Nakala was only four months old, a chubby and cherubic baby, when I saw her that summer for a routine check up at our pediatric clinic in Flint. Her mom Grace told me she was going to stop breastfeeding. That didn’t surprise me. I tried to convince her otherwise, but for young moms in Flint, it’s often regarded as a complicated hassle — and hard to do when you’re struggling to hold down a job.
Grace planned to mix powdered formula with tap water for Nakala. She asked me pointedly if the Flint water was okay for that.
“Sure,” I said without hesitation. “Don’t waste your money on bottled water.”
It was August, 2015. I’d heard some news reports of citizen protests about the drinking water; it had become background noise. As a pediatrician, all I had to go on, besides the fact that it was twenty-first century America, was what the other experts, the scientists who worked for the state, had to say.
And they were adamant. Oh yes. They were cocksure and confident — repeatedly issuing statements that there was no room for doubt. The tap water in Flint was fine. The mayor had even gone on TV, turned on a Flint faucet — and drank some.
What is science for?
Scientists like to talk about what they are “solving for” in their work. In classrooms all over the world, students are told that the purpose of science is “explaining and predicting our world.”
Is that enough?
I don’t think so. Not after what I discovered that summer in 2015. Explaining the world isn’t enough. Predicting isn’t either. In my book about the Flint water crisis, What the Eyes Don’t See, I share the story of how the most egregious present-day example of science denial unfolded — and how the government scientists knew that a powerful neurotoxic, lead, was present in the Flint water for months, but did nothing. Instead, they hoped their expertise and titles would shield their lies from being exposed. In Flint, ignoring science led to the poisoning of an entire city’s water system.
It pains me that so many of the people who should have been looking out for the children of Flint, but who failed them instead, were scientists: doctors, epidemiologists and engineers. I know it seems an exaggeration to compare what happened in Michigan to something as terrible as the Nazi doctors who participated in the Holocaust, or the scientists involved in Tuskegee syphilis study, or the military psychiatrists who participated in torture.
But is it all that different?
Our children cannot afford to have science and scientists shut their eyes, look away, and stay silent to injustices.
Solving for human progress
In What the Eyes Don’t See, I reflect on the work of some groundbreaking scientists — primarily the big troublemakers of public health, Alice Hamilton and John Snow. Rather than going along with consensus or standing on the sidelines, they were passionately involved in their communities. Their work wasn’t about abstract scientific discovery alone. It was about people and community, working in partnership.
That is what science should be about — and what scientists should be solving for. It isn’t just an academic exercise for the ivory tower, to rack up publications, grants, and offers of tenure. Sure, being able to increase our understanding of the world around us is essential. And making better predictions is crucial. Without question, scientific advances are a foundation of modern civilization and economy. But as twentieth-century history illustrates so well, scientific advances aren’t limited to wonders such as antibiotics. It also includes such evils as nuclear weapons. The consequences of advances in science, and the application of technology, cannot be divorced from scientific discovery.
Discoveries alone aren’t enough. Science should be solving for human progress. The promise of science is how people and communities – and the environment – benefit from scientific inquiry and innovation.
Simply put, the purpose of science must be to do good. And a logical extension is that the paramount mission of all scientists is to be charged with doing good. No matter what articles of faith obstruct the path. No matter how far we have to step from the comfort of classrooms, hospitals, laboratories, and campuses. Scientists must be constructive participants in the communities that we are privileged to serve, and do this in a spirit of humble partnership, walking and working together, shoulder to shoulder.
The point is people
The face of Nakala kept returning to me in the months that passed — throughout the stressful and contentious remainder of 2015, throughout the lawsuits, charges and trials that unfolded after the Flint Water Crisis was exposed.
Nakala’s face still comes to me now, three years later, whenever I’m asked if the tap water in Flint is finally okay to drink.
Speaking science to power should be part of the mission of the doctor, the researcher, the academic — all scientists everywhere. Disrupting the status quo for disruption’s sake alone is not enough. We should be elevating human life and protecting the environment.
Scientific education, be it in medical, engineering, natural or physical science, often misses this point. Graduate schools and scientific organizations tend to educate, and only educate, and wait for others to blow the whistle in the name of public health and the environment.
The point of a science education — any science education — should be about people. And not en masse, as a statistic, but person to person. It should be about benefiting lives, doing good, improving outcomes. There should be more training in communications, public speaking, and policy-making so scientists can be better communicators and advocates of our discoveries and the benefits.
Inclusion and diversity are a critical part of all this, not just as restorative justice, but as a means to connect to the higher purpose of science, which need to benefit more people and more places. The recipients of scientific advances have to extend beyond the rich and white. And the injustices associated with industry and technology must also not fall disproportionately on the poor and brown.
Science was an integral part of what happened in Flint – and is still happening. Ignoring science was a cause of the water crisis. Embracing science was how the fight to reveal the lies and cover-ups was won. And now, it is leading the city to solutions. The emerging science of child development and brain plasticity are helping to build resilience in our kids like Nakala, to buffer the impact of the crisis and create a playbook of hope for children everywhere.
My hope is that Flint will serve as a lesson of the consequences of science denial, and also of the incredible power that science and scientists hold – in beakers and at the bedside – to be catalysts for good.