Is the March for Science a “terrible idea”?

Planning is underway for a protest rally in Washington, D.C., and across the country. Just as the Women’s March focused on women’s issues, the March for Science will promote scientific research as an indispensable guide to government policy, and will protest various anti-science actions of the current administration. No date has been set yet, but their Twitter account — @ScienceMarchDC — has about 300,000 followers already.

I’m one of them. I was excited about the march from the moment I first heard about it. I doubt I’ll be able to join them in person, but I plan to support them and spread the word.

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm, it seems.

An op-ed in today’s New York Times, written by someone named Robert S. Young, calls the march “a terrible idea.” Young is a scientist himself. What are his objections?

The biggest one seems to be that he’s against politicizing science. He writes:

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.

I sympathize with his concern … a little. But I don’t think there’s much justification for it.

For starters, I’m not sure it’s possible to politicize science any more than it already has been. Scientists are already caught up in the culture wars. The wedge between them and “a certain segment of the American electorate” could hardly be much deeper.

More importantly, if “politicizing science” means that researchers — and those who feel passionately about science — are getting more involved in the political process, I think that’s a wonderful idea.

(Incidentally, this isn’t just “a march by scientists,” it’s a march for anyone who supports science. I’d guess that actual scientists will be in the minority, and that’s fine.)

Getting political has a bad reputation. The political process is widely seen as dirty, corrupt, dishonest, and ineffective — and it is all those things, to varying degrees. But it is the machinery of democracy. It is the least bad system we’ve come up with so far. Getting political means participating in democracy, and democracy, as we well know, must not be a spectator sport.

I’m always puzzled when people say things like “Actors shouldn’t talk about politics.” This has roughly the same internal logic as “Accountants shouldn’t talk about skiing.” You’re not barred from talking about something just because you aren’t an expert.

How much more, then, should scientists — who are experts in matters critical to government decisions — have at least an equal voice in public debate? If politics is dishonest, who better to shine some truth on it? Conversely, if you believe that a certain course of action will literally kill every human being on earth, how can you justify keeping out of the process that could change it?

Of course, it goes without saying that scientific research itself should be (or try to be) nonpolitical and nonpartisan. Scientific papers are about presenting data and deriving factual conclusions. Political opinions don’t belong in scientific papers for roughly the same reason that Locutus of Borg doesn’t belong on Dancing with the Stars (although, now that I say that, I’m kind of intrigued). But that doesn’t mean scientists themselves, who are humans and voters and parents and taxpayers, have any reason to stay out of an arena that affects our humanity and our representatives and our children and our tax-funded projects.

Will the march make scientists seem partisan? Probably. But then, we’re living in an age when making factual statements is a partisan act. And in fact, telling the truth has always been partisan. “Cigarettes cause cancer.” “Women and men have equal intelligence.” “The earth revolves around the sun.” These are all factual, verifiable statements that are (mostly) uncontroversial today, but at one time or another, each of these statements would have placed you firmly on one side or another of the culture wars. So if we’re in the battle anyway, shouldn’t we at least be able to march?

Young also writes:

Scientists marching in opposition to a newly elected Republican president will only cement the divide. The solution here is not mass spectacle, but an increased effort to communicate directly with those who do not understand the degree to which the changing climate is already affecting their lives. We need storytellers, not marchers.

He suggests honest, open, face-to-face conversation with those in the community who may not understand what science is all about.

And that, of course, is also a wonderful idea. So much of the conflict in politics, government, and life is fueled by misunderstanding. Conversation helps. My opinions have changed countless times over the years — for the better, I hope — and that’s largely because of conversations.

But conversations and marches are not mutually exclusive. We can do both. And we should. His argument against the Science March — that it will be a mass spectacle, likely to further polarize an already divided nation — could be applied to almost any large political rally. When Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech to hundreds of thousands of supporters in Washington, wasn’t that a “mass spectacle”? Didn’t that “further drive the wedge between” civil rights supporters and opponents? Yes — but it had positive effects too.

(I am not, of course, comparing the Science March to Dr. King’s speech in any way, except for the specific parallel above.)

Marches are useful. Those who already love science may get even more excited — and more likely to vote, write to Senators, or seek public office. Those without a strong opinion may do a little more reading. Elected officials will notice that a sizable chunk of their constituency feels a certain way, and isn’t shy about saying so. Even among those vehemently opposed to certain scientific conclusions — or science itself — it will at least stir up some conversation.

The op-ed is fairly thoughtful, worth reading and considering. But as for me, “politicizing science” means armoring truth to step into the fray. And I say, bring it on!


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