t night, tired from the walk up, I am wandering in and out of sleep in my small tent pitched under trees next to a shallow lake. I try to listen attentively to my two hiking mates, Tim and Eric, while they look out at the night sky, using phone apps to identify different stars, constellations and nebulae.
When they say the international space station will pass overhead in exactly two minutes, it does just that, making an arc of dim light across the darkening sky.
It’s hard to imagine men and women working up there, in little tubes throttling around the Earth. On a different day, I might remark to myself on this achievement of mankind; one of science, math, engineering, systems and institutions.
But actually, in my last moments awake, I am pondering why I am so surprised to hear these two grown men talking about the stars; exchanging a shared passion for observed science.
I am surprised, even taken aback, when adults appear to be at ease discussing the natural world. I can hear that passion on NPR’s Science Friday, or in a David Quammen book or a BBC documentary, but something about it feels unfamiliar when I observe it among friends.
I tried to get into Oregon’s Jefferson Park wilderness for the past couple years, but climate kept getting in the way – first forest wildfires, then a snowpack that lasted into late August, and then wildfires again.
The wildfires last year ravaged the main trails into the area, closing them until future restorations. You can still access the Jefferson Park wilderness on the Pacific Crest Trail, the route which we took to get here, but the whole way up offers views into those blackened canyons.
There were nearly 2,000 wildfires in Oregon last year, burning an area the size of Rhode Island. The largest of the fires surrounding Jefferson Park, the Whitewater fire, burned thousands of acres of mountain canyon, rendering views of bare trees for much of the entire walk up into the Jefferson Park wilderness.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means, or what it should mean, to be outside and to see, and witness the evidence of these events, and how we should consume the information that we see with our own eyes. This seems to be the year when people have taken notice of the increasing weather events around the world; a key sea change in the battle for the world’s understanding of climate change has occurred because people are connecting dots from personal observation.
Earlier this summer, a family guest admitted that he didn’t believe in climate change science. Since he was intelligent and thoughtful, how was this possible?
It turns out that he had formed his opinion on climate change after reading State of Fear, a case against climate change costumed as a science fiction thriller by the Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton. Leary of the science behind climate change, our guest said: everybody is trying to sell me something.
I wrote him back with a detailed explanation of why State of Fear was a work of pseudoscience and antiscience, and therefore the very worst sort of place to get information on climate change. But all summer, I was bothered by the realization of how common it was to find my very own adult friends getting sucked into alternatives to science on all sorts of questions that should only be addressed by science.
In my explanation, I talked about how I consume science media, how I learn to differentiate between high and low quality science journalism. But my answer bothered me as being incomplete, and our guest’s retort: everybody is trying to sell me something kept stewing in the back of my mind.