Marching for Science

The March for Science, happening tomorrow 22 April in Washington DC and in satellite events around the globe (including here in LA), is on the one hand an obviously good idea, and at the same time quite controversial. As in many controversies, both sides have their good points!

Marching for science is a good idea because 1) science is good, 2) science is in some ways threatened, and 3) marching to show support might in some way ameliorate that threat. Admittedly, as with all rallies of support, there is a heavily emotive factor at work — even if it had no effect whatsoever, many people are motivated to march in favor of ideas they believe in, just because it feels good to show support for things you feel strongly about. Nothing wrong with that at all.

But in a democracy, marching in favor of things is a little  more meaningful than that. Even if it doesn’t directly cause politicians to change their minds (“Wait, people actually like science? I’ll have to revise my stance on a few key pieces of upcoming legislation…”), it gets ideas into the general conversation, which can lead to benefits down the road. Support for science is easy to take for granted — we live in a society where even the most anti-science forces try to portray their positions as being compatible with a scientific outlook of some sort, even if it takes doing a few evidentiary backflips to paper over the obvious inconsistencies. But just because the majority of people claim to be in favor of science, that doesn’t mean they will actually listen to what science has to say, much less vote to spend real money supporting it. Reminding them how much the general public is pro-science is an important task.

Charles Plateau, Reuters. Borrowed from The Atlantic.

Not everyone sees it that way. Scientists, bless their hearts, like to fret and argue about things, as I note in this short essay at The Atlantic. (That piece basically what I’ll be saying when I give my talk tomorrow noonish at the LA march — so if you can’t make it, you can get the gist at the link. If you will be marching in LA — spoiler alert.) A favorite source of fretting and worrying is “getting science mixed up with politics.” We scientists, the idea goes, are seekers of eternal truths — or at least we should aim to be — and that lofty pursuit is incompatible with mucking around in tawdry political battles. Or more pragmatically, there is a worry that if science is seen to be overly political, then one political party will react by aligning itself explicitly against science, and that won’t be good for anyone. (Ironically, this latter argument is an attempt at being strategic and political, rather than a seeker of universal truths.)

I don’t agree, as should be clear. First, science is political, like it or not. That’s because science is done by human beings, and just about everything human beings do is political. Science isn’t partisan — it doesn’t function for the benefit of one party over the other. But if we look up “political” in the dictionary, we get something like “of or relating to the affairs of government,” or more broadly “related to decisions applying to all members of a group.” It’s hard to question that science is inextricably intertwined with this notion of politics. The output of science, which purports to be true knowledge of the world, is apolitical. But we obtain that output by actually doing science, which involves hard questions about what questions to ask, what research to fund, and what to do with the findings of that research. There is no way to pretend that politics has nothing to do with the actual practice of science. Great scientists, from Einstein on down, have historically been more than willing to become involved in political disputes when the stakes were sufficiently high.

It would certainly be bad if scientists tarnished their reputations as unbiased researchers by explicitly aligning “science” with any individual political party. And we can’t ignore the fact that various high-profile examples of denying scientific reality — Darwinian evolution comes to mind, or more recently the fact that human activity is dramatically affecting the Earth’s climate — are, in our current climate, largely associated with one political party more than the other one. But people of all political persuasions will occasionally find scientific truths to be a bit inconvenient. And more importantly, we can march in favor of science without having to point out that one party is working much harder than the other one to undermine it. That’s a separate kind of march.

It reminds me of this year’s Super Bowl ads. Though largely set in motion before the election ever occurred, several of the ads were labeled as “anti-Trump” after the fact. But they weren’t explicitly political; they were simply stating messages that would, in better days, have been considered anodyne and unobjectionable, like “people of all creeds and ethnicities should come together in harmony.” If you can’t help but perceive a message like that as a veiled attack on your political philosophy, maybe your political philosophy needs a bit of updating.

Likewise for science. This particular March was, without question, created in part because people were shocked into fear by the prospect of power being concentrated in the hands of a political party that seems to happily reject scientific findings that it deems inconvenient. But it grew into something bigger and better: a way to rally in support of science, full stop.

That’s something everyone should be able to get behind. It’s a mistake to think that the best way to support science is to stay out of politics. Politics is there, whether we like it or not. (And if we don’t like it, we should at least respect it — as unappetizing as the process of politics may be at times, it’s a necessary part of how we make decisions in a representative democracy, and should be honored as such.) The question isn’t “should scientists play with politics, or rise above it?” The question is “should we exert our political will in favor of science, or just let other people make the decisions and hope for the best?”

Democracy can be difficult, exhausting, and heartbreaking. It’s a messy, chaotic process, a far cry from the beautiful regularities of the natural world that science works to uncover. But participating in democracy as actively as we can is one of the most straightforward ways available to us to make the world a better place. And there aren’t many causes more worth rallying behind than that of science itself.



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36 Responses to Marching for Science

  1. murmur says:

    These so called scientists claim to stand for academic freedom, but don’t bat an eyelid when conservatives are routinely denied their free speech rights in college campuses. This is hardly surprising, since their ideal is the Soviet Union, a country hardly known for upholding free speech. “March For Science” should more properly be translated as March For Communism.

  2. Simon Packer says:

    I wouldn’t go as far as murmur, but many felt that the broadly liberal, secular, PC, media concensus, and in the US, Democrat, thing, had become its own form of oppression and facism at times. The scientific community seems to have been mostly aligned in that way too.

  3. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    @Francis Lane – my BS alarm goes off when the claims of “climate experts” are contrary to my personal experience. (I am an old guy, too.) When those experts attack those who disagree with their claims and refuse to make their study data available for verification, the alarm is deafening.

  4. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    @Simon Packer – As every educated person knows, correlation does not mean causation. That is why I reject the theory of human-caused climate change and Dr. Carroll’s “Big Picture” nonsense. There is no evidence to support them, and in Dr. Carroll’s case, there can never be any scientific evidence. His ideas are based on faith, not science, although he claims otherwise. A misuse of science.

  5. Simon Packer says:

    Andrew VS

    I don’t necessarily disagree with human caused climate change; I’m agnostic on it. I tend to think the human influenced factors would be of a lesser significance compared to what we are seeing, the latter is certainly cause for concern. As others have said, the data set is too complex and the modelling and simulation too tricky. Beware as always of simplistic models with a bias, conscious or otherwise, in these big picture scenarios. On evolution, I don’t believe in what is generally called macro-evolution or Neo Darwinism, which I see as a manifestly false hypothesis based on very loose logic and a very loose but not totally insignificant correlation with the fossil record and some shared characteristics of organisms. I don’t think it is wise to dial it into a worldview and there is more significant data to be had elsewhere. I haven’t read ‘The Big Picture’ but may well do so.

  6. Joe Antognini says:

    > And we can’t ignore the fact that various high-profile examples of denying scientific reality — Darwinian evolution comes to mind, or more recently the fact that human activity is dramatically affecting the Earth’s climate — are, in our current climate, largely associated with one political party more than the other one.

    As a scientist who is neither liberal nor conservative, it always pains me to see other scientists try to paint one political party as being more anti-science than the other. Yes, it is true that creationists and climate change skeptics are almost universally associated with the right. But I can just as easily point to opposition to GMOs and nuclear power on the left. It has similarly been Democratic politicians who have ignored public health studies demonstrating the improvement of e-cigarettes to public health over regular cigarettes. And anti-vaxxers, who hold one of the most dangerous anti-scientific ideas around, find support across the entire political spectrum.

  7. Michael Keenan says:

    Science in total is being attacked so there will no longer be any science. This not just about “some inconvenient truth.” I Marched FOR science not some so-called inconvenience.

  8. Francis Lane says:

    Interesting quote from a Nature article “Why we are poles apart on climate change”:

    “People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand. Usually, this strategy works just fine. We live in a science-communication environment richly stocked with accessible, consequential facts. As a result, groups with different values routinely converge on the best evidence for, say, the value of adding fluoride to water, or the harmlessness of mobile-phone radiation. The trouble starts when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that ‘if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them’. In that situation, ordinary individuals’ lives will go better if their perceptions of societal risk conform with those of their group.

    If anything, social science suggests that citizens are culturally polarized because they are, in fact, too rational — at filtering out information that would drive a wedge between themselves and their peers.

    For members of the public, being right or wrong about climate- change science will have no impact. Nothing they do as individual consumers or as individual voters will meaningfully affect the risks posed by climate change. Yet the impact of taking a position that conflicts with their cultural group could be disastrous.

    Take a barber in a rural town in South Carolina. Is it a good idea for him to implore his customers to sign a petition urging Congress to take action on climate change? No. If he does, he will find himself out of a job, just as his former congressman, Bob Inglis, did when he himself proposed such action.

    Positions on climate change have come to signify the kind of person one is. People whose beliefs are at odds with those of the people with whom they share their basic cultural commitments risk being labelled as weird and obnoxious in the eyes of those on whom they depend for social and financial support.”

    So – are you a scientist or a political partisan? – take this test: If you were to publicly reverse your position on climate change (whatever it is), would your life change for the worse? If the answer is yes, then you need ask yourself “If I encountered data that proved I was wrong, would I change my position?” If you avoid the question by answering “that’s not going to happen”, then you are just another useful idiot for some political ideology, and not a scientist.

  9. Simon Packer says:

    Francis Lane

    You are quite right, and any science-related issue where the conclusions are hard to verify with anything approaching finality brings in a strong possibility for human, political (and religious, for Darwinism) factors to sway opinion. The human and political factors in the Nature article come into play where a substantial number of people doubt whether a particular theory or scenario has been verified with finality. There is also the issue of when the effects on an individual of support or otherwise for a particular stance start to manifest. Tomorrow in the barber shop or a few generations down the line when the planet might be frying.

    Even in the age of massive, cheap, computation and data communication, there is a big, and fairly clear, chasm, between what has been modelled satisfactorarily and what has not. Simple mathematical and physical scenarios may be very well understood and parameters calculated with great accuracy. But jump over toward the ‘everyday’ jumble of life on earth and it is still not possible to get a really reliable model or simulation. You can wave your hands and rant, but many people can see you haven’t really proven anything. It is not that the simple scenarios are simple to model and analyse with rigour, they are not; it takes a certain type of mind. But complex and multi-faceted scenarios are virtually impossible for anyone, even those with excellent analytic aptitude, to address in a truly rigorous way.

    This difference in type of modelled scenario is the root of so much of the supposed controversy with science. There is very little general, irrational hostility toward science as a discipline. The dissent is not about good science; very very few people dismiss that. The rock star like popularity of say Einstein once his general theory was perceived by the public to be reasonably proven shows that. It is about where scientists may have got a bit carried away with themselves, and over what may be merely their opinions and prejudices. If the latter, the public check on things is actually pro-science, in the truest sense, and against the abuse of the word.

  10. Ray Gedaly says:

    I’m a card-carrying Independent, but how can you hold this event without addressing or at least acknowledging the political environment which spurred the March, i.e. the “elephants” in the room? (If I go to the E.R. with a swollen leg, I wouldn’t fail to mention a recent snake bite.)

  11. John Healy says:

    Chapter 2 “The Politics of Science” of Sawn Otto’s book The War on Science discusses the interplay of science and politics. In particular, he addresses Sean Carroll’s point that “A favorite source of fretting and worrying is ‘getting science mixed up with politics.'”

    Otto talks about the disruptive nature of science as a source of knowledge and “the thorny intersection of science with traditional ideas, law, and politics.”

    At its core, science is a reliable method for creating knowledge, and thus power. To the extent that I have knowledge about the world, I can affect it, and that exercise of power is political. Because science pushes the boundaries of knowledge, it pushes us to constantly refine our ethics and morality to incorporate new knowledge, and that, too, is political. In these two realms — the socioeconomic and the moral-ethical-legal — science disrupts hierarchical power structures and vested interests (including those based on previous science) in a long drive to grant knowledge, and thus power, to the individual. That process is always and inherently political. — Otto, Shawn Lawrence (2016-06-07). The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It (Kindle Locations 1005-1009). Milkweed Editions. Kindle Edition.

    I also like his point that “Politics … can be more accurately thought of as a box with four quadrants rather than as a linear continuum from left to right.” A diagram with Top/Bottom wings (vertical axes) ranging from Anti-authoritraian/Tolerant to Authoritarian/Intolerant and Left/Right wings (horizontal axes) ranging from Progressive to Conservative.