Lima beans, the scientific method, and saving the planet

Do you remember your first brush with the scientific method? For most of us, the six steps at the core of the scientific method were introduced during our formative years in elementary school. Remember the infamous lima bean experiment? I recall how curious I was when my first-grade teacher unveiled the stack of mason jars, the pile of paper towels, and the tray of beans set up on the crayon-scuffed table in the middle of the room. I’ve never forgotten the sense of wonder as I watched the emergence of the bean’s roots and shoots inside the glass jar. I’ve also never forgotten my impatience as I was reminded to color in a chart that showed that I’d faithfully followed each prescribed step. That was the moment when I, like most first graders, first became immersed in the step-by-step process that forms the basis for all science.

Everything a kid then and now needs to know about the universe of scientific inquiry— about curiosity, about logical planning, about patience, about predictability and integrity, about personal responsibility and commitment to wherever the observed facts may lead an experiment—was contained in the simple act of adding water and light to a lowly bean and observing the miracle of photosynthesis and plant growth.

What we learned in first grade

In child-friendly terms, first-grade teachers introduce the indisputable fact that the scientific method forms the basis for every transformative discovery in science and technology from the ancient world to our time. As adults, most of us understand that no matter what the area of study, the research, experimentation, and the drawing of conclusions based on observation follow the same path—a path that culminates in a set of facts. This trajectory is true for everything from the simplest discoveries—like the environmental triggers that jump start the germination of seeds that feed and sustain us—to the most complex and multifaceted—like space exploration, or identifying the causes of climate change, or the molecular signature of life, or the unraveling of the interconnections between genetics and disease.

So what went wrong in the American zeitgeist that so many first graders have grown up to be adults who seem to be casting aside what they learned about science and facts at the age of six?

Incredibly, the one third of adult Americans who identify as climate-change deniers or doubters have suppressed the lessons of their six-year-old selves and succumbed to factless, corporate-interest propaganda and wild conspiracy theories. Even worse, individuals who have been appointed to be guardians of agencies of our government are ignoring, suppressing, and, in the most extreme, censoring and altering facts promulgated by scientists faithful to the scientific method and the agencies’ science-based missions.

What we’ve forgotten

How much has science denial and suppression of fact-based research under the current president and his appointees affected government agencies and the scientists who commit themselves to fact-based policy on behalf of the health and prosperity of Americans?

A survey of more than 63,000 federal scientists working in sixteen government agencies paints an alarming picture. The survey, conducted in the fall of 2018 by the Union of Concerned Scientists, reveals that

  • 80 percent of the survey’s respondents reported workforce reductions through staff cuts, hiring freezes, and failures to replace staff who quit or retired.
  • 87 percent reported that budget and staff reductions undermined their ability to fulfill their scientific missions.
  • 50 percent across the sixteen agencies confirmed that political interests are currently hindering the agencies’ ability to base policy solely on scientific findings.
  • 76 percent of National Park Service respondents and 81 percent of respondents at the EPA reported that political interests have become an obstacle to fact-based policy.

Survey respondents also confirmed the dysfunction and corruption of mission that outside observers have been reporting since the election of 2016. These are shocking numbers.

  • 70 percent agreed or strongly agreed that leaders of the agencies plucked from the industries agencies are supposed to be regulating are inappropriately influencing the agencies’ decision making.
  • And the most extreme type of interference—actual censorship—is insidiously undermining agencies’ science-based missions, with nearly 35 percent (or approximately 150) of scientists working in the EPA reporting that they’d been asked to censor the phrase “climate change” from their reports;
  • Another 30 percent indicate that they had avoided working on climate change or using the phrase “climate change” without “explicit orders to do so.”

Here’s what one anonymous EPA scientist revealed,

“The current administration sees protecting industry as part of the agency’s mission and does not want to consider action that might reduce industry profit, even if it’s based on sound science [emphasis added]. We are not fulfilling our mission to protect human health and the environment as a result.”

The scientists who responded to the survey and were courageous enough to send out an S.O.S. are without a doubt imploring us to take action before the pollution of science and the diminishment of a fact-based world goes beyond our ability to rein in the chaos.

Back to the future

Here’s the first step. Let’s send Donald Trump and his unqualified agency appointees back to their first-grade classrooms for a two-year remedial course on science and the true meaning of the word “fact.” Then, while they’re playing around with their lima beans and mason jars, those in our government who believe in fact-based policy can get on with the work of allowing scientists to provide us with the evidence to create policies that protect and enhance our lives, the lives of our children, and the world.