wrong.

Let me touch on just one example. I am a proud member of the LGBTQ community. Our community is increasingly visible in the sciences and increasingly welcomed for the contribution that we make. That was not always the case. There was a time not all that long ago when being part of the LGBT community considered by people of science to be a mental disease. There was a time when treatment for being in the LGBT community included lobotomies, electroconvulsive shock therapy and involuntarily commitment to psychiatric facilities.

This might still have been the case today were it not for the fact that science is ultimately evidence driven and it is self-correcting. More importantly though, we need to recognize that it is the people who do science that are the engines of this self-correction. People like Evelyn Hooker a psychologist from North Platte Nebraska who graduated from CU Boulder challenged deep seated beliefs about same sex attraction in n the 1950s. Evelyn’s research showed unbiased evidence people with same sex attraction were psychologically as well-adjusted as anyone else. Other scientists including Alfred Kinsey, Clellan Ford and many more found the same thing. Now having evidence is great but science is also about having an open mind. In 1973 it was the open minds of other scientists at the American Psychological Association that finally ended the erroneous notion that same-sex attraction was a mental disease. Certainly, LGBT discrimination didn’t end in 1973. It would take decades more and the work of countless more scientists and activists but thanks to the brave voices of people who followed the evidence even in the face of societal prejudice social and legal change ultimately followed. There is always room for improvement but we are a better and a more equal society today that we were in years past.

We advance as a society we speak truth to power.

Facts matter! Evidence matters! Truth matters!

Those who ignore this, do so at not only at their peril but at the peril of all of us.

You cared enough to come here today. That means you care about Truth.

Don’t leave here today without recognizing the tremendous power that you have. You have the power to shape the world that you want to live in.

It takes all of us – each contributing what we can. Ask yourself what you can do to create a better society for all of us and then do it!