Path to Mars #976: Be Your Own Transparent Hero

Brush up on your space politics this week in Ottawa

Let’s be honest.

It isn’t always easy for scientists to tell the truth. Sometimes it takes a whole lot of courage to report findings that just don’t fit into the status quo. But without the moxy of the brave few willing to point out that the earth revolves around the sun, or that orbits are in fact elliptical, where would we be but in the dark?

It’s easy to put the label of hero on a handful of brave discoverers, but the fact is, without the support of a mountain of other folks, lies would have been pushed forward. Cover-ups would have continued. Scientists would have been gagged.

Let’s be really honest. Scientists are being muzzled to this very day. Canada’s science superhero, David Suzuki, has something to say on the matter.

Last September, the head of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, which represents science journalists, spoke out against the “unacceptable political interference” in how government science is communicated. Now, everything federal scientists say to the media must be approved by political staff. They are not allowed to deviate from approved “media lines”

Now does that sound like very nice behaviour to you? Do we really think humanity can get to Mars with a system like that in play? It doesn’t take a political animal to sniff out that train wreck.

So what can we do? When I am looking at a design challenge, I like to start wide, and look at the big picture before moving to the specifics. So let’s follow that model.

Here’s the big picture.

From November 16-18, the 3rd Canadian Science Policy Conference is being held in Ottawa at the Ottawa Convention Centre. If you can, go. Their suggested “who should attend” list involves the following:

  • researchers across all sectors
  • industrial R&D managers and senior management from the private sector
  • government policy-makers (federal, territorial, provincial, and local)
  • research granting agencies and funding bodies
  • non-governmental organizations
  • writers and journalists
  • communications and government relations professionals
  • scientific associations
  • students and trainees
  • Transparent Superheros who fight for truth in science [ok, I added that one. It means YOU. I am a big fan of crashing conferences, and not just for the free refreshments.]

If you are unfamiliar with policy and science, this sounds like a great place to start. On the agenda are workshops entitled “Science Policy 101” and “Global implications of Open and Inclusive Innovation”. Yummy!

If you can’t make the conference, you can stay informed of science policy news by checking in with the Canadian Science Policy Centre’s website. Science Policy is a huge and exciting field. One place to stay informed of controversies in science (fertile grounds for political hot potatoes) is the aptly named Controversies in Science section of the Guardian. If you are the type of person who loves a good political tussle as much as you love science, you might even consider it as a new career path. Many established members of the science policy realm begin as politicians, attorneys, scientists, or journalists. But there is also no good reason a person couldn’t enter the field sideways, as long as you are willing to educate yourself in both areas.

What about the smaller picture in this? How else can we create transparency as a way to foster the type of human spirit that will ultimately be able to get further into the cosmos? Like everything, it’s a case of macrocosm, microcosm. We need to look within.

Before Copernicus could allow the bravery of others to carry his world-changing discoveries forward, he had to trust himself. And that was undoubtably no easy feat.

Since we are being honest today, let’s go all the way with this. We like to think that we have a glorious innate capacity in us to bend toward the truth, but the fact is, humans are rife with self-delusion. Even when we have the best of intentions, we make the wrong choice to convey what we think we know to be true, rather than recording the uncomfortable, embarrassing, messy truths. We fudge, we erase, we squidge the margins or lines until they fit. And in that act of trying to make right, we make wrong. So how can we make right?

We train ourselves. Facing up to uncomfortable truth is like learning a foreign langage for the first time, or learning to skate backwards. If feels weird and very, very uncomfortable. It’s a rather embarrassing process. But it will get you to some amazing places, if you can just keep doing it. As Leonard Cohen says,

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.

Today, I spent some time with grade 3 children learning to observe erosion experiments. They were asked to record what they saw exactly, not what they “knew” should be the right answer. Even if they found a huge rock in what was supposed to be a pile of fine grains, they had to record what was right in front of their eyes. Because it was the truth of the moment.

The experience reminded me of when I first learned to draw. In drawing class, I was taught a basic lesson, which is to draw what you see, not what you think you see. I still find this uncomfortable. When I am painting massive pieces of scenic art close up, nothing makes sense. But I have faced the uncomfortable process enought to know that even if it looks awful close up, from afar it will work.  The audience will be able to put together the blocks of colour and it will make sense from their perspective. As an artist, you must face the truth, put ultimate faith in it, and record it. Then you give it away to the larger audience. Scientists must do the same.

It takes a willingness to step into discomfort. So ask yourself, where are you willing to face up to an uncomfortable truth that you may not fully understand? Where are you willing to lay down the truth, not for the cleanliness of the lines but for the wider understanding of the audience of humanity?

Be brave, because the path to Mars starts with your courage.

Blast off!


About Renate Pohl

Theatre Designer, Space and Stained Glass Artist, Writer.
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