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The Little Black Marker

Translational Ecology
by Bill Schlesinger
Thu Oct 31st, 2019

This is a blog about environmental science—how it helps us understand the world around us and how it can be used to make decisions for better management and adaptation for the future. It is not a political blog. But when politics and science collide, I am compelled to respond.

As I have described in the past, scientific information is gathered by testing hypotheses, using field observations, experiments, and models. Before a scientist’s work is published and becomes accepted, it is subject to “peer review,” in which fellow scientists review the work and sometimes even reproduce the experiments. Even the best scientists can make mistakes, and it is honorable to publish corrections to papers—even retractions, if mistakes are found when the work is tested and examined by others. Ultimately, through this process, we obtain solid knowledge about how the world operates.

When greed, politics, religion, or hubris interfere with the scientific method, we are all denied the benefits of good science and the best knowledge about how to tackle the challenges that face us.

When Galileo proved scientifically that the Earth revolved around the Sun, he was subject to a religious inquisition that concluded he was a heretic. Despite his scientific evidence to the contrary, he was forced to recant his findings in favor of the Biblical interpretation.

Likewise, armed with the best models of atmospheric circulation that predicted Hurricane Dorian would turn northward along the east coast of Florida, NOAA was forced to rescind this prediction, so as not to contradict President Trump’s statement that the hurricane would cross Florida and strike Alabama. Apparently NOAA’s science-based predictions are no match for a President with “unmatched wisdom”.

Ultimately, Hurricane Dorian did as the meteorologists predicted, turning northward up the eastern seaboard and sparing Alabama. But with the help of a black Sharpie, Trump’s model said otherwise, as if all the rest was fake news. The little black Sharpie has become somewhat of a recurring joke on the internet, but it is no joke when the president suppresses science and his administration silences scientists in favor of alternative facts.

References:

Schlesinger, William H. 2016 https://blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/citizenscientist/peer-review/

Schlesinger, William H. 2017. https://blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/citizenscientist/when-science-informed-policy/