Want to Restore Your Faith in Humanity? Visit a Scientific Conference

As laypeople, we often learn about emerging science through the politicized lens of social media—especially when it comes to such issues as global warming, pandemic modelling, vaccines, and biological sex. And so it becomes easy for us to imagine that the everyday world of scientists is constantly afflicted by the same culture-war polarization as our daily Twitter and Facebook feeds.

But, as in many other areas of life, social media distorts our perspective, because it signal boosts the angriest and loudest members of every subculture. In truth, most scientists are engaged in apolitical work, which they conduct beneath the surface of public observation and commentary—as I reminded myself last month, during an informative and inspiring visit to the five-day American Geophysical Union (AGU) Annual Convention in New Orleans.

My own role as a symphonic cellist marks me as what may be the furthest thing from an expert in geophysics (a field that Wikipedia helpfully defines as “a subject of natural science concerned with the physical processes and physical properties of the Earth and its surrounding space environment”). But as a podcaster, I was able to get a press pass. And so while most of my Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra colleagues got coffee or went home to walk the dog during breaks from our recent rehearsals of Handel’s Messiah, I would stroll over to the (acoustically pristine, I should mention) Orpheum Theatre at the sprawling Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in downtown New Orleans.

This was my first convention experience of any kind since 2004, when, as a high-schooler, I assisted delegates at the Democratic convention in Boston while John Kerry was accepting his party’s presidential nomination. Needless to say, the 2021 AGU meet-up attracted fewer journalists than the Democrats did 18 years ago. Yet it was deeply impressive, reminding me of the power of science, the true engine of human progress.

This event typically attracts about 30,000 scientists, though the 2021 iteration was much smaller because of COVID: There were about 10,000 physical attendees while many more participated virtually. In what was (for me) a stunning coincidence, the keynote speaker was none other than Kerry, whom Joe Biden named a year ago as the first Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. But just about everyone else was a scientist of one kind or another—from undergraduates, grad students, and corporate representatives marketing new products, to Nobel Prize winners and prominent government policy specialists. The cacophony of voices on the convention floor made a nice break from the rigid formality of a symphony. And even if most of the technical talk went right over my head, there was still something welcome about hearing all this earnest scientific babble concerning subjects that have nothing to do with hashtags and internet memes.

AGU convention

In music, we give life to notes on a page, bringing centuries-old compositions into the present. If a performance is successful, it can become an exercise in time travel, as the audience has the feeling that the piece is freshly written and ageless. But among these scientists and their exhibits, I had the feeling that I was being whisked into the future. So many sentences I overheard began with some variant of “Soon, we’re going to be able to…”

A highlight was speaking with Jérôme Benveniste, the affable Senior Advisor to the European Space Agency (ESA), and (I am told) one of the most distinguished scientists in the field of oceanography. Conversing mainly in Italian (Benveniste’s professional home, the Centre for Earth Observation, is based in Frascati, near Rome), he told me all about the orbiting devices that collect data about our planet, this being his area of specialty. (His co-authored papers have titles such as The COASTALT project: Towards an operational use of satellite altimetry in the coastal zone and Estimating Biomass From Sentinel-3 Altimetry Data: A Sensitivity Analysis. The video below helps give a taste of the kind of technology he works with.) His speech became emotional as he spoke of his (probably utopian) dream of having science lead politicians (instead of vice versa) in doing what’s right for our planet, not what is politically expedient.

Another chance encounter brought me into conversation with solar scientist Stephen Kahler of the Battlespace Environment Division at the Space Vehicles Directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory. While I could only nod vapidly at his poster presentation on The Association of Solar X-ray Flare Decay Times and Peak Temperatures with Coronal Mass Ejections, he brought the conversation down to my level by explaining the importance of this kind of solar science to the real-life decisions that the Air Force makes about sending flying machines into the sky. He struck me as scientist, environmentalist, and US patriot all rolled into one. And it was hard not to be moved by his deep commitment to his work. (As for the magnificent power of Coronal Mass Ejections, or CMEs, just click on the video below.)

Joshua Himmelstein, a PhD candidate in Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina, deftly guided me through his studies into sediment accumulation rates in marshes along the North Carolina coast. (The formal description of his study area is Localized remote-sensing through drone-derived 3D models and storm-driven changes in barrier island morphology. But, again, there’s a video for those who just want the basics.) When I asked why non-scientists should care about his research (a blunt question I posed to everyone, but not one that many answered as easily and cheerfully), he explained that marshlands are critical in helping to control the erosion of coastlines.

The enthusiasm of these scientists is contagious. And in my few days browsing the AGU meeting, I perused many posters, heard various lectures, held numerous interviews, collected piles of literature, and took endless photos and videos on my iPhone. I was struck by the sheer range of expertise represented in that room—men and women who studied the farthest reaches of space and the deepest interior of our planet. In a polarized world defined by gender, religion, race, political affiliation, sexuality, and all the rest, the AGU conference was (to my observation) blissfully free of all this. The only overt labelling I could see was represented by the colored name-tag lanyards whose function was “to alert others what space we wanted around us, spacing of chairs in the rooms of plenaries and oral sessions.”

The author with Jérôme Benveniste, outside the Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans.

It was just by chance that I ended up being at this convention—a friend had suggested I go—and having this revelatory experience. Wouldn’t it be great if more people, journalists in particular, made a point of visiting with distinguished groups of scientists that happened to be convening in their city—even if (perhaps especially if) their scientific work has nothing to do with the daily news cycle?

So much of what we witness online reflects the themes of scandal, conflict, and grievance. Meeting the people who are making this world a better place through science provides a much needed sense of balance. At the very least, it’s nice to have some basis for optimism when every digital voice seems to be counselling doom.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/01/08/want-to-restore-your-faith-in-humanity-visit-a-scientific-conference/
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What a surprise that a scientist you met dreams “of having science lead politicians (instead of vice versa) in doing what’s right for our planet, not what is politically expedient.” Perhaps your next stop should be to a gathering of military personnel who dream of having the military lead politicians (instead of vice versa) in doing what’s right for the planet. Or perhaps meet with the Pope who has a completely different idea about who should lead this important endeavor. Wait, I have a better idea, how about meeting with indigenous people? They probably dream the same dream. So glad you met a nice scientist. Sounds like it was fun.

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I’m all for politicians basing decisions where the laws of nature determine outcomes on science, I think it’s the smart thing to do.
I’m also all in favour of politicians basing decisions involving military strategy on the knowledge of military experts, politicians basing military decisions on their own amateur military knowledge is a good way to lose a war.
I also recommend using the knowledge of lawyers when it comes to legal matters and plumbers when it comes to plumbing.

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I thoroughly enjoyed this well written article, so thank you. I do wonder, however, whether scientist Jérôme Benveniste actually believes that the cloth appendage hanging about his chin --even if worn properly-- does a darn thing to thwart a virus. His answer would go a long way in my assessment of him as a proper scientist.

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What a great article! Fun and refreshing.

I don’t subscribe to Quillette for entertainment, but for enlightenment. What a treat to get a fun one. (In other words I enjoy getting something that’s outside my set of expectations.)

I’m surprised at some of the grumpy, sarcastic, critical, and/or snarky comments. Come on, folks - lighten up and enjoy.

I too (like another commenter) am glad that the original author met a nice scientist, and I agree that it “Sounds like it was fun”.

So let’s have some fun for a change. Enjoy life. Chill. Happy New Year.

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I thought this was a great article. I agree with @seanbearly that we don’t want scientists leading public policy, that’s why we have elected politicians as representatives- who are supposed to broadly follow the electorates wishes unless their conscience dictates otherwise- in which case the electorate are free to sack them at the ballot box in the next election. However, what I would say is that it would be infinitely preferable to have scientists leading national conversations, rather the current situation- where the corporate media is perversely incentivised to mislead the public through alarmism, because it is proven to increase their viewership or readership.

However, it is worth pointing out that because of the degree of specialisation in science, and a general lack of knowledge in other areas, like economics, the scientists themselves are often misinformed or unaware of changes on major issues. For example, in the most recent climate report over 40% of all references were made to the RCP 8.5 and SSP 5- 8.5 scenarios. Although these scenarios remain scientifically useful for the purposes of studying major, rather than minor, effects we have already reached the stage where they are all completely impossible.

The worst case scenario we are currently looking at is the Rocky Road scenario- SSP3. This is still a serious long-term problem and requires major improvements in international cooperation and innovation to mitigate, but it’s hardly the nightmare scenario which remains the mainstay of the media. My point would be that even within the climate science community itself, many scientists remain uninformed of this fact. There really should be some form of bulletin system to keep scientists informed on major changes in our understanding- with one layer providing a detailed, within-field analysis, another summarising major developments in other fields, and the final layer providing a broad state-of-play overview of how science and public policy are influencing each other around the world.

Funnily enough, Quillette recently featured a great article on the subject of American biologist E. O. Wilson. This is exactly the type of approach his book Consilience advocated.

As usual, my essays are available on my Substack and free to view and comment:

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Very nice article. Having once been an academic research scientist myself, I can well attest to the enthusiasm around the science that flourishes far from the daily news cycle.

However, the daily news cycle has been invading the scientific world since the 1970s, and the situation has gotten much worse in the last 20 years. Without this invasion and the attendant arm-twisting of scientists and their institutions, would we have the climate hysteria and all the bad policies that result? The “gender” absurdity, a result of the intimidation of researchers and doctors? The goofy, costly, and often unfounded policies in response to COVID-19?

Would we have COVID-19 at all without the gain-of-function research sponsored by EcoHealth Alliance at the Wuhan lab, paid for with US NIH money, approved by Dr. Fauci?

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I, for one, would welcome an influx of trained scientists into political office to complement (and/or correct) the dominant strains of lawyers and businesspeople. We’d all be better off if politicians took an empirical, evidence-based approach to solving problems instead of relying on their ideological priors and pandering to the views of the electorate.

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I completely agree- the problem is they shop for the science they want. It’s one of the real problems with the Scientific Method, in terms of how it translates into public policy. The other somewhat more dramatic statement I would make for the purposes of hyperbole- bar all lawyers from holding public office outside of the judiciary. They have their own branch of government, for crying out loud- what, roughly a third of the power within the Separation of Powers wasn’t enough for them?

America would be a infinitely better place with their exclusion from the other two branches…

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I agree that more non-lawyers would be great, especially in the US, where we have far too many lawyers. However, the responsibility and accountability still requires elected representatives to be in charge.

We had technocracy in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, which got us to the Moon and much else, but also eventually got us the Vietnam War and the Great Society. Those proved costly mistakes but recoverable, because elected officials were in charge and the media knew its place in those days (it’s not a branch of government). You just voted them out of office and tried someone else.

Since the 1990s, that’s become less and less possible. Voting matters less and less when unaccountable technocrats are in charge of more and more: monetary policy, regulation, schools, public health, war and peace, etc. They keep saying “we’re experts” and “trust us,” and they keep failing. But you can’t vote them out of office any more. They all went to the same schools and are all married to one another. It’s a permanent government.

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