While taking Honora to school a few days ago, Bob Edwards was speaking on NPR Radio with Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, the authors of the book, “Unscientific America”. While the book apparently discusses “scientific illiteracy”, some of the commentary seemed applicable to what we currently endure in the fire service; clinging to tradition for tradition’s sake and the global ignorance of scientific findings that can improve our efficiency and safety.
The authors, in discussing their premise, suggested that the general populace isn’t stupid when it comes to science, they’re just disengaged. The idea that they put forth is essentially that science needs to discover a way to get people to re-engage on the issues, which is not as easy as it might seem. While the scientific community as a whole might not necessarily agree upon the ways to communicate their issues, for scientists and supporters of science to simply dismiss the “emotional side” (my quote) of others when it comes to scientific issues is turning their back on the problem.
In the early to middle parts of the last century, scientists were looked at as heroes. Science brought us protection against disease; it brought us innovative fabrics and materials. Science ushered in a nuclear age and took us to the Moon. Science, however became pedestrian or became background noise. Although Mooney and Kirshenbaum didn’t suggest it, I suggest that maybe we all began to take these accomplishments for granted. Consider that every other time I upgrade my computer it becomes a third smaller and four times faster (and I seem to have to upgrade these bad boys about every two or three years). While the laptop I am typing this on has 500 GB of storage, my first work computer back in 1988 had MAYBE a 120 megabyte hard drive. Since I wasn’t so computer literate back then, I couldn’t even begin to tell you how much RAM it had.
While these technological miracles happen almost daily, maybe they’ve become a little too commonplace. And of course, the unintentional wall established between science and the rest of us (maybe I’m a bad example) doesn’t afford any converts. In fact, the authors discussed that Carl Sagan suffered considerable stigma from the scientific community because of his efforts to put science in a context others could understand. The result was that he was considered to have “populist” (their quote) views and was somehow, not worthy of inclusion into the supporters of science.
What has happened is that science just isn’t as popular a subject. Mooney stated that if you read the newspaper, “Science doesn’t beat the horoscope or the sports pages” among most people. Along with the theory that your political view influences your perspective on science (I’d agree with that), especially in this day of deeply divided emotions about our nation and the people who run it, I’d bet that the thought of discussing some of these scientific endeavors (stem cell research, evolution, etc.) with some of your friends or family probably makes you uncomfortable, regardless of where you stand. So it’s no question that science in many circles, isn’t exactly a hot topic of conversation. In fact, unless you are surrounded by a bunch of like-thinkers, you might well avoid scientific discussion altogether.
So just as goes science as a discussion for us all, so goes the fire service for those of us within it. Go to any firehouse and you’ll see some strong feelings on certain fire service topics. For any of us to discuss deeply held beliefs about our fire service brings up some pretty raw emotion. Depending where you sit on many of these issues, sometimes it is better to sit it out and watch the fighting than it is to engage. Why is that? Well, I know personally, while I don’t shy away from conflict, I am not interested in engaging in an all-out battle with anyone who just can’t see any side of the issues except the one they are on. If I choose to remain open-minded and civil, so must you. That doesn’t seem to prevent people from acting like assholes though (yeah, I said it).
Blogging and posting is a little unique. The anonymity of being online seems to permit some of the less enlightened individuals to pipe up when they should probably just stick a sock in it and slink back to their corner. Especially when I’m being lectured by some moron who has two or three years under his (or her) belt and all of a sudden, they are the subject matter expert du jour. Since the privacy of the internet protects cowards and psychos from getting popped in the mouth if they cross the line, I’d just as soon focus on positive discussion, but it doesn’t seem to stop some of them.
The emergency service industry, as does the scientific community, must remain objective while considering the deeply held beliefs and traditions of those who came before us. While it seems that logic should overturn any voodoo, the scientific community can’t be dismissive of the emotion attached to these beliefs, because they can be equally as powerful, and no scientist has really been able to explain that.
I’ve said before that I love the traditions of the fire service. I come from four generations of firefighters and I am proud of that heritage. But just as my grandfather and my father were renegades and agitating for change and improvement, so do I. I’m happy to keep a roto-ray on the front of my engine, but I’m not so keen on rushing so quickly to a fire alarm that I flip a rig. I guess that’s a tradition that seemed to occur a lot in the past that I’d just as soon leave behind. And yes, there are some who still think that this is acceptable behavior, as do those who think risk/benefit analysis is for sissies.
If we really want change, we have to understand that it scares some people. Being dismissive of their fears or their preconceived beliefs doesn’t bring them to us in harmony, it creates division. Understanding how and why things do the things they do is just as important as understanding who we are and where we came from and how we got here. Since most of you reading this already get “IT”, I’m probably preaching to the choir, but perhaps we can do a better job of reaching out to the dinosaurs and conveying our respect for the way things were done, as well as educating them on safe and effective practices.
Understand that although scientific exploration may bear out an idea and that idea is as right as rain, that same idea will remain locked up in your head somewhere if you’re unable or unwilling to frame the idea into something everyone can understand and eventually, embrace. If I had the universal answer to all of our problems, I wouldn’t be sitting here asking you open-ended questions. But it seems that the questions keep getting asked and we aren’t hitting on the answers.
As a brotherhood, we need to band together and discover what others have found before us. That together we can work toward improving public safety while striving for our own safety as well. That tradition is important, but it doesn’t supplant common sense. And that science, in reaching out to find answers to our questions, has achieved a method of achieving logical approaches to many problems, but we have to sometimes choke back emotion and realize that improvement sometimes means walking away from the treasured, but flawed, reasoning of our past.