Seeing What's Not in Plain Sight

  • October 02, 2017
  • by Rebecca W. Rimel

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In order to see—and understand—we have to dig deeper, listen to all sides, and ensure that our work rests on a foundation of rigorous, nonpartisan, and evidence-based research.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, a keen observer of nature and society whose two-year retreat on Walden Pond inspired generations of environmentalists. When his sojourn was over, he wrote, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” This advice is fundamental to the mission of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Looking is never enough. In order to see—and understand—we have to dig deeper, listen to all sides, and ensure that our work rests on a foundation of rigorous, nonpartisan, and evidence-based research.

Sometimes that research takes the form of large surveys, data analysis, and partnerships with other nonprofit organizations dedicated, as we are, to science, measurable outcomes, and public service. But individuals acting as Thoreau did, on their own and with a passion for sharing what they learn, can both see what others might miss and bring new perspectives to persistent challenges.

One such individual is Ann Ballinger, who lives on a 27,000-acre ranch in the Australian Outback called Stockholm Station. She was profiled in My Country, Our Outback, a major report we released earlier this year that brings to the discussion about the Outback’s future the experiences and insights of people who live there. The report is part of Pew’s continuing effort to preserve this vast natural landscape, in part by spotlighting people who see the beauty of—and the threats to—that landscape every day.

As someone who loves the Outback and has spent her life farming the land, Ann understands how the region is changing, endangered by invasive species, feral animals, and severe drought. But while others might look at the Outback and find only a vast expanse of arid land, Ann sees a welcoming region that needs people. She can also spot opportunities that will help conserve the environment: the huge amounts of carbon stored in grasslands; new alternative energy sources, especially solar panel farms; and the development of high-speed internet and telecommunications technology that will allow far-flung residents to live in the Outback and still be connected to the rest of the world. Her unique point of view is highlighted in our cover story.

Antibiotic resistance also requires seeing beyond the headlines and developing a deeper understanding of what the data are telling us. Antibiotic-resistant infections are a global threat, sickening at least 2 million people and killing 23,000 in the United States alone each year. But mothers, fathers, doctors, veterans, and farmers have formed an alliance, using their own experiences to find solutions and get the word out about the need to use antibiotics responsibly, spur the discovery of new drugs, and increase federal funding to combat resistant bacteria. In this issue, you’ll meet some of these superheroes against superbugs, like Christopher Linaman, who almost lost his life to methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), an infection that resists many antibiotics. After his recovery, he joined forces with Pew, and through his position as executive chef at the Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue, Washington, he is also working to ensure that patients eat meat and poultry from producers who use antibiotics responsibly.

The Pew Research Center also looks for new insights. Police-involved shootings, for example, have been much in the news over the past several years. But until January, when the center issued a survey of nearly 8,000 policemen and women, there was little evidence-based data showing how these fatal encounters have affected the way police officers do their jobs. The center’s research found that two-thirds of the officers characterized these encounters as isolated incidents and not signs of a broader divide between police and the black community. Those results contrast sharply with the views of the general public; a separate center survey found that 60 percent of U.S. adults say the incidents are symptoms of a deeper problem. You’ll learn more about the police survey, and see more deeply how police officers view their jobs, in this issue of Trust.

Although Thoreau grew up in a young and maturing nation, his counsel that knowledge is not always in plain sight remains just as valid as we confront the challenges of our own age. He was also unafraid to speak truth to power. Those principles resonate in Pew’s work, where our response to any difficult problem is based on rigorous research that allows us to see solutions that might not have been readily obvious. In the words of another great American, Thomas Jefferson, we follow the truth wherever it may lead.