On Monday, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a free presentation by science journalist, New York University professor and author, Dan Fagan. Dan was recently awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for his nonfiction book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation.
Now, I have to admit, I haven’t read the book yet. I’m in the thick of thesis writing, graduate school assistantships, job applications and volunteer activities. I haven’t actually read anything longer than scholarly journal article in probably six months. Luckily, Dan’s presentation was meant for those who were new to the Tom’s River story, and the information was incredibly relevant for the Appalachia area.
Toms River is a small town in New Jersey. Dan described it as a “middle of America kind of place.” It’s a town where the people thrive on things like Little League. Unfortunately, Toms River’s economy thrived on a chemical plant near the center of town. At one point, Toms River was home to the countries largest dye plant with over 1,300 employees.
Dan talked a lot about the life and stories of Toms River, but with help from the audience, he mirrored much of the discussion to West Virginia, like water contamination, powerful activists, government regulations and cleanup efforts.
While the main idea of Dan’s lecture was to talk about epidemiology, or the science that studies the patterns, causes and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations, undertones of the presentation reinforced the need for clear communication and science literacy.
For instance, the residents of Toms River finally convinced the government to look at the cancer rates in the town. The results showed rates were 50% over the expected number, but officials kept the result hidden. In a world seamlessly connected with technology, hiding information is never an option, yet it often seems to happen (unsuccessfully) when it comes to issues of industry and public health.
Dan also pointed out the need for adequately funded government oversight. We need to empower hollow agencies so they can enforce regulations. The NSA has a budget of 80 billion while the EPA only 8 billion. Now in Appalachia, empowering an agency who has been framed as the sole economy killer is a hard pill for many to swallow, but if we want to ever drink our water with comfort and certainty, it’s something that we’re going to have to work with.
The presentation ended with Dan emphasizing the power and responsibly an individual has. As professional media declines and citizen journalism finds power through social media, the average citizen needs to be smarter and more aware than ever. As public safety, industry, economy and politics continue to become even more entwined, and populations grow as resources shrink, we need STEM education and science literacy more than ever.
How science literate are you? Do you actively reach for the science section of a newspaper (or click on the science link), or do you look to nightly news reports from your favorite local anchors? Some of you might even turn towards blogs and social media. Let me know where you get your news and why you chose that outlet!