Amoeba’s Lorica: Signs

Signs, signs, everywhere a sign
Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind

As you may already know, dear reader, on Earth Day 2017 (22 April, a Saturday), the scientists of the Untied States of America hope to emulate the women of these same Untied States, and stage a march on Washington DC and elsewhere. The mission of that march being to remind Our Elected Representatives to the government of this once-fine nation, as well as the citizens who elected said Representatives, that our continued survival as a species, never mind the comfort level of that survival, depends upon the discoveries that scientists have made and have yet to make, and the applications to which those discoveries have been, and will be, put.

Among the many discussions that have been held among scientists and their supporters about this upcoming march (some of which have been more [ahem] seemly than others), the topic of signs has come up. What, after all, is a protist protest march without protest signs? (Protists like Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba, if we weren’t natural-born protestors already, have certainly been made so after nearly a decade of autocorrect.) The volume and tenor of those discussions have provided evidence for both the diversity of scientists and their thoughts, and for their frequently feline behavior patterns.

In these discussions, YFNA has expressed the opinion that only one class of signs will do the marchers less harm than good. Those signs, he argued, would point out, in pictures and a few words, that “Science Works!” That, without science and its discoveries, the lives of humans on this planet would be far harsher, meaner, and shorter. On this page, he has ventured a few examples.

If, by any chance, these signs should find favor with the marchers, YFNA hopes that the marchers will run with the idea – take these images as templates (which are probably not high enough resolution to put on a sign large enough to be seen in a march) and make whole bunches more. In a world that has, in YFNA’s lifetime, gone from dial phones to the iPhone 7, the possibilities for “Science Works!” placards are vast. Have to be. And represent a perfect platform for the display of both science fact and scientist creativity. To see signs of this sort displayed at any of the Marches for Science, and have them make an impact, would be more than ample reward for YFNA’s efforts.

“So, Amoeba, up at the top of the page, there, you made some wisecrack about most of our protest sign ideas doing ‘more harm than good’. What’s up with that?” Well … incredible as it may seem, YFNA, once upon a time, served as a Program Officer (grants administrator) for the US National Science Foundation. He wasn’t a very good one, but he hopes he didn’t do too much harm. His principal job was to review proposals to the NSF for funding, and execute the miserable responsibility of deciding, of the 50% of such proposals received that were sound science, which 1 out of 5 would actually get any money. To do this, he (and his peers, then and now) would assemble a panel of reviewers (a ‘jury’), who would meet over 2-3 days at the NSF offices in Arlington, VA, debate the proposals, and advise YFNA on their merits.

These “review panels” were (and are) ordeals. To prevent the ordeals from becoming excruciating, YFNA quickly learned to tell his panels, at the outset: “Everyone in this room is a very smart person. We can best show those smarts by using our debating energy on those proposals that have great potential merit but also great risks. If a proposal, which we’ve all read, is obviously excellent, say so in so many words, and if all agree, let’s move on. If a proposal is obviously seriously flawed, say so in so many words, and, if all agree, let’s move on. No need for an eloquence display on either one.” For the “eloquence display”, YFNA argues, was more about the reviewer showing off than the reviewer serving the NSF, or the scientific community.

The subtext to “Science Works!”, YFNA argues, is “Science Serves!” A number of the poster ideas that surfaced during “March for Science” discussions served mostly to show just how smart the placard-bearer is. And those ideas drew ire from folks who urged the smartypants types to speak in words of one syllable, or shut up. YFNA is heartily tired of being told by people that only baby talk is acceptable communication. This is how we wound up with baby talk in the White House. But how are people to be convinced to master a more complex vocabulary if that vocabulary is only used to put them down?

Scientists, YFNA argues, have allowed their detractors to pin on them the label of “taker” – to fling the long-standing “mad scientist” accusation at them, convince people that scientists care only for themselves, and make the accusation stick. Any snark on a sign, however much momentary emotional gratification it may give, plays into the hands of these opponents, and renders such expressions more harmful than helpful. Only by recapturing the initiative, by emphasizing that science is not just another interest group, but instead the most successful way of thinking humanity has ever invented, in terms of delivering tangible improvements to life, and scientists offer that way of thinking as a service to all, will science have a chance of turning the tide of cultural battle in its favor.

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