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Why good science needs good history

Yesterday was Earth Day, and to commemorate the event, scientists across the United States turned out in force to protest the Trump administration’s proposed cuts in science funding and professed hostility toward climate science. The main March for Science was in Washington, DC, but there were hundreds of other demonstrations in cities across the country, including a sizable one in Los Angeles, which I attended.

My reasons for attending the march were part conviction, part curiosity. I wanted to show support for funding scientific research, and I wanted to see what a pro-science protest looked like. I didn’t have any illusions that this single protest would save research funding. Marchers can’t cause change, especially if they come from outside, participate in the protest, and then leave (as many people did for, say, the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, and as I did yesterday in LA). Activists, whose day job is organizing communities and placing pressure on political leaders, can cause real change—sometimes. But most people, even those with good intentions, can’t afford to become activists.

With these reservations, I went to Los Angeles and marched, without a protest sign, from Pershing Square to City Hall. Thousands and thousands of other people were there too—some scientists, many obviously not; some carrying signs or wearing costumes, others not. From time to time, someone would start a call-response chant in the crowd. My favorite went like this:

What do we want?

Science!

When do we want it?

After peer review!

The poor meter and overall nerdiness of this chant made it seem particularly appropriate for the setting.

The March for Science had been organized on the premise that science is real and should be trusted. This theme appeared in the speeches delivered before the march in Pershing Square, as well as many of the marchers’ signs. Almost all the rhetoric I saw or heard at the march portrayed science only in a positive light, an interpretation that eighteenth-century European Enlightenment thinkers would have appreciated—before World War I, the atomic bomb, and all that. I did see one sign warning that much evil had been done in the name of science too.

For all the rhetoric about how the United States government needs to fund and pay attention to good science, I was disappointed to encounter a considerable amount of bad history at the march. Galileo Galilei was held up (literally, in the case of at least one sign) as a brave champion of science against the oppressive Catholic Church. This characterization of Galileo is well-known, but in fact the Catholic Church was early-modern Europe’s biggest funder of scientific research. The Gregorian Calendar, the modern international standard, was developed based on measurements taken in solar observatories built inside Italian cathedrals. (There is a good, if dense, book about the Catholic Church and astronomy: The Sun in the Church, by J.L. Heilbronn.)

I made mental notes of signs that annoyed me. The sign I hated the most said this:

WE TRIED ANTI-SCIENCE ONCE. IT WAS CALLED THE DARK AGES.

This is so false, I don’t even know where to start. Assuming this is referring to the European Dark Ages (and not some other dark age like the one that occurred in Greece between the archaic and classical periods), this sign is an outrageous abuse of history. The European Dark Ages, which took place roughly between the years 500 and 1000, were a result of the collapse of the political order in western Europe after the fall of the western Roman Empire. With no unifying imperial power in place any more, Europe broke up into countless tiny kingdoms with largely self-contained economies and little trade or communication between them. Even the larger kingdoms formed during this period, such as France or the Holy Roman Empire, remained internally divided between the jurisdictions of local lords. There was much less literature and scholarship produced in Europe during the Dark Ages than there had been during the Roman Empire, but this was a result of economic collapse, not anti-scientific sentiment. And at any rate, the science defended by the March for Science did not exist in the Middle Ages; empirical, experimental science originated in Europe in the seventeenth century.

The March for Science was not all bad history. There was plenty of good history there too; it just didn’t catch my eye like the abuses did. But for me the lesson of the march was this: If you are going to start a movement defending facts, then you should check the facts you are using first. If the facts are outside your discipline, then ask an expert for his or her opinion. I can’t speak for all historians, but I for one would be happy to advise scientists about history.

View of Braunau am Inn and the distant Alps.

Tearing down Hitler’s house

The Austrian government announced yesterday that it plans to demolish the house in which Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889. The house stands on a street corner in Braunau am Inn, a picturesque town located just across the Inn River from Germany. After a half-decade of legal fights with the owner, during which time the house has stood empty, the government has apparently seized the property and intends to raze the structure (or possibly remodel it beyond recognition) to prevent it from becoming a pilgrimage site for Neo-Nazis.

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2006, I studied German in the village of Bogenhofen, just down the road from Braunau. Hitler’s birthplace was a familiar sight from my regular visits to Braunau for shopping or exploring. The house was not marked by any interpretive plaque, but it was easy enough to find. Even my Lonely Planet guide identified its location.

I am usually a staunch advocate of historic preservation, but I am willing to make an exception for the Austrian government’s decision to destroy Hitler’s birth house. The destruction of this one building will represent a repudiation Hitler and Nazism, and an acceptance of a peaceful and inclusive present and future. Large-scale destruction of sites associated with the Third Reich would be troubling, as it would signify an attempt to forget about a past that is still very real and very relevant. But Neither Austria nor Germany has undertaken such destruction, not since the dynamiting of certain key monuments just after World War II. There are still many built reminders of the Third Reich in both countries, from the Olympic stadium in Berlin to the Mauthausen concentration camp eighty miles east of Braunau.

When the government tears down Hitler’s birth house, I hope they leave in place the Mahnstein, a monument that stands on the sidewalk in front of the house. It is a rough brown stone taken from the quarry at Mauthausen. The side facing the street bears a simple but powerful inscription:

Für Frieden, Freiheit, und Demokratie, nie wieder Faschismus, millionen Tote mahnen.

[For peace, freedom, and democracy, never again fascism, millions of dead implore.]

Whether the house stands or is destroyed, this stone should remain as a warning of the destructive power of racial ideologies such as Hitler’s.

Digging out

BAJENGDOBA, MEGHALAYA, INDIA – On September 22 of last year, the Garo Hills of northeast India were ravaged by the worst floods in memory. Monsoon storms triggered flash floods in many of the region’s river valleys. The flooding and related landslides took the lives of around seventy residents of the hills, in addition to causing extensive property damage.

The Garo Hills have a special significance for me, because I spent a year living and teaching here between college and graduate school, from 2009 to 2010. When reports of the floods began to circulate in the days and weeks following September 22, I was horrified to think about such a catastrophe occurring to a place and to people I know and love. Now, in January 2015, I am fortunate to have the chance to visit the Garo Hills again and see the flood damage and subsequent recovery for myself.

The school where I taught, Riverside Adventist Academy, is located in the district worst-affected by the floods, North Garo Hills. On the morning of September 22, the Jinari River entered the school campus by opening a new channel leading right into the cafeteria and big boys’ and girls’ hostels (dormitories). The river toppled sections of the compound walls and brought branches and logs sweeping into campus.

Before the walls fell, the hostel students evacuated to the top floor of the classroom building as the rushing flood water rose above their knees. Three small boys lost their footing and were swept away by the current, but remarkably they were caught in the branches of a banyan tree on the edge of campus. Not a single student from Riverside school was lost in the flood, but one teacher drowned after helping many students to safety. His name was Rituraj Phukan, and he was 31 years old.

It has been almost four months since the floods, and I am happy to see that the school is recovering well. The broken sections of the compound wall have been replaced by temporary fencing. Teachers and non-teaching staff have spent weeks painstakingly cleaning the campus – shoveling mud out of the buildings, righting and re-rooting trees toppled by the water, and clearing away logs that washed onto campus. I am impressed by how beautiful the campus looks now, with graceful gulmohur trees casting their shade onto the walkways. Apart from the broken compound walls and an ugly landslide gash on a nearby hillside, there are few obvious signs that this place was inundated by a deluge just four months ago.

Riverside school will reopen on-schedule for the 2015 academic year in early February. The school and the surrounding community have begun to recover from the floods, but despite appearances, the recovery is far from complete. Damage to buildings and other infrastructure in the Garo Hills (such as the school compound’s walls) will take time to repair. Harder to quantify – and likely harder to repair – will be the human toll of the floods. From my conversations with teachers and students who were at Riverside on September 22, it is clear to me that the floods were a deeply traumatic experience. Many witnesses expressed shock that such a disaster could happen. One student told me that she still feels like it was all a dream. I have noticed more gray hair in the Garo Hills than I remember seeing five years ago. I wonder if the stress of having their homeland inundated is causing the population of the Garo Hills to go prematurely gray.

Even these emotional wounds will heal some day. The families that lost sons and daughters, mothers and fathers to the flooding and landslides will also eventually learn to live without the deceased. This will take years, but I am certain it will happen. I am also certain, though, that the great Meghalaya floods of 2014 will never be forgotten, as long as victims and witnesses of the floods are alive to tell their stories.

(This post continues coverage of the Meghalaya floods, which I started in this post.)

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