An edited sign on a Portland storefront door tells customers they must wear a mask on Sunday Jan. 10, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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“Trust the science.”

That has been a mantra for the past two years. It’s a good one. Unfortunately, over the past several years, the concept has been politicized. During the presidency of Donald Trump, yard signs popped up outlining a modern creed. One of statements of belief avowed “science is real.”  

Of course it is.

But that is one of those phrases that sounds like some deep thought from a wise philosopher, yet is probably a better opener for  a Jack Handey quip.  

High school English teachers will tell you that “science” is a noun. They are correct. But high school science teachers will tell you “science” is a process, and could probably be a verb, regardless of what those Shakespeare quibblers have to say.  

They’d be correct, too.

Because it is a process, “science” is not some static monolith. Over a century ago, scientific consensus on the nature of the Earth lied with the “fixists,” who believed that our terra firma was fixed in place.  

Others spent decades challenging this, advancing a theory of “continental drift.” Ultimately, today, we operate with an understanding of tectonic plates. This gives us greater insights into our world, from earthquakes to volcanoes and tsunamis.  

Everyone was “trusting the science.” Yet, utilizing the scientific process, people reached different conclusions. Our understanding changed.

We live with the heritage of science past today. Decades ago, science told us that using “biosolids” – or sludge – was a wonderful way to return waste products to soils to help restore nutrients lost in agriculture. So thousands of Maine farms received permits to spread the “black gold.”  

Now, however, the science tells us that those applications may have added PFAS to the land. Which, like countless other things, has been linked to health issues. That has created major issues for several Maine farms, and certainly created anxiety for countless Mainers who want to buy locally.

Of course, if you have a water-resistant jacket or non-stick cookware, there is a high likelihood you are exposing yourself to PFAS every day. They are believed to be in the blood of nearly every American. 

During the Obama Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency’s analysis indicated that corn ethanol production would have 21 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. In 2019, a study concluded that the EPA’s 2010 was too conservative; corn-based ethanol had a 39 percent lower “carbon intensity” than gasoline. The science indicated that farming corn to make fuel was an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. Right?

Maybe not.  A different study released this past Monday concluded that – once feedback and follow-on effects are assessed – our corn ethanol policy is, in fact, 24 percent more “carbon-intensive” than gasoline.  

Trust the science.

At the start of the pandemic, the science indicated that mask-wearing was not advisable. By April 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was reconsidering that advice, because they re-reviewed the data and reached a different conclusion.

Now, in schools, the science around requiring students to wear masks – to help control viral spread –  is unclear. There are scientific studies that show continued mask use hinders language acquisition in children by preventing them from lip-reading, and possibly slows social development by reducing the ability to recognize emotional cues.      

There are some studies that show universal pre-K is a huge opportunity for children to get ahead. Trust the science. Yet a new study of nearly 3,000 Tennessee children showed that – by sixth grade, as a group – those students who attended pre-kindergarten were doing worse than their peers. Trust the science.

When it comes to policymaking, we should trust the science. But the science can tell you a lot of different things, whether contradictory or simply highlighting the tradeoffs inherent in every decision we make.

But whether it is biosolids, mask usage, pre-k, or ethanol, scientific insights will almost certainly change. It is incumbent on officials to consider changing with it.

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Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.