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My Religion is Science

When I was five years old, I proudly told my parents, my grandparents, and my kindergarten teacher that when I grew up, I was going to be a naturalist. At five, I didn’t know what I was talking about, but I was in love with the world outdoors. I was in love with the “A” volume of the World Book Encyclopedia, a three-inch tome I could hardly lift. Halfway through that volume were pages and pages of colored pictures of animals from around the world. I would study these pages for hours, sounding out and memorizing the names of the animals: armadillo, ibex, capybara, hippopotamus. A naturalist was someone who studied nature, like animals or plants, my dad the geography teacher and part-time encyclopedia salesman told me. That sparked the beginning of a dream.

When I was seven, the Time-Life books began to appear, one a month, in our one bookcase at home. The Life of the Forest, The Life of the Seashore, The Life of the Cave. I turned the pages voraciously on those many, many days growing up in Wisconsin when we were having a torrential downpour, a frigid blizzard or the tornado siren blared. That year, I won second prize in our school career poster contest for an entry that promised “A Scientist’s Life for Me” and showed a woman with a long brown ponytail made from real embroidery thread (my mom helped me with that part) in a white scientist coat. She was working in her laboratory with test tubes and vials doing some secret experiments. Being that I went to a Catholic school, first prize inevitably went to a girl who wanted to be a nun.

When I was outside — and I was always outside when the weather was even sort of passible — I could often be found looking for toads or salamanders in the spot of woods near our house. Or sprawled on my stomach in the grass observing ants or beetles or ladybugs. Or visiting the odd man (later, I realized he was deaf) who lived at the edge of the woods and kept exotic pheasants, guinea hens, and a tame raccoon that he would sometimes let me feed. When I found a book at our small town’s tiny library entitled, Science in Your Own Backyard, I checked it out every two weeks for the entire summer and did every single project the book outlined, some more than once.

When I was nine, my 4th grade teacher godmother gave me a microscope for Christmas and my mom asked my dad to build a swing door enclosing the under-the-steps cubbyhole in our basement so the younger kids couldn’t get in. I had a blue cupboard and a small table in that space, a light and my microscope and scores of samples, some that I mounted myself to look at under its magic magnification.

When I was ten, I started a rock collection, and I identified each specimen that I found in my sloppy left-handed scribble and set them on poster board on the table in my cozy laboratory under the basement steps. I saved up many, many bubblegum wrappers and sent away for a 24-piece shell collection. The largest shell was less than an inch long, but each was mounted in a square outlined in black in a foot-long white cardboard box with a clear plastic cover. Underneath every shell was its species, cowry, olive, rat’s tail and the country of origin, Thailand, The Philippines, China. For a ten-year-old girl who lived a thousand miles from any seacoast, nothing evoked the wide world of natural beauty and mystery quite like that collection of tiny seashells.

I never did become a naturalist or even a natural scientist of some other kind. Gender expectations for small town girls in the sixties, the years of poor schooling and almost no math in the impoverished town of my childhood, my own confusion and fear about what women could actually aspire to, and, most especially, the dark years that surrounded my coming of age, combined to keep me from pursuing my childhood dream. But I never gave up on science. Science was my religion after I left the Catholic Church, its explanations satisfying and grounding, its quest for more understanding infinite. Science has the courage to say I don’t know. But Science always follows an admission of ignorance with a patient promise: I know how to find out.

Now I find myself at the end of a social science career steeped in the scientific method, in the Enlightenment belief that the world can be known, and that science is how we can best know it. The values of science are the grounding beliefs of the university, I’ve always told my students. The values of science — open-mindedness, an infinite quest to learn, answers based on evidence and reason always subject to revision, an ethics grounded in humility and honesty — have guided my professional and personal lives, both.

The great astronomer philosopher Carl Sagan said, “Science is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything.”

Lately, this best tool, this gift of the Enlightenment, this technique that has made all the wonders of modernity possible, this method that is the only thing that can save us, that has saved so many of us, has been disparaged, ignored, contradicted, and perverted as we faced a great catastrophe that can only be addressed by science. I am appalled, angry, astonished at how all we have learned has been so quickly displaced by magical thinking, conspiracy theories, craven political calculation. A sizable portion of our population has rejected the best tool humanity has ever constructed.

My life has been grounded by science and its values. I fear the world that will be created if those who reject science take power.

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