March for Science Speech by Dr. James DeGregori, April 14, 2018

Thanks everyone for coming out for this very important event.  I’m a professor and cancer researcher at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora.  I have a son and daughter-in-law who are science teachers here in Denver Public Schools.  They teach the science, with an emphasis on asking questions and following the data wherever it may lead.  And they are here today. 

Dr. James DeGregori, Deputy Director of the University of Colorado Cancer Center
Dr. James DeGregori, Deputy Director of the University of Colorado Cancer Center

One of my passions is teaching the importance of evolutionary theory for understanding health and medicine.  If you want to understand why we get cancer, why we get old, or even why we get allergies, you need to start with our evolutionary history.  The implications of this evolutionary perspective for medicine are huge, and yet are only recently becoming appreciated.  For this reason, we need the next generation of scientists, and really everyone else, to have a deep appreciation of evolutionary theory and its implications.  Evolution is not just about old fossilized bones in museum basements, but is an exciting area of research with big implications for medicine and the world around us. And if there are any paleontologists out there – yes, old fossilized bones are really exciting too. 

There is an assault on science in this country, at the highest levels. Facts are ignored, science experts are replaced with industry hacks, and the truth is actively suppressed.  Right now, the biggest threat is to the Earth’s environment, and the consequences will not easily be reversed.  But the assault on science is not new.  Just ask Galileo.  As we all know, the science of evolution has been under attack for over a century in this country. As has the science of vaccination.

I bring up vaccination for a reason.  We have to insist on respect for science, in all areas.  We have to be just as adamant about respect for science when it does NOT support our position as when it does.  Science is not your fair weather friend.

If people tolerate conspiracy theories and bashing of the scientific establishment in the debates over genetically modified crops and vaccines, then you are operating with the same playbook that deniers of evolution or climate change are using.  Science is science, and it should obey no political or religious directive. 

 Science itself does not dictate public policy – whether for what is taught in schools or for carbon emissions mandates.  But science must be the foundation upon which these policies are made.  We need to at least recognize what science tells us, what are the limitations to this knowledge (and where gaps exist), and then educators and policy makers should apply this information in a manner that best serves humankind, the planet, and progress, with appropriate consideration of religious liberties and individual rights.  Yes, it’s complicated, but it becomes infinitely more complicated, and pretty much impossible, to make sound decisions when we can’t even agree on what the truth is or even how the scientific process should operate.

The scientific process is imperfect, and it sometimes gets things wrong.  But scientific knowledge evolves and is self-correcting – the truth persists while the stuff we got wrong is discarded with lots of time and research by many labs.  This does not mean that all scientific knowledge is in flux.  The evolution of species happened and continues to happen, climate change is real and very damaging, and vaccines have saved millions of lives and they work.  And there still is much to learn about evolution, climate change, and vaccination – we are not done.  And we need money! 

Scientific facts and research results belong to all of us – they are not Republican, Democratic, Libertarian or whatever.  We can have reasonable debates about the implications of these facts or how to best apply them, but we cannot do so if we aren’t even starting with the same facts. To paraphrase Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, you are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own science.