When you think about it — and I’ve been thinking about this since I landed in Baltimore with the tall ships and the nation’s bicentennial — two realms of science hold prominent places in the regional conscience: medical, because of the abundance of research that takes place here, and environmental, because of the Chesapeake Bay and the high-profile, decadeslong efforts to reverse its decline.
Those are constants in this culture, big and important parts of the region’s identity.
The Johns Hopkins medical institutions and those at the University of Maryland frequently make news and are generally held in great esteem. They’re a source of pride.
It has been a career privilege for me to interview men and women in lab coats, Maryland-based doctors and scientists, and so many of them: Nobel Prize winners Carol Greider, a professor of molecular biology, and Dr. Peter Agre, a professor of biological chemistry, both at Hopkins; Dr. Alfred Sommer, former dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose research of Vitamin A saved millions of children from blindness and death; Dr. Robert Gallo, the co-discoverer of the virus that causes AIDS, now director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland; Dr. Ben Carson, back in his “Gifted Hands” days as a pediatric neurosurgeon; Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, the Mexican immigrant who started his career as a brain surgeon at Hopkins; Dr. Thomas Scalea, the physician-in-chief of the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center; and Dr. Leana Wen, during her time as Baltimore health commissioner.
The list is long, and includes three other city health commissioners, psychiatrists, cardiologists and pioneering oncologists.
I was able to interview all of these brilliant people in person because they all lived here. The goal was to gain an understanding of the work they did and its relevance to our lives. And my decision to interview them stemmed from a basic belief: Doctors and scientists know a lot more than I do. They are not always right, but say so when they are not sure. They ask the big questions and look for the best answers. Their work saves lives. It broadens our knowledge. It warns us about dangers.
When you think about it, we in Baltimore are surrounded by men and women of science.
On the environmental side, the Chesapeake Bay is one, long case study in post-industrial environmental remediation. All efforts at preserving waterways and natural habitat, against the crush of population growth, flow to it. We are frequently reminded, either with environmental report cards or predictions of the crab harvest, of the bay’s status.
From the first time I saw “Chesapeake Bay drainage” stenciled on storm drain openings, I’ve always felt people who live in this region are more actively conscious of environmental issues than are Americans in other huge swaths of the country. The rockfish harvest moratorium of 1985-1990 convinced me that science and common sense guided decision-makers here, and that the bay could be saved. I maintained that view for years, even when the “smart growth” initiative of the 1990s hit resistance in the suburbs, and even after Larry Hogan ran successfully for governor in 2014 with his disingenuous campaign against the “rain tax,” the push to stem the flow of filthy, life-stifling stormwater into bay tributaries.
I still think of us as more environmentally conscious than people in other parts of the country because, despite the economics and politics, the Chesapeake remains a vast research project.
At the foundation of what we know about the bay are fisheries biologists, wetlands ecologists, hydrologists, men and women who study land use, nutrient cycling, climate change and biodiversity.
Watermen and crabbers have their own understandings of the bay’s condition, but they speak from self-interest. The environmentalist has an agenda, too. We count on scientists, preferably those who work in government or universities — and not the corporate sector — to provide objective diagnoses of the bay’s problems and strategies for solving them.
Of course, we don’t always listen to them, and that’s why the bay still has loads of problems.
If you were under the impression that the American promise included steady advancement of knowledge, respect for science and steady progress toward a better country, you’ve been living in a state of shock these last few years and absolute despair these last few months.
Ignorance and anti-science have bigger-than-ever voices. For those of us who grew up believing science saved lives, it’s been shocking to hear those ignorant voices, starting with the one that occupies the nation’s bully pulpit, Donald Trump.
The president has fought efforts to stem climate change, and now he and his White House advisers are attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci to undermine the nation’s leading infectious disease expert in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Fauci made some mistakes during the crisis, and he should have been speaking in a louder, clearer voice from the start. But whatever errors he made, they pale next to Trump’s ignorant statements and dereliction of duty.
I still trust a doctor informed by medical science over a chronic liar who tweets conspiracy theories. But that’s me. Fortunately, that’s a lot of Americans, even most Americans, particularly those of us who live in places where science is a point of pride.
The problem is with those who dismiss experts and think wearing a mask is a sign of weakness, not wisdom. That’s a condition for which the best science might not have a cure for years to come.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dan Rodricks is a long-time columnist for The Baltimore Sun.
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