Fan Mail and A Few Thoughts About Science’s Role in Society

A few weeks ago, a letter arrived in our mailbox here at Hasler Lab from a reader of this blog. It was … not the most positive message. In fact, it stopped just short of “mean Tweet” territory. Here, in its entirety, is the letter:

 It seems to me that your blog is no different

than someone standing on the shore

explaining to bystanders why someone in

the water is drowning.


Yours truly,

A resident who is sick of all the studies with

no better water quality.

Before we get to our response, let’s take a moment to appreciate the poetic, near-Haiku like beauty of this message. The line breaks! The imagery! It’s fantastic.

And, let us also say that we were thrilled to get mail from a reader of this blog. People really are reading this thing!

We, of course, always respond to our fan mail. So here goes.

Dear Anonymous, (actually they left a return address and name on the envelope, but we’ll protect their privacy here)

Thank you for reading our blog and for your recent message. You may be surprised to learn that we completely agree.

We, too, are tired of the same old story of poor lake water quality. Photo: David Tenenbaum, UW-Madison

We, too, are sick of the fact that our water quality seems stubbornly stuck at “poor.” And we, too, often feel like this blog is a lot like standing on shore and pointing out all the problems in our lakes.

The thing is, this is less a reflection of our work and more a reflection of the crucial role science plays in society. To use a wonderful quote from Victor Hugo (also the title of an amazing science blog), “Science says the first word on everything, and the last word on nothing.”

Yes, science can tell us about the current state of our lakes and explain how they got that way and offer suggestions for how we head in a different direction. But that’s where science stops. It rarely gets the final say. It’s up to society to take it from there. Policymakers, resource managers, business leaders and (perhaps the biggest agent of change) concerned citizens, are the actors that then get involved.

When it comes to informed decision making, science provides the info. Society makes the decision.

We’ve seen this play out over the years in the waters of Wisconsin (and all over the world). Science about phosphorus leading to algae blooms led to the removal of phosphorus in lawn fertilizers (a good step but, as we often point out in this blog, one that only addressed a fraction of the mostly agricultural issue). Science about plastic microbeads in cosmetics led to the ban of their use in such products. And, more recently, science about road salt pollution led to the City of Madison taking major steps to limit its use.

Science, of course, didn’t make these policies. And, many would argue (and the science often confirms), these policies don’t go far enough to protect our incredible freshwater resources. But, that isn’t up for science to decide.

Science can point to solutions for problems, but rarely gets to make the decisions. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

We are firm believers that science is a powerful tool developed by humans to better understand this world. We are also firm believers that science has its own limits and shortcomings and a fraught history that is only now beginning to be reckoned with.

But that’s a blog post (or several) for another day. The point of this post is that knowing the consequence of your actions and deciding which actions to take are two different things.

Science can be one tool to use when making decisions and, we’d argue, it’s a pretty good one. But it’s not the only one and, as much as we’d love to be in charge of all the decisions that get made that impact the incredible waters of our world, that’s not how it works. (And probably not how it should work!)

So, while we appreciate your letter, it might serve a better use being sent to your state legislator or city alderperson. And, if that doesn’t feel like enough, join your local lake association or become a member of a local non-profit working to improve our lakes. Become part of the machine that makes change – an engaged and informed citizenry. We’ll be here, trying our best to add more members of the public to that category. But you’ve got to take it from here.

All that said, we hear you – and we will do our best to reflect solutions in our blog, not just problems. In fact, your letter inspired us to seek out some freshwater success stories – they do exist, even here in Wisconsin! So, please, keep reading. We promise it won’t all be bad news.


Your friends at the CFL