From its first inklings, there have been problems with the March for Science that is taking place this Earth Day 2017. It seemed too slap-dash, too loose and unclear. And then things got worse.
For those of you who are attending this pep rally to express why science ought to have greater value and respect in American society and, particularly, in this current anti-science political climate, I hope the March for Science serves your purposes. I am not going to be there. What follows are my personal thoughts about why the March is not for me – a person whose job, values, education, and identity all deeply involve science and its effect on society.
When I first heard about the event, I thought it was a good idea and initially planned on attending. It is a bit difficult to get to D.C. Big gatherings can be a hassle with the crowds and inconvenience. But if it’s for a good cause, one should make the effort.
Obviously, support for science IS a good cause. I truly believe that science must inform policy where applicable, and that scientific information and the people who generate it deserve respect and funding at higher levels than they currently are. Science is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. But that is an entirely different discussion compared to the agenda set by the March for Science organizers, according to their own words.
Before I get into how they have regrettably characterized their own March, it’s important to understand some key words. Science is three things: a process or method of gaining knowledge that is particularly reliable, a community that generates and vets this knowledge, and the body of knowledge itself. Political means anything related to gaining power to make rules or influence decision-making in society. Very early on, the March was frowned upon by some for being a political act or that scientists would be seen as a special interest group. (I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.) Promoting your values to influence society is political. Those who are marching for science are people who have values. They wish for science to have more clout in society. Therefore, this march is political. So what? It shouldn’t be partisan, as the March organizers do note, because scientific knowledge benefits the common good. It is as close to value-free knowledge as we can get. Unfortunately, ideological party positions tend to heavily influence support for science. I support scientists defending the importance of their work and the rest of us pushing our lawmakers to value science. But I see two fundamental problems with the March.
1. Lack of a clear goal.
If we look at the March for Science page, we see a very muddled and confused vision of science and society and goals for this event. Here is what they say:
The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.
The March for Science is a celebration of science. It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.
Nevertheless, the march has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics. In the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery, we might ask instead: can we afford not to speak out in its defense?
There is no Planet B. Join the #MarchForScience.
A mission statement should be understandable. The above mess is written extremely poorly by people who sound very confused about what science is and what role it plays in society. The March “champions”? No, people can do that, not a “march”.
What does human freedom have to do with science? I can give many examples where scientific findings suggest limiting certain people’s freedom for the common good.
Diversity in science has nothing to do with its worth to society (though it is critical to the health and future of the scientific community, for sure). The deal about science done by white men being less correct is a postmodernist idea that never stood up to scrutiny.
Evidence-based is not the same as science-based – this is a really amateur error in my opinion that reveals profound misunderstanding. The rest of it just does not make much sense. The premises do not follow from the statements. What a poorly thought-out front page!
What exactly is the achievable goal of this March? What do the protestors want? Funding, respect, acknowledgment? How will they get that? We can’t know from the above jumble of ideas. A big effort that lacks focus is doomed to fail or, at least, be a waste of people’s time and result in disappointment. A strange tweet was posted by the organizers provides further evidence of how broad and misguided their intent is:
March for Science wrote on January 28:
Colonization, racism, immigration, native rights, sexism, ableism, trans-intersex phobia, and econ justice are scientific issues
Someone responded to this tweet with “Science +” which is a reference to Atheism +, a failed attempted shift in the atheism community to deal with broad social justice issues. This effort caused ruptures in the community of activists and, frankly, made many people throw up their hands in consternation. The same bewildering people seem to be behind this March.
Another recent tweet by the organizers stated that the huge bomb used by the US (MOAB) in Afghanistan “is 1 example of how science is weaponized against marginalized people.” (posted and deleted 4/13/17) What does that have to do with a pro-science march? Talk about mission drift! Actually, that message is more “destroyer-of-worlds” anti-science. I am completely confused.
The issues the organizers tweeted about are, without doubt, serious social issues. You can make an argument that policies regarding these issues may be informed by aspects of science, as is everything in the natural world. However, it’s an absurd stretch to call them “scientific issues” when they clearly involve arguments about morality, ethics, and civil rights.
It’s naive to think that science is a panacea – that if we apply it to all things, it will give us the results. This type of framing smacks of scientism, a flawed concept that, unfortunately, many pro-science people subscribe to. Policy is best when it is informed by science but also takes into account those moral, ethical, and civil values. If this concept seems wrong to you, you are woefully uninformed about how effective policy is crafted.
If the goals for the March for Science were just unclear, that might be OK. The Women’s March had a vague mission but still served a purpose to energize a group to do something more constructive. With the science march, the unmistakable spotlight on diversity and social justice shattered the aim of unified science support. Good will was lost. In one example, they made an issue about Bill Nye (a white male) serving as a leader of the event. Instead of serving as a positive example and encouraging women and minorities to become involved, they alienated the majority who may actually need some exposure to diversity. This backfired. Several people informed me that the original messaging was even more focused on social justice, victimization and the discriminatory nature of the modern science community. They have since walked back this message because many supporters left.
What are we marching for? Science promotion or diversity in science promotion? Fracturing the foundation immediately derails progress. The buzz word for this agenda is intersectionality which refers to where there is a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination. Examples of discrimination are provided in the tweets. I can’t speak to the validity of intersectionality, but I view this as being completely tangential to science promotion in society. If the ultimate goal is to protest social injustices, the march is misnamed and the framing was misleading.
2. Marches are not very effective these days.
The president and congress are hardly moved by protests. It’s a sad state of affairs when large protests marches are commonplace. It’s fair to ask if marches accomplish anything and what comes next. Meaningful, long-lasting change requires strategic and organized actions that get results: meeting with congresspeople, being persuasive in society, and electing officials that will move these views forward.
Some of the positives that might come from this event could be to garner support for science orgs. Is that a good thing? How have they been doing? Not well considering the state of science in public discourse these days. I don’t see too many science organizations being particular effective at increasing science appreciation and funding. Their agendas are far more narrow, serving mainly scientists themselves or promoting some not-so-scientific positions. Will giving them more financial support be helpful? Not if their actions aren’t ultimately effective. One exception is the NCSE that, with a small staff, has remained extremely focused and achieved far-reaching legal successes and effective outreach to teachers, parents, and communities. It seems like the March for Science organizers might consider non-science-related orgs to further their goals for social justice. There are many that have that explicit mission.
In summary, attending the March is a cost-benefits assessment. The potential good — people showing appreciation for science, bringing attention to organizations that promote science-positive agendas — in my personal analysis has been derailed by the bad — a divisive self-righteous tone focused on social justice instead of science advocacy, unclear goals, and ineffective or nonexistent followup strategies. This is a lost opportunity that fomented animosity instead of unity, annoying people who would appreciate that effort. That is so disappointing. Narrow personal agendas hijacked the good intentions. While people are telling me to ignore these bad things and just march for science, I contend that is a waste of my time. I’ll pick my battles more wisely. Instead, I’ll stay home this weekend to write about science for an audience who might actually listen, and I’ll donate $50 to the NCSE for their fine work.