I Didn't March For Science
I get it. It's about coming together. It's about a show of strength, a show of resistance. It's about rejecting a dangerous movement that has infiltrated the highest echelons of power. It's about showing that science is precise, targeted, and unapologetically objective. But for all the intellect and brainpower that fueled this event, the final product was one that was fighting the wrong fight.
A couple of weeks ago, scientists across the States celebrated Earth Day with a follow-up to the post-inauguration Women's March, wearing out their weird tennis shoes while emphatically hurling slogans and chants into the void. It was a strange amalgam of complaints (against EPA antihero Scott Pruitt), disbelief (at the new administration removing all trace of climate change from the White House website), and worry (funding cuts incoming with the passing of the new budget).
There was an important emotion missing from that: anger. Which is slightly weird, because the anger is definitely there. More noteworthy is the emotion that filled the void that anger left behind — resignation. The march was branded as a 'pro' message. Pro-science, pro-facts, pro-research. Notably missing was an 'anti' component, despite the fact that all of this started with an anti-Trump, anti-Pruitt, and anti-Republican sentiment. One of the co-chairs even said, “It might have been ignited by Trump, but it’s not about Trump.” Fine, but that begs the question: what is it actually about?
Their official website reads that "the application of science to policy is not a partisan issue" and that "anti-science agendas and policies have been advanced by politicians on both sides of the aisle." Throwing aside the fact that the latter is a false equivalency, the former reeks of placation and settlement. It's a glaring attempt to make the movement overtly inoffensive, which isn't really the best way to inspire change.
What gets lost by science purists is that it's fine to be political! It's fine to be partisan. You can embrace the fact that you're making a political statement without politicizing science. You can explicitly make the political statement that 'science shouldn't be politicized!' Attempting to be non-partisan and pure-science illustrates the underlying arrogance of scientists — that 'evidence-based policy' isn't an clear cut thing. There's always (opportunity) cost to regulation, most of which you can't see or measure, which isn't too persuasive an argument against easily measurable benefits. 'Evidence' is usually never enough to irrefutably pick one political choice over the other, because if it was, then engineers and scientists would be politicians.
It's this fundamental misunderstanding by the marchers that renders the movement ineffective. It's not the administration where you can inspire understanding, it's the everyday person from whom you must demand it. Anywhere from a third to a halfAmericans don't vote, which means that they don't care enough to exercise their voice; those are the ones that you can engage.
Right now, there's no outlet for the anger. Resignation is hardly a powerful enough emotion to channel into productive, institutionalized progress. Think of the fury of the Selma march that translated into the Voting Rights Act of the sixties, and contrast it to the wasted effort of the anti-Vietnam demonstrations. More importantly, it clouds the anger with a sense of #slacktivist fulfillment like there was something accomplished, when in reality the most significant outcome was that everyone got their Fitbit steps in for the day. Where's the tangible result? Telling people that you're right and they're wrong — even if true — is as effective as calling someone a racist.
The need for a March for Science, if there ever was one, was far before Trump ever came along. It could have been when the anti-vaccine crowd took a field trip to Disneyland (2015), or when places like Louisiana made it easier to teach creationism in school (2008) , or even when George W. Bush engineered the most effective PR campaign of all time in rebranding 'global warming' to 'climate change' (2003).
Not only were each of those events significant in their own niche, but they drove the 'armchair scientist' mentality — showing how poorly science fared under industrial democratization. What most people don't want to recognize isn't science itself, but the nature of how science works. Science doesn't occur in isolated incidents, but rather over long periods of time in consistently observable fashion. In arriving at that happy medium, we have variations that may tell us that climate change is a Chinese hoax, or that GMO foods are bad for you. But these variations occur in both directions — for every vaccine that causes autism, there's one that can purportedly give you superpowers. These aren't "alternative facts," just cherrypicked ones. At least with 'part-time doctors', there was some logical rationale involved -- seeing a symptom and identifying the cause to suggest a solution. In the rest of science, there's no benefit at all.
But let's not conflate this with being anti-science altogether. If anything, this shows that people do believe in science as a construct and an approach, but they believe that the science they have read is better, or that it isn't definitive — a sentiment shared by Pew. Some don't even know what scientists think, even more don't think that scientists agree on what to think.
These are the kind of distinct phenomena that people should be fighting against — this collective mentality that has created a world where belief often drives science. The world doesn't care what we believe. Science just tells us whether our beliefs are rooted in what's actually happening. That is, science drives belief.
The March's own website outlines their mission in terms of 'principles' and 'goals', which is worrying because you'd think that principles and goals should be the same thing. Among the principles are "science that serves the common good," "cutting edge science education," and "funding for scientific research," all of which are noble principles, but it's hard to think that a march contributes to any of those in a meaningful way. That's probably why they weren't in the goals section, but the goals include "humanize science" (dumb because science isn't really seen as 'the Man' that government is'), "partner with the public" (ironic because I don't know how many non-scientists were at the march) and "affirm science as a democratic value" (which it's not, for reasons discussed above). It's hard to fight using a confused jumble of buzzwords that boil down to telling other people they're wrong and you're right, which even if true, is ineffective at best and alienating at worst.
Perhaps the marchers could have adopted a different name, one like "the March for Science Funding Using Taxpayer Dollars and Science-Based Policy Think Tanks." Sure it's not as catchy (and not as easy to fit on a picket sign), but it's at least clear and defined. The problem with using science as an argumentative tool is that it simultaneously appeals to authority, but is also built on the foundation of 'question everything', to the point that every conclusion is theoretically vulnerable to change or cancellation with the introduction of new evidence. An important corollary is that someone who claims that "the science isn't in" is usually not in a position to bring in the additional science they seek. People just don't have the time or ability to fact-check others that have degrees Piled High and Deep.
Scientists are always the ones confined to a corner of society, brought out as props when other groups need them to prove a point. They're always the support to power, the ones who 'engineer' it, but never the ones who hold it. Lawyers become politicians. Bankers become politicians. Businessmen become politicians. Hell, even actors become politicians. And that's made scientists anemic when it comes to the necessity of power. Marching is a wonderful way to exercise one's rights, but not all that useful when it comes to wielding one's power.
I don't doubt that politics shouldn't enter science. But maybe science should have some place in politics.