Concerns From the March for Science

This past week saw thousands of people across the country converge on Washington D.C. and other cities to participate in a March for Science. The protest was billed as non-partisan, but the timing and circumstances around the march taking place on Earth Day hardly seems like a coincidence, and the march was rumored to have been inspired by a “throwaway line on reddit” by somebody who said:

Q: The March for Science has stressed that science is political but it is nonpartisan. Your comment, though, was a reaction to the current administration. When you envisioned a March for Science, did you see it as a direct response to President Trump?

A: Let’s make it clear: I thought of this march entirely because of Trump, and my original comment was a direct response to Trump’s actions. While some liberals have been pushing for anti-science policies, like opposition to nuclear energy and GMOs (genetically modified organisms), Barack Obama was not in favor of such policies, and we rarely saw support for them among politicians.

Donald Trump has appointed a man who wants to destroy the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) as head of the EPA. He met with Bobby Kennedy Jr. [a vaccine skeptic] about possibly setting up a commission to investigate the nonexistent vaccine/autism connection. His Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, reversed a lead ammunition ban that protected our wildlife. Trump’s role in this march is as the biggest and most visible enemy of science in the world. Trying to dissociate the March from Trump alienates liberals who are anti-Trump and does nothing to appeal to conservatives who are pro-Trump.

It also doesn’t take a lot of digging into the march’s official website and social media accounts to find attacks on Trump and Republicans. I didn’t attend either march, but from the reporting that I’ve read on the events, it sounds like the March for Science was like the Women’s March in that it was just another anti-Trump protest that organizers attempted to cover in the veneer of something less divisive and partisan.

I want to be clear here, for those who are unfamiliar with my political writings or my thoughts on science:

  1. I have no problem at all with people protesting Trump in an organized and non-violent way. I don’t think I’ve ever attended any kind of protest, as I personally don’t consider them to be that productive, but I have no problem with others doing so.
  2. I believe very strongly in science and the scientific method, and I believe that it provides the best way for us to explore and learn about the world around us.

Having said that, I do have some concerns about the aforementioned March for Science that I wanted to talk about.

The Politicization of Science

I am very resistant to the idea of politicizing science, a concept that the March for Science organizers seem to agree with, considering their “#NoSidesInScience” hashtag. Yes, science affects all of our lives and it’s virtually impossible to find anything anymore that politics doesn’t affect. As a result, it would be naive to think that politics and science don’t intermingle. However, I think it sets a dangerous precedent to have science be used in such a nakedly political way. Science should be something that can belong to all of us, whether it’s a lifelong Republican and devout Catholic chemist or a lesbian bleeding-heart liberal micro-biologist. People of different political opinions should be able to agree on the basic pillars of science without having to agree on the definition of marriage or the proper funding levels for the military.

Luckily, science already seems to have a good reputation among Americans. As Ronald Bailey writes:

From whom do the marchers hope to defend science? Certainly not the American public: Most Americans are fairly strong supporters of the scientific enterprise. An October 2016 Pew Research Center poll reported, “Three-quarters of Americans (76%) have either a great deal (21%) or a fair amount of confidence (55%) in scientists, generally, to act in the public interest.” The General Social Survey notes that public confidence in scientists stands out among the most stable of about 13 institutions rated in the GSS survey since the mid-1970s. (For what it’s worth, the GSS reports only 8 percent of the public say that they have a great deal of confidence in the press, but at least that’s higher than the 6 percent who say the same about Congress.)

Scientists’ March on Washington by Ronald Bailey

Credit: Pew Research Center
Credit: Pew Research Center

I worry that politicizing science like this risks turning it into just another interest group. As mentioned above, science currently has a pretty broad base of support from Americans on both sides of the aisle. Despite some Americans’ views on evolution, GMOs, and climate change, Americans still have an impressively high opinion of scientists. However, the force of tribalism is strong in America, and I worry that the minute science is seen as a “liberal” issue or a “conservative” issue, then we start to see a more stark partisan divide and a drop in overall support among Americans.

Right now, support for science is one of the vanishingly few things that the left and right can largely agree on. I hope we can keep it that way.

Science is a Process, Not the Truth

Credit: Huffington Post
Credit: Huffington Post

When I think of science, I don’t think of it as a set of facts handed down from on high by people in lab coats and holding beakers. Instead, I think of science as the process by which we seek to learn more about the world around us and how it works. To me, science isn’t saying that the speed of light is 1,080 million kilometers per hour, or that a parsec is a measure of distance and not time or that eating bacon causes cancer. Science is observing our world, making hypotheses and testing those hypotheses. If the data corroborates our hypothesis, then we can formulate a theory. Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board. To me, science isn’t the destination, it’s the journey. It’s not unquestioned truth, it’s questioning what we think we know in order to understand better.

That’s why I’m concerned by signs like the one on the left. I believe that the bulk of scientific evidence shows that the Earth is warming and that human activity is responsible for much of it. I do not think that the Earth isn’t warming or that global warming is a hoax.

Debate is one of science’s greatest strengths.

However, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that “the debate is over” because the debate should never be over. Debate is one of science’s greatest strengths. The ability to challenge current thinking, run experiments and maybe even refine or overturn established theories is what separates the rigor of science from the things like religious dogma. For science, the debate should never be over, because when it is, the thing that makes science special is lost.

Skepticism of Science

Why do I think debate and a healthy skepticism of science is a good thing? Because if we weren’t skeptical of science, we would never learn and advance. Just look at Wikipedia’s list of superseded scientific theories. Without debate we might still believe in a flat earth and the four bodily humours. Think I’m exaggerating by pulling examples from the ancient world and that such things don’t happen anymore? I have a family history of heart disease, and as a result, I’ve been trying to eat a heart healthy diet since I was little. I can remember when the consensus was to replace butter in your diet with margarine to be healthier. Now, we know that the trans-fat heavy margarine is actually worse for you in terms of preventing heart attacks.

What else? Do you start chugging orange juice and popping vitamin C pills at the first sign of a cold? Turns out there’s not a lot of evidence that it helps. Proud of switching your water bottle for a BPA-free one to reduce your cancer risk? The evidence is pretty spotty there too. Warnings of peak oil have been proven wrong time and again, as has the dangers of overpopulation. We’re worried about global warming now, but there was a time when the worry was over global cooling.

An argument could be made that it’s “better to be safe than sorry” when it comes to issues like combating global warming, but there can be significant dangers in the trade-off of playing things too safe. Worries about DDT use may have caused there to be unnecessary deaths due to malaria. The fight against Golden Rice and GMOs may have led to millions of unnecessary cases of blindness due to vitamin A deficiency. The concerns about a possible connection between vaccines and autism is likely to blame for our compromised herd immunity.

I say all this not to damn science. Again, I love science and think that it has improved all of our lives in countless ways. I point this all out simply to show that there is no single “truth” when it comes to science and that the debate should never be over. Today’s fact may be tomorrow’s folly. Scientists shouldn’t be taking sides, it should simply be searching for the truth, wherever that takes them.

 

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Paul Essen
Founder and Chief Discourse Officer at Rampant Discourse

Proud geek. Trekkie. Browncoat. Entil’Zha. First human spectre. Hokie. Black belt. Invests Foolishly. Loves games of all types and never has enough time to play as many as he wants. Libertarian who looks forward to the day he votes for a winning presidential candidate. Father to two beautiful daughters.


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