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Commentary: Why Science Does Not Matter Anymore and Why That is a Problem for Agriculture

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This past week the world celebrated the 49th anniversary of man walking on the moon. Over 600 million people worldwide watched on television as Purdue Alumni Neil Armstrong took “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.” It was the triumph of American technology and scientific achievement. It was the culmination of a political and cultural goal that united our nation in a way that we have not seen since. For those who did not live through this time, it may be hard to appreciate what a big deal this was.

The heroes of this achievement were the astronauts, engineers, and scientists. It is a much different world today. Astronauts are no longer celebrities, rocket launches are no longer broadcast live on TV, and science is no longer trusted. While technology permeates our lives, we don’t really understand it and think science is something to be mistrusted.

Writer and historian Audra Wolfe, who holds a PhD in the history of science, stated that, “Science is just one opinion among many. Actually, it’s worse than that. Science is a system of oppression designed by white, heterosexual men. Science should be treated suspiciously.” This view is widely held among not only academics but consumers as well. It explains why there is so much opposition to and mistrust of biotechnology and of the science behind modern agriculture.

Today, everybody is an expert on science and can pronounce judgement on scientific research and advancement. In our world that judgement carries just as much weight as stacks of peer reviewed, research results. Take, for example, the decision on the safety of glyphosate that is being decided in a California courtroom not a laboratory.

Alex Berezow, noted science writer, said scientific credentials that used to mean something no longer count in the court of public opinion, “In 2018, we live in a thoroughly postmodernist society. In a world in which we can no longer distinguish truth from lies and science itself has been redefined, non-scientists can claim to be scientists. And I’m the Queen of England.”

This is a serious concern for agriculture where much of our current production technology and more of our future advancements are rooted in science. During a recent Corteva media field day I attended, all the talk was about science. These people took science seriously, and were investing hundreds of millions of dollars into research to increase food production safely and sustainably. It will be difficult, however, to get public acceptance of this science in our current anti-science world.

In the past, scientists took for granted that their objective facts would be accepted as true. This is no longer the case. In fact, today there are still people who truly believe that the moon walk did not really happen and was all staged by NASA. Consumers begin to accept food science when it has a tangible benefit in their daily lives. This is how we need to present the science of agriculture to the consuming public.

By Gary Truitt