The war with science has begun, and scientists threw their first punch.
Thus far, the Trump administration has denied evidence linking humans to climate change. It continues to deny the existence of evolution. It has appointed climate change skeptics to head the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. This administration has proposed a budget centered around gutting the science and research community. It has slashed environmental regulations through the use of executive orders.
We have a President who lies about the effects of vaccinations, who lies about the effects of infectious diseases, and who even lies about the effects of environmentally friendly light bulbs.
This is an administration that has not appointed a single science advisor nor has it filled the vast majority of science positions in the presidential cabinet.
This is an administration that doesn’t believe in facts but rather alternative facts.
And the science community finally answered the bell.
This Earth Day, April 22, thousands of members of the science community and their supporters gathered in roughly 400 cities around the world to celebrate science in, as it’s officially billed, a “March for Science.”
Which means what, exactly?
“Science” isn’t some monolithic concept. The term encompasses a thousand word-chains from “mitosis” to “cache coherency.” It can refer to empiricism or methodology. It can refer to astrophysics or philosophic technoscience. And it can also refer to those in the “science industry” like engineers, science teachers, and Dr. Frankenstein. So what does it mean to “march for science?”
Nobody really knows.
The March for Science website is littered with over twenty-odd goals, ranging from celebrating “passion for science” and “the many ways that science serves our communities and our world” to encouraging the public “to value and invest in science.” Some people marched for better science education, while others would rather see an increase in scientific funding. It’s a lot. Probably too much.
Ultimately, the march only needed to accomplish a few goals to succeed—not ten, twenty, or thirty goals—and with much of the government criticizing these “dissenters,” it’ll be harder than it should be. What did the marchers need to do to guarantee success?
The March for Science needed to be framed around facts, not falsehoods, not alternative facts, but in legitimate facts.
Science is grounded in empiricism. There’s nothing partisan about it. At least, there shouldn’t be.
Today, however, the United States more partisan than ever. Even science. You can’t be a Republican and believe in evolution—at least without being labeled a RINO—in the same way that Democrats are supposed to be against GMOs—even though the science suggests they’re perfectly safe.
“We are living in a time when things which had been self-evident are suddenly being questioned,” said Martin Stratmann, electrochemist and president of Max Planck Society in Munich to the Max Planck Gesellschaft. “The freedom of science is being questioned internationally.”
A recent analysis out of book sales by Yale, Cornell, and the University of Chicago speculated that people who buy political books, no matter their lean, tend to purchase scientific texts not necessarily because of their interest in the subject but because of a political interest the science addresses. In science, like in politics Americans seek a “convenient truth” to renew the capacity of science to inform political debate and temper partisan passions.
Truth is no longer in numbers but in instinct.
People support the science that reaffirms their beliefs and reject the science that doesn’t. The March for Science needs to convince Americans that you can’t pick-and-choose what science to support.
“This is a march pro-science and pro-facts, not a march against Trump,” said Stratmann. “Of course, in the U.S., Trump has come to symbolize how little facts and evidence are currently being valued in politics, and that scientific freedom is restricted in part because results are politically inconvenient.”
Political inconvenience is not an excuse to reject facts in the same way that just because a criminal deletes the evidence, that doesn’t mean they didn’t commit a crime.
The March for Science needed to be about science, not scientists.
“People in this country have had enough of experts,” said Michael Grove, a “Brexit” campaigner, and the same mentality exists in the U.S.
“Scientists are seen as an elite group, and perhaps even part of the establishment that so many people voted against in November,” said Michael Lubell, a physics professor at The City College of New York and also former head of the office of the American Physical Society to Science Magazine. “And that attitude will be reinforced if the marchers are mostly a bunch of academic researchers.”
He’s not wrong. One of the critical complains concerning the march is the pessimism and politicization towards the scientific elite.
In a New York Times op-ed, Robert S. Young is a professor of coastal geology and the director of the program for the study of developed shorelines at Western Carolina University wrote, “A march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.”
How are a group of PhD’s supposed to convince Johnny Trucker to see their side, especially when Dr. PhD is inventing the technologies in self-driving cars which will eventually replace Johnny Trucker’s and his livelihood?
Lubell suggests that the scientists marching should bring along science teachers, people closer to the community, “Otherwise they run the risk of looking like they are simply advocating for their own self-interest.”
Young hopes the success of the march will go even further, “I suggest that my fellow scientists march into local civic groups, churches, schools, county fairs and, privately, into the offices of elected officials. Make contact with that part of America that doesn’t know any scientists. Put a face on the debate. Help them understand what we do, and how we do it. Give them your email, or better yet, your phone number.”
Science is scary. It’s displacing jobs, displacing religion, and displacing livelihoods. But it doesn’t have to be. The March for Science needed to help Americans understand that science isn’t knowledge, but it produces knowledge.
Science isn’t “climate change is real,” “evolution is real.” It’s testing what we know is real and exploring the possibilities of what can be real.
Change may end in Washington, but the battles begin in the backyard.
Top photo by Mark Dixon CC BY 2.0
Tom Burson is a travel writer, part-time hitchhiker, and he’s currently trying to imitate Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? but with more sunscreen and jorts.