Emily Atkin, who writes for The New Republic, interviewed me about the March for Science a few days ago, and has just written a piece about it, “Is the march for science bad for scientists?” It’s a fair piece, and I’m chuffed that she talks about my old days of activism, including my arrest at the South African Embassy for protesting apartheid, which of course gives me “activism cred.”
My take on this March has been consistent: I’m waiting to see how it shakes out before deciding whether to participate. I’m willing to march as a scientist to defend the truth, our methodology for determining the truth, and to defend those issues for which science has a best-guess idea of what the truth is (vaccination is not harmful, humans cause global warming, evolution is real). I just don’t want the march to fracture along identity-politics lines so that it becomes a “cause of the moment” potpourri of stuff. And I think the less prescriptive the march is, the more useful it will be. By all means tell people that global warming is real and is caused by our species, and you can even say it’s going to do bad things to the planet–and to our species. But should we be advocating for nuclear power plants? (I do, but many disagree). And yes, I’ve seen Ed Yong’s description of the psychology study supposedly showing that scientists don’t lose credibility when they advocate for specific policies, but that study, which I’ve read, is weak, and in fact does show that prescribing certain policy changes, like building more nuclear power plants to combat global warming, can damage a scientist’s credibility. And I’m not talking here about whether that limited study even addresses the issue.
Finally, I think a neglected but crucial aspect of the march is the drastic cut in the government’s science funding that has taken place over the last several decades. Basic research has taken it in the neck, and, with Trump threatening to cut $54 billion from the non-defense budget, it’s going to be hurt even more. I haven’t even seen that mentioned in conjunction with the march, but bringing that to public attention may be the best thing the Science March can accomplish. Science, nearly all of which rests on basic research (largely funded by the government) has immensely improved human life, and yet basic science is endangered. Do Americans know that? Well, let them know. And if it’s prescriptive for me to say I want to see fewer goddam cruise missiles and more money in the NIH and NSF budgets, well then call me prescriptive.
At any rate, I’m still waiting to see what the organizers decide to do about the Science March, and if it’s to my satisfaction, I’ll be out there with my colleagues. I see from Atkin’s piece that there’s now an educational component to the March, described below, and I endorse it wholeheartedly (my emphasis):
Perhaps, then, the real value of the march will not be converting the non-trusting public, but educating them. Seventy percent of Americans cannot name a living scientist. They don’t know what the $70 billion in non-defense spending for research is used for; nor do they know how that research contributes to their lives. And there are countless ways it has. Federally funded research has led to the development of everything from Google’s search algorithm to advanced prosthetic limbs to Lactose-free milk.
“We think it’s important to have a huge part of our post-march programming be connecting scientists to people,” Weinberg said. That’s why the march in D.C. will be followed by a teach-in on the National Mall, where speakers will talk about their research “in a more intimate way than most people are used to,” she said.
That may wind up being the most impactful part of the March for Science: Providing a public platform for the work that so often goes unnoticed. Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist who hosts a talk show on the Weather Channel, has often cautioned scientists against political speech. But he said he supports the March for Science if it can stay focused on what science does for society—and perhaps humanize his colleagues to the rest of the country.
I do want to correct one bit from the New Republic piece; I’ve put it in bold below:
Jerry Coyne knows a good protest when he sees one. Once a rambunctious leftist, the esteemed evolutionary biologist recalls traveling regularly to Washington to march for civil rights. He remembers when state police chased him off his own college campus for protesting the Vietnam War. For his most climactic endeavor, Coyne says he tried to post an anti-apartheid petition on the door of the South African embassy, and was arrested for trespassing.
Despite this activist streak, Coyne isn’t sure he’ll attend the March for Science on April 22 (Earth Day), when millions of scientists and their supporters are expected to march on Washington and other cities across the country. He says the march’s message has the potential to “alienate the public.”
“I’m in favor of rights for gay people. I don’t care what bathroom somebody uses. I’m pro-choice,” said Coyne, an occasional the New Republic contributor. “But scientists can’t get involved in that kind of stuff. Science cannot adjudicate issues of morality.”
I did not mean that scientists shouldn’t engage in political activism–far from it! What I meant is that the Science March should avoid wedding itself too closely to specific remedies, especially those involving “social justice.” Participating in a march, however, is not the same thing as personally advocating for societal changes. Had Martin Luther King, Jr. marched not just for civil rights, but for every other wrong in the world, would those marches have been as successful? Nope, for he kept his eyes on the prize. And so should we.