Agate commentary & Interview with Jim Almendinger
It’s curious how the phrase “trust the science” whirls like an eddy in the public sphere, coming around periodically as if it were a new concept. Whether or not we profess to trust it, the knowledge gained by science underlies countless daily aspects of our lives, from turning on a light, to drinking water from the tap, to having surgery, to outsmarting diseases that would otherwise devastate food crops and shorten lives.
Is it infallible? No. Have insights gained by science moved society forward in remarkable ways? Yes.
Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon in July of 1969 opened the eyes of a generation to what science could do. That same generation saw medical research spur legislative action on required cigarette labeling. In 1965, the required labels read “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.” By 1969, the law called for stronger language: “Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health.”
Getting from the inconclusive “may” in ‘64 to the declarative “is” in ‘69 was no less a leap for humankind than Armstrong’s. This particular leap was not due to compelling new scientific evidence unearthed in the interim. According to the CDC, more than 7,000 articles relating smoking and disease were already present in the biomedical literature in 1964. The pace of progress in cigarette labeling (like the pace of progress addressing climate change) was less about science than it was about political will and industry pushback.
It’s clear why a corporation would call the science into question when facing potential lawsuits or as a delay tactic to eke out more profits when even their own internal investigators have shown the science to be valid. It’s less clear, and more nuanced, why any given individual or subset of the general public would distrust science. It’s a topic that the Pew Research Center has studied in depth, which in itself represents a darkly funny conundrum, depending on where one falls on the trust/distrust research spectrum.
To a certain extent, having a healthy distrust is just critical thinking, when it’s part of a process of evaluating information. But if society at large were to operate with a default position of distrust in science that simply ends there, we’ll never get to debate and resolve our actual differences on the issues. We’ll be cutting ourselves off from the very information we need—the best knowledge available—to navigate our shared future for the benefit of people and the planet.
Interviewed by the Harvard Gazette about her book Why Trust Science, author Naomi Oreskes recalls prepping for a TED talk and forming her opinion that, in making the case to the public, “It wasn’t about trusting scientists; it was about trusting science as a process, an enterprise, or an activity.”
Trouble is, I’m not sure that’s how humans work. The rigors of the scientific method are no doubt at the core of why a reasonable person might be inclined to give credence to research findings. But trust?
When I hear about people doubting the science, whether it is climate science or the science underlying public health initiatives or environmental protections, I invariably think about the scientists I have met. In the course of my own career as a science writer, I have been fortunate to interview dozens of scientists, including but not limited to ecologists, glacial geologists, wildlife biologists, limnologists, chemists and molecular biologists. They’ve ranged from field researchers who put tiny backpacks on migratory songbirds to laboratory-based researchers like Peter Agre, who received a Nobel prize in chemistry for his discovery of aquaporins, offering insight into a host of diseases and related clinical therapies. Paleontologist Bruce Erickson unearthed dinosaurs, led expeditions around the world and described 19 new taxa for the scientific record. His studies of ancient crocodiles, alligators, turtles and birds resulted in whole new branches on earth’s known “tree of life.” Others have been engineers and innovators, such as Earl Bakken, inventor of the first battery operated, transistorized, wearable external pacemaker. Somewhere in the course of the hours-long, wide-ranging interview with Bakken, he memorably noted that we human beings possess neural tissue not only in the brain but in our hearts and gut, which he said offered new meaning to the expressions “going with your heart” and “making gut decisions.”
While representing many areas of science, scientists I’ve interviewed have had one thing in common. To a person, however accomplished in their field, they have given measured assessments of their research findings, careful not to overstate any conclusions to be drawn. They have said, in effect, “Here is what my work thus far leads me to believe, and this is the next thing I hope to learn.” Refreshingly —and ironically—these people whose profession is devoted to proving things come across, in person, as having nothing to prove. Rather, they’re enthusiastic, with an appreciation for complexity and an openness to insight yet to be gained. As people, they might wish for a quick and definitive result that culminates in a brilliant, irrefutable conclusion. But as scientists, they’ve signed on willingly to a lifetime beholden to the scientific process of winnowing and refining knowledge over time, their own work building on and made better by the work of their colleagues.
Digging back into transcripts from decades of interviews, I rediscovered a 2002 conversation with Dr. Jim Almendinger, scientist (and later, Director) of the St. Croix Watershed Research Station in Marine, MN. I share the following excerpt by way of example, inviting Agate’s readers to the table to listen in and consider what we mean—and who we mean—when we talk about science. I, for one, welcome the idea of society guided in its decisions by scientific evidence, as assembled and interpreted by scientists like Almendinger around the globe: scientists who persevere in their often solitary work, mindful of their role in the scientific community, past and present. With a nod to Earl Bakken, I’d say that trust happens when our brains, hearts and gut are all in agreement.
[The following is excerpted from a June, 2002 interview of scientist Dr. Jim Almendinger by Laurie Allmann at the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, Marine on St. Croix, MN]
LA: If scientists were a subspecies, how would you describe them as being different from the general population of humans?
Almendinger: I think one fundamental trait of scientists that is different from a lot of people in society is that they see—try to see—more than one cause for the things they observe, more than one answer to a problem. It’s the job of a scientist to come up with multiple hypotheses to explain the same phenomenon that they’re observing. So, in some ways, one of our traits is to breed confusion, because, instead of saying “it’s this way,” we say “well, it could be A, or B or C or maybe even D. And then, of course, the next trait is to systematically try to eliminate those hypotheses that are not correct. You’re always trying to distinguish between what’s feasible and what’s not, what could be true. That sort of skepticism—that ability to juggle many different possibilities at the same time and to envision them all as being viable solutions—is a trait that takes some practice. Because I think that humans in general want to have something cut and dried, clear and easy, while scientists train themselves to not want that simplicity.
LA: Do you think that’s one of the things that makes it difficult for science to function in policy and government circles: that reluctance of scientists to state cause and effect?
Almendinger: Absolutely. It’s hard. Because they’re too honest. I don’t know if they’re more honest than the general public as a whole, but if you are dishonest in science, you will get caught, because it’s a peer review process: a kind of self-regulating body. Somebody will find that you didn’t observe this correctly, even if you thought you had and honestly gave the results that you thought were true, your mistakes will get caught—and dishonesties will get caught— eventually. There’s a realization that you can’t pull the wool over people’s eyes, partially because we’re dealing with objective nature, too. That’s why others can replicate what you do and see whether what you did was correct or incorrect.
LA: So, a scientist would be more comfortable saying, “the body of evidence leads us to suggest that this would be a good policy.”
Almendinger: That’s right, or they will say “We know it’s not this, because we’ve tested that.” They can eliminate possibilities, but usually giving an answer in the affirmative is difficult. Giving the one thing that they think is the true answer is difficult.
LA: And, scientists, it’s not that they’re humble people, it’s just that they know that they’re going to get caught?
Almendinger: They’re not all humble, that’s true. That’s a fair statement. I think that the range of arrogance to humility spans the spectrum as you’d expect.
LA: Other traits of the subspecies?
Almendinger: Attention to detail and systematic observation. I think also, there’s a sense that what you do is maybe your mark on the world. I mean, your sense of mortality is translated into your work. You’re leaving behind a written documentation, a trail of what you’ve done and those are things that will be in the literature forever, assuming we don’t lose records. Those are the hard evidence that scientists leave behind that they ever lived: their papers. Documentation of who they are and what they thought–like all writers, really.
LA: So what motivates you?
Almendinger: I want to feel as though I’m improving every day. And science is at least a path that has a progression to it. You learn new skills all the time. Each new project brings something else that you’re learning. So I guess I feel that I’m always adding to my toolbox and I can’t see that ending except of course when I forget the tools that I used to know because I’m too old and my mind only has so many slots in it and I start popping the old things out as I put the the new things in. (laughing). But in theory, it allows a lifelong progression of intellectual improvement…understanding things better and, I think, for me that’s the primary motivation for why I like science.
LA: Can you give me an overview of your focus, your specialization?
Almendinger: I started out in plant ecology, in botany, in wetland ecology. Then I split off to do climate work and hydrology because I found it more interesting. It was more quantitative, and I wanted to get more quantitative skills. I also felt that studying water was something that was of global application. I can apply the work I learn in groundwater, hydrology, and water chemistry anywhere in the world. Water is pretty universal. Plus, it’s aesthetically pleasing to me; some of the math of the groundwater flow equations give beautiful patterns. To see these pop up on the computer screen is perhaps as aesthetic as I can get. And then, to apply those tools now to environmental problems—working on land-water interactions, human impacts on watersheds—hydrology is the tool that allows us to do those things.
LA: What do you think people would be surprised to understand about ground water?
Almendinger: I think source areas: people don’t know where the water comes from. I think they think it’s either ancient water or water that’s come from very far away. And it’s not, necessarily. It’s water that’s probably coming from the local landscape, that’s soaked through the ground. It may take decades to get down there and to move, but it’s still pretty local. And times of travel: they don’t understand how long groundwater has been in the ground. Some people think of it as being an underground river that started at point A yesterday and is flowing past my well today. Or, they think it’s thousands of years old. But it’s much more dynamic than that. Typically, the first couple hundred feet of aquifers generally in this part of the county [Washington] have water that is decades to hundreds of years old, but not thousands of years old, not typically, not until you get deeper.
LA: When you say “years old,” you mean “since it was on the surface?”
Almendinger: Yes. So, you have aquifers that are contaminated with agricultural pollution that’s occurred in the last 50 years. Nitrates, typically. A lot of agricultural pollutants get filtered out, absorbed by the soil particles in the upper soil zones, but some of them get right through.
LA: So, if you’re saying hundreds of years as being at the outer edge of when that water was on the surface, someone with a well might be interested to look at what land use was over the last couple of hundred years on their property.
Almendinger: Sure. And to a geologist, that seems like a short period of time. And if you want to talk about cleaning up an aquifer, it could take decades for it to clean up, just because it’s going to take that long for water to flush through the aquifer.
LA: It’s interesting, what people think of as “a long time.” I’ve been stunned at meetings where they say they’re doing long-range planning and they’re talking…
Almendinger: …Is that five years?
LA: Spend any time even imagining the glaciers, and five years starts to seem like…
Almendinger: It’s nothing. It is nothing. And yet you look at the way a lot of planning goes on in this country, and free-market force planning, what determines what businesses do. I’m very skeptical that free-market forces are the proper way of planning for the way we use natural resources in this country, as much as there are those who would like to say that has always worked and it will always work in the future.
LA: Those two things that you’ve talked about seem to be key to a scientific understanding of the world—a discomfort with making affirmative statements—this is or is not true—and this notion of what is a long time.
Almendinger: I think it’s impossible for scientists, relatively impossible for me, at least, to look at a problem and not extrapolate it into the long term, or some sort of steady state condition. That’s why scientists are concerned about sustainability of agriculture. I mean, things work okay now, but will they always work for the next ten generations? For the next hundred, two hundred years? Thousands of years?
LA: You’ve worked out the trends, you know it’s not.
Almendinger: Right. But we’re accused of being Malthusians when we put forth those arguments. People have had doomsday predictions about the collapse of the world ecology for generations. Elephants have not overpopulated the earth as Malthus said could be predicted by reproductive rates. I still don’t see that as an argument that you ignore the finite limits of the earth.
LA: Do you still get a sense of discovery in your work?
Almendinger: It doesn’t come often enough, sometimes, for me. It’s hard to remind oneself that all this data collection someday will give you really interesting results when you get time to look at it. I mean, that’s the hard part, one of the difficult parts of science, is that there is so much drudgery, if you will, in data compilation, and it’s important to keep reminding oneself that, “I need this, I’m going to look at it in the future, and when I look at it, then I’ll see the patterns. And seeing the patterns: you’re always looking for patterns, and that schools your intuition. It guides a lot of what you do. It’s a very intuitive thing. Now in the end, of course, you can’t rely on intuition. You have to quantify things and demonstrate what you think is occurring by rigorously applying some standards and statistics to it. But I think most scientists see the patterns themselves before they have proven it statistically that it’s true.
LA: So they perceive this pattern and then they see if they’re right.
Almendinger: Yeah, you have to follow your nose. Part of science is finding the story.
LA: Let’s talk about the St. Croix River for a little bit. I think, when people look at the river, they all see different things based on their experiences and knowledge and time with the river. When you look at the river, what do you think? What do you see?
Almendinger: It’s the terminal flow point for a lot of groundwater flowing all up and down its length. It’s the point of discharge—a regional point of discharge for most of the aquifers around here. It gets everything we put into it. All we do on the landscape gets eventually flushed into the river.
LA: So you would tend to see a river as an end point.
Almendinger: Yes. It’s the bearer of the burden of the watershed activities.
LA: Where would you put the boundaries around the St. Croix? How big is that beast, if you look at it as an entity?
Almendinger: 20,000 square kilometers—or a little over 7,700 square miles; that’s the basin size of the St. Croix. That’s the surficial watershed. There is a groundwater-shed that may or may not be the same size, that being the area of aquifer that contributes to a river. It’s probably close to being the same size. The larger the river you have, the more likely the groundwater-shed and surface watershed coincide.
LA: Other ways you look at the St. Croix?
Almendinger: I also view it as an historical archive: leastways, given the sediment record in Lake St. Croix. We’re fortunate in having river-lakes in Minnesota that provide a depositional basin where we can interpret past histories. I like, of course, to see things in some sort of historical context, some sort of long period of time to say, how does this river differ now from in the past? What did it look like before European settlers got here? And the St. Croix has that record in Lake St. Croix, which is tremendously useful for trying to understand how the river got to where it is today and how future impacts might change it. Lake sediment will give you a movie of what was going on in the past; a series of snapshots that, laid out in a line and flipped through, give you a moving picture of what the river was like.
LA: Is it hard to explain to people what you do? Do you have a bit of a sense of operating in a different world, because of your work?
Almendinger: I don’t know that it’s a different world. I guess there is a sense to me that it’s difficult for society at large to understand how science works, and their expectations of science are different than what we can deliver. They want concrete answers and we can’t give them concrete answers, typically. I think we give good answers. I think we give honest answers. But they’re usually not concrete.
LA: Yet, people think science is where you get that: concrete answers.
Almendinger: Well, and partially, that drives scientists. I think we have an underlying sense that the world is interpretable, that it works in some way that we can understand at some level, bit by bit. We’ll never interpret all of it but we believe that there is an objective answer to explain the things that we’re seeing. That it’s not just subjective. That there is something that, if we work on it hard enough together, and come at it from different angles, that we’ll come up with the same answer. That there is an objective reality that we’re interpreting. And that’s why science can’t answer certain questions dealing with subjects that are not objective. Aesthetics and religion being among them. I don’t think they conflict because we’re dealing with different worlds. Science is dealing with the phenomenological world, the objective world that we can see and sense and you hope that, if you work hard enough at it, you come up with some insight that approaches an absolutism, that will last forever. Like the law of gravity or the theory of relativity, one of these things that explains a great deal in an elegant, simplistic, or simple, sense that ties together and explains a lot of what you see. And when you reach that point, which most of us never will—I’m never going to discover a law, like the law of gravitation, that seems to hold over most times and spatial scales—but it’s like touching something that’s really absolute or infinite. And that’s almost a religious aspect of science: our chance to see something that is incontrovertible. Even though, of course, in the day-to-day reality of science, we are never getting to the incontrovertible state; all we can see is that our interpretation is the best one we can come up with right now, and we can see alternatives. But the goal…that’s not the right word…the assumption is that there is an objective reality that we can say something about. And that that objective reality is not going to change over the ages, it’s going to be something that will last.
LA: That touching point between science and religion. Is that the line between the knowable and the unknowable?
Almendinger: I don’t know about that because I think there are some things that are knowable, like these mathematical laws that govern the way matter behaves. Those things are, in theory, potentially knowable, with high degrees of accuracy, progressive degrees of accuracy. Maybe it is the interface between the two, because you can’t get beyond that. That’s as much as we can possibly get with science, I think, some mathematical description about the way things work that will be supported time and again by observations over the next however many years people will be observing these things. That is probably as far as science can go and as absolute as it can get. The difference between the secular and the religious: secular means things that vary over time, of course, and religious meaning things that supposedly are absolute, that do not change. The timelessness of God, so to speak. So that is the world of absolutes, and science can only butt up against it but not cross that line.
LA: But science operates with the understanding that there is an absolute, even if it doesn’t get there? We might not touch it, but it’s there.
Almendinger: I think the assumption, yes, that there’s an objective reality that we’re investigating. And, of course, that’s what keeps science interesting. You keep plugging away, chipping away, and there’s always room for more.
LA: And that’s what keeps your ear perked and your eye paying attention to your work?
Almendinger: The feeling that you’re contributing to a continual progression toward the knowable.
Jim Almendinger is a former Director of the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, which is the environmental research institute of the Science Museum of Minnesota. Jim received a B.A. in botany from Ohio Wesleyan University and a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Minnesota. After several years doing post-doctoral work in Alaska and Sweden and working as a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, he joined the Research Station in December 1995. He currently holds adjunct professorships in several departments at the University of Minnesota, notably Earth Sciences and Water Resources Science. His research interests focus on land-water interactions, including the hydrology of lakes, streams, and wetlands; the impact of humans on watersheds; and the hydrologic effects of climate change. His expertise is with a variety of hydrologic computer models, including groundwater, watershed, and geochemical models.