Science policy scholars huddled in brownstone buildings, occasionally on the verge of hyperventilation, frequently express disbelief that firemen are more admired and respected than professional scientists, especially in the United States. This lament is frequently accompanied by discussions of policy gridlock related to climate science. These scholars seem to disregard the following characteristics of firefighting when they poo-poo the public’s ignorance and lack of respect for evidence, facticity, and advice.
1) Firefighters are in some sense professional scientists, of the “applied” variety. How would firemen save houses and victims from an inferno without understanding through a collective act of research and investigation what is the likely trajectory of the winds, the impact of chemical suppressants and water, etc.? When fire crews announce the inferno 80% contained, this is considered credible partly because onlookers can see less pointy red flames and smoke when they drive by on the freeway.
2) Firefighters respond regardless of what caused the fire. This is universally respected because everyone knows fire is hot. Fire is hot and dangerous. When you see a cigarette butt burning on a pile of loose mulch, you stomp on it out of civic duty. There is a civil allegiance the public can feel for firefighters. Do other professional scientists deserve more empathy, more sympathy?
3) The fires are not predicted in the future. They happen in the present, and often they happened in the past and have grown beyond control. In the words of a famous science policy writer, this is a form of “tornado politics” where everyone with eyes can agree something must be done, regardless of its likely or rumored causes. Firemen are tornado politicians, uncomplicated in their aspect. We appreciate their matter-of-fact agenda for its clarity.
4) If a fire is small but dangerous, capable of growing to a raging beast, there are procedures for containment. Firefighters take care of this with scientific precision, despite the common knowledge that wind conditions and precipitation patterns can shift on a dime, chaotically and without notice. There are further procedures for responding to forces of nature that extend beyond the powers of firefighters. There are strategies for fire mitigation that presuppose nature’s eventual cooperation. This produces a quality of perseverence that people find appealing. Firemen have this quality of perseverence in the face of chaos and heroic obstacles.
5) Firemen do not rant about their lack of perceived honor. When they take the podium they possess an unmistakable gait, beyond any capacity for fabrication or embellishment. Their credentials and evidence are written in the lines of their face. There is ax-handled passion fighting alongside intellect and tribal allegiance when fires are doused and outsmarted. Honor, respect, and admiration are communicated through narratives of fires fought.
6) No professional scientist operating without bias would withhold admiration and respect for firefighters.
As a result of these considerations — and there are more besides these — science policy scholars must needs face up to the realities of both human culture and contemporary science policy. Despite the tremendous difficulties these professional scientists face when communicating to the public and acting on chaotic ecosystems, whiners will typically score lower on the respect and admiration index than the smoke-streaked faces of male and female firefighters.
The contrast couldn’t be clearer. The firefighter vs. the de-territorialized polar bear. The domestic inferno vs. the wilderness imperilled.
This is the no-spin zone. You decide.