Is the March for Science Worthwhile?
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Tomorrow is the March for Science, a nationwide demonstration in which scientists and science enthusiasts like myself will take a stand for, well, science, I guess. Like many grassroots movements, this one had a good deal of controversy and in-fighting, so I wanted to go over some of the problems in part because they raise some interesting issues for the world at large and also because I just want to try to sort out how I feel about all of it.
One of the first issues with the March for Science was about diversity. Originally, the organizers expressed a desire to be inclusive and be sure that women, people of color and other marginalized groups were well-represented. This made some people, like Steven Pinker, upset. Being inclusive was, to him, anti-science and too political. So, the march organizers walked back the inclusiveness talk in an attempt to make Steven Pinker like them again, which seemed to work.
That brought up another issue — whether or not the march was, in fact, “political.” The organizers claim that it isn’t, which I found very odd. I mean, the march is clearly inspired by all the budget cuts and anti-science bullshit coming out of Trump’s administration and enthusiastically supported by the Republican-dominated congress. Marching for science in the face of that is pretty blatantly political.
The organizers are succumbing to the myth that science is apolitical — a simple error that everyone should really just stop making, considering that we’ve known about climate change for more than a century and it remains such a politicized topic that 85% of conservative Republicans don’t understand that the earth is warming due to human activity, compared to 21% of liberal Democrats. That’s as starkly political as it gets, whether you like it or not.
Then we need to talk about the fact that science has been used to seriously hurt and kill marginalized people in the past and right now. You probably know about famous cases like the Tuskegee syphilis study back in the 1930s, but you may not realize that in 1997 the US government was caught funding a study in which pregnant women with HIV got treatments known to be ineffective at stopping the spread of the disease to their fetuses. In 2014, pharmaceutical companies were caught recruiting homeless people to test experimental drugs.
People — even scientists — seem to get confused over the alleged objectivity of science. The scientific process was developed as a way to evaluate data as objectively as possible, and the reason is that humans are inherently, permanently subjective. Even scientists! A good scientist knows they have biases, and that’s why things like control groups and peer review exists. It’s also why ethics standards exist. We wouldn’t need any of this if scientists were as perfectly objective as many people seem to believe.
And that’s why the March does need to be diverse — to make sure that women, people of color, people with disabilities, people of minority religions, and other marginalized people know that they belong, too. To know that organized scientists care just as much about the loss of funding under Trump as they care about the proliferation of anti-scientific garbage like “stop and frisk” laws, and the serious political AND scientific catastrophe that is the city of Flint being without clean drinking water for years.
And that’s also why the March is and has to be political. The funding cuts are because of Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress. The hits to climate research are because of Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress. The proliferation of outright lies is because of Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress. If scientists are going to march for science and reality and facts, then they’ll be marching against Republicans. They’ll be political.
And finally, that’s why the people marching should have a goal other than just “raising awareness.” The Republicans know what they’ve done. They’re proud of it! They hate science, and they hate inconvenient facts. I hope the people marching realize the work isn’t done after the demonstration — that in fact, the best thing a demonstration can do is motivate people to real action. That’s why I love the efforts of groups like 314 Action, who are hoping to convince more scientists to run for office. If you care about what’s happening, make sure you’re following through and actually doing something about it.
I’ll leave you with a recommendation to read a piece over on The Root that includes contributions from some awesome scientists who speak out on behalf of marginalized people in the sciences, explaining the problems with the march and some potential solutions.
As for me, I’ll be at the march, and I’ll be there as an unapologetically political being. Fuck Donald Trump, and fuck politicians who devalue science for their own purposes.