Tomorrow, thousands of people around the world will take to the streets for the March for Science. It’s a strange concept—why is it important to come together and support science? To find out, I sat down with Ocean Conservancy’s President, Andreas Merkl, and asked why ocean science is so important to him, why he’s marching and why a British explorer and a Czech monk are his science heroes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Do you remember a moment as a kid when you thought, “Science is freaking cool! I want to do that”?
There was no epiphany; it was an integrated curiosity that was constantly being fed by my family. My grandfather was an incredible man whose knowledge could tie everything together. He wasn’t just a scientist—even though he was, he was a mathematician, he translated Lord Byron’s works into German, he was a nature historian—he was a true renaissance intellectual.
We would go on these long walks along the Rhine [growing up in Germany], his walking stick always up in the air pointing at things. He would start with the cellular structure of oak tree bark and what a miracle it is and what a miracle it is that osmosis could suck a thousand gallons of water into one tree.
After being exposed to so many scientific disciplines growing up, why did you choose the ocean?
I think there are city people, desert people, mountain people and ocean people. There are also river rats, but river rats and ocean people are usually of a similar group.
I was a river rat to start with because I grew up on the Rhine, but the first books I remember reading were taxonomic books of ocean fish. Of course, every kid that grows up inland who becomes an ocean person has a story of that staggering epiphany when you’re 8 years old and the family station wagon rolls over the dunes to the ocean for the first time; and your mind is blown. Oh my god, if there ever was an epiphany it was that. And it wasn’t a stunning California beach either; it was some crappy beach at the North Sea! But back then, I thought it was paradise.
Who are your scientific heroes?
I have two: Alfred Wallace [of Britain who helped discover evolution] and Gregor Mendel [of the Czech Republic who discovered genetics]. Mendel was closest to the true spirit of science: purely curious, smart, humble and patient. He thought, “Huh…I just bred a white bean plant with a blue bean plant and I didn’t get a light-blue bean plant, I got another blue one. Isn’t that weird?” So this little monk says, “I’m going to figure this out”. Suddenly, a “Huh…” unravels genetics, along with a research design that is so staggeringly cool.
Wallace was the same. He had traveled to Sumatra, Java, Bali and it was all lush tropics; but he gets to Lombok and it’s a desert! So he asks, “Huh… Everything appears the same, so what’s different?” And from that “Huh…” he deduces island geography, and probably ahead of Darwin, evolution.
How have you seen the public view on science change throughout your career, and why do you think public demonstrations are important?
I’ve seen increasing attacks by people whose assets are threatened by systems science, increasing attacks on the principle and validity of objectivity, and the increase of press to accommodate that point of view.
At its core, what we’re saying is that the standard of objectivity remains sacred as ever. The fact there needs to be a demonstration on the streets, 400 years after the invention of the scientific method? To once again defend the principles of objectivity? It’s insane. I mean, it’s unbelievably important, but insane.
Oh by the way, I have a message for the people who say that message adds to the elite image of scientists; that message is [raspberry fart noise]. If there’s one bipartisan line in the sand we have to insist on that is not elite, its objectivity! It is by definition just what it is! Objectivity!
Many young people interested in science are hesitant about pursuing a career because of the decline in science jobs and funding. What’s your advice to them?
Begin with science and see where it takes you. If you start with science and you find it to be your passion, odds are you’re going to get good at it and the money will come. If you get sidetracked, so be it! You’ll find that you’ve learned the importance of objectivity, how to breakdown problems and countless other skills.
I also think the decline is narrowly defined to classic academia. What about Skybox, or Google Earth? I mean, we’re at the beginning of the most profound knowledge revolution EVER and you’re telling me that a good scientific mind won’t find a place in that?! Why that’s ridiculous!
What does it mean to you that Ocean Conservancy is a science-based organization?
EVERYTHING. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. I don’t know of many organizations that understand to the degree we do that the line between science and advocacy is blurring, and you can only be an advocate if you advocate for something.
So what’s that something going to be in the oceans? We really don’t quite know anymore. We could do the safe stuff… overfishing is always bad, pollution is bad, cutting down mangroves is bad; it’s the classic, “The bad man is coming to take it away, let’s stop the bad man” brand of environmentalism, but the sum of all that gets us nowhere with today’s systemic threats. So for us to ask questions like, “how do we put together creative management that is adaptive to the level of change?” is pretty cool.
Why are you supporting the March for Science?
Because it proudly supports the bedrock principle on which a modern enlightened and humane society is founded, which is the existence of a standard of objectivity against which everything else has to be measured: Objective truth. Once you do away with that, we’re thoroughly screwed.