Preliminary report: Was the March for Science successful?

Although I didn’t feel compelled to participate in the March for Science on April 22, I still hoped it would change the minds of science denialists and perhaps spur further and ongoing action.  There were more than 600 marches and estimates of between 300,000 and 500,000 participants worldwide. As far as what’s still happening, each week the organization provides a daily list of things you can do (this week’s is here); so far they amount to a list of science advocacy societies to join (and groups supporting marginalized people), petitions to sign, and the addresses of politicians you can contact. But realizing the ultimate aim—to keep science in the forefront during the new administration, and ensure that funding isn’t cut and scientific reports by the government aren’t censored or suppressed—won’t be clear for a long time.

So it’s too early to tell if the march achieved any aims beyond allowing people to express their sentiments. But is there any way to tell? Reader Loren called my attention to a May 2 piece in the New York Times attempting to do just that: “How marching for science risks politicizing it“. The author is Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, and here are a few excerpts:

Before the recent March for Science, scholars and journalists debated the likely effect of the protest: Would it defend science against politicization or unnecessarily polarize the public on the value of the scientific enterprise?

Some early evidence suggests the march may have widened the divide among liberals and conservatives in their views of scientists but not, crucially, toward the research they conduct.

Nyhan shows that while confidence in science among both liberals and conservatives has always been robust in America, the question many had was whether that confidence could be eroded by the March portraying science (not deliberately) as a liberal pursuit. Again, we don’t know, but there’s at least one survey, tentative as it is, showing that polarization in attitudes towards scientists themselves increased after the March. There is no link to the survey cited, so it’s unclear how significant are the differences in attitudes before versus after the March.

. . . Some preliminary evidence is available from Matthew P. Motta, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Minnesota who tracked opinions toward scientists and scientific research among a sample of survey respondents recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workplace. Though these participants are not representative of the general public, we can still conduct a valid test for polarization by comparing how the views of liberals and conservatives in the sample changed from before the march to afterward. (Eight in 10 respondents reported having heard at least something about it, including approximately one in two who said they heard a “moderate amount” or a “great deal.”)

Between the Wednesday before the march (April 19) and the Monday and Tuesday afterward (April 24-25), liberals and conservatives in the survey panel moved further apart in how warmly they felt toward scientists. Specifically, liberals reported somewhat warmer feelings toward scientists (up to 86 from 82 on a 0-to-100 feeling thermometer scale) while the feelings of conservatives toward scientists became somewhat less warm (down to 67 from 70).

The liberal-conservative gap in agreement with the statement that “Scientists care less about solving important problems than their own personal gain” also widened significantly — conservative agreement increased to 32 percent, up from 22 percent, whereas liberal agreement fell to 8 percent from 11 percent.

However, no corresponding increase in polarization was observed on the statements that “Most scientific research is politically motivated” and “You simply can’t trust most scientific research.” On the latter question, for instance, agreement did not change significantly among conservatives (22 percent agreed before the march compared with 21 percent afterward) or liberals (6 percent agreed before the march; 3 percent did afterward). This finding suggests that the polarizing response that the march elicited toward scientists did not spill over into views of the research they conduct.

So there’s a difference in how attitudes changed towards researchers themselves versus the research they conducted. Why is that? Motta has one explanation:

Mr. Motta cites the emphasis on the marchers in news coverage as a potential explanation for these findings. In an email, he writes that “the ‘public face’ of the march appears to be the protesters; the clever signs they came up with, dressing as dinosaurs, etc.” This focus on the scientists who participated, he writes, “put a human face on science, which might be why it led to polarization with respect to attitudes about people, but not necessarily their research” — a topic that received less attention.

These findings should be evaluated in future studies, but they suggest another way in which science can become politicized — not by challenging the findings of a field of research, but by portraying the people who do science as political. In this sense, the march and events like it could paradoxically make scientists a more inviting target for future attacks.

In the end, of course, we’d like to know whether the March had a long-term versus only this unsatisfactory short-term influence on public attitudes towards science. As there wasn’t really a control—a world in which there were no Marches—it would be hard to tell, as other factors will undoubtedly come into play as politics moves on and Trump and the Republicans engage in more shenanigans. One suggestion is simply to look at the funding for science: how much money the Congress approves for the budgets of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. That funding has been decreasing for some time. Since Congress is mostly Republican, a change in sentiments should be reflected in a rise in the budgets. But that’s unlikely given Trump’s budget appropriating more money for defense, and perhaps for that accursed Wall.

When the dust settles, I don’t see a clear way to determine if the March achieved its aims.

19 Comments

  1. Rob
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    From my perspective, the main media barely gave the science march a nod.

    Trump made a statement about clean air and water (as I recall) as he also did in his speech to Congress. However, I see that as just words. He thinks saying the words gets him off the hook, meanwhile his administration continues on their merry way of sacrificing the environment in service to the fossil fuel industry.

  2. Rita
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    “In an email, he writes that “the ‘public face’ of the march appears to be the protesters; the clever signs they came up with, dressing as dinosaurs, etc.” This focus on the scientists who participated,….” Where does it say that protesters with clever signs or costumes are scientists? Did I miss something?

  3. Posted May 7, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I doubt it did harm, but it was much too forgettable to be a success.

    • Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      Now, the Great March on Washington of 1963—that was unforgettable.

  4. jwthomas
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Much money spent and energy wasted on a strategy that has failed again and again to make any significant difference. The basic symptom of neuroses.

  5. Randy schenck
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    The idea that a march or a week of marching will solve issues, such as ignorance or bigotry or a number of important issues is not reasonable. As was said long ago, our form of government, to be successful, requires an educated public. We are losing that battle big time.

    • Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      In my lifetime, there was no March for Science. (Or any pro-environment one, save for Earth Day.) So to me, the fact that there even was one, is worth noting.

      As to whether it achieved it’s aims, how would anyone know? mMany folks were there for entirely different reasons.

      • Randy schenck
        Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

        On the plus side…France just voted Le Pen out. Breaking New on CNN

        • somer
          Posted May 7, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

          Yay! and by a large margin I gather.

  6. Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    🐜

  7. organism
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    I think the aims of the march are multifold, and go beyond the errancy of the current US administration.

    Of course, the USA isn’t the only country with science-denialists in positions of power.

  8. Michael Fisher
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Get paid 25 cents [typical reward] to complete a 5 minute survey on MTurk? It’s an improvement over the PhD survey setter wondering around the campus handing out questionnaires entirely to students, but only just! e.g. I would expect U.S. ‘MTurkers’ to be more science aware than average peeps

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    “Scientists care less about solving important problems than their own personal gain”

    Scientists clearly care about personal reputation and accomplishment. But I don’t see how anyone can think they’re in it for personal financial gain. If they were, they’d be entrepreneurs, or belly up to the trough on Wall Street.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    … Trump’s budget appropriating more money for defense, and perhaps for that accursed Wall.

    Not to mention that, between healthcare and tax reform, Trump is fixin’ to undertake the largest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle-classes to the ultra wealthy in American history. The recent TrumpDon’tCare bill that passed the House alone looks to be worth a cool $7 mil per annum to Trump and the other billionaires in his cabinet.

  11. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Polling the general public seems to be missing the point, since (as I understood it) the goal was to change the attitudes of politicians.

  12. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 8, 2017 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    I agree with PCC(E)’s take.

    I think the MfS failed to accept/embrace the origin of the MfS – the origin is all about Trump and his administration.

    Failing that, it looks to me that the MfS flailed (yes flailed), reaching out for something, and, judging from the signs – what else is there – ended up grabbing lots of what I’d call scientist-as-identity and pure-science categories of things to promote. Then there were headline-grabbers like “There Is No Planet B” – thus making it sound like a climate march. Not much tearing into Trump. Some praise of “increased salaries for post-docs” with no mention of how many post-docs make the cut post-salary-raise.

    If you asked me how a March for Science would look, it’d be the pure science stuff. But that’s not what they’re REALLY trying to say.

    Go ahead and tear into Trump next time!

  13. Posted May 8, 2017 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    I was a bit disappointed in the march. I was hoping for participation from a few more high-profile scientists. As it appeared, those with the most street cred (excepting Bill Nye) stayed away in droves. Perhaps they were concerned with being associated with a particular (Liberal) ideology…but what can you do? If it’s Conservatives who deny Evolution and climate change, whose fault is that?
    ….and aren’t there Liberal science deniers too? The anti-vaxxers and GMO-phobes?

    I really don’t see any reason along those lines for staying away. Someone really has to fend off the anti-intellectualism we’re seeing more and more in the USA. Who better to do it than science popularizers? Anyway, i don’t think Ken Ham is wringing his hands over the possibility of alienating Liberals…he’s too busy selling tickets to the Ark Encounter.

    If scientists don’t get the word out we all gonna need an Ark!

    • Posted May 9, 2017 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      I too was deeply disappointed by the lack of high profile scientists supporting or taking place on the march. It was in effect a slap in the face to the many supporters who did show up for the march who did want to express their support for science itself and the process of evidential scientific inquiry/methodology, when many of our most admired figures chose not to join us. I had almost been convinced by discussions here on WEIT highlighting the flaws in message and its potential ‘ineffectiveness”, but decided that on balance it was important for me to show up – to show “solidarity”. I went to the Santa Barbara California march. It was truly inspiring. All reservations were swept aside from what I saw. Aside from the massive turnout, most of the political figures in the area were there – Congressman, Mayor, many from the Board of Supervisors – it made these politicians see the public support that science has. The speeches were inspiring, the attendance a rich cross section of lovers of science… and their CHILDREN (so important!). I believe is is really vital that such gatherings supporting science take place – it is truly motivating and energising. Perhaps the scepticism that we of a scientific bent are prone to apply to everything we see, needs to be tempered with an appreciation that nothing is perfect and that nothing will ever be achieved if we expect it to be. –

  14. somer
    Posted May 9, 2017 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    Looks like so far the March has had no demonstrable positive effect and has if anything further inclined conservatives to think of scientists as politically biased.

    The issue at stake, in my view is for goodness sake not to criticise science itself, or make broader political points, but to hammer home the importance of basic science and the need for the government to support it.

    Basic pure research science is threatened by a conservative administration that does not value it and assumes that A) technology can be furthered without fundamental research and therefore the latter is not particularly important B) they believe climate science is politically motivated and untrue C) both scientists themselves and their endeavours are inclined to the left and promote a political agenda D)they assume there should be a fairly direct connection between research and outcomes when in reality this is often unforeseen and usually depends on many scientists and engineers and is long in coming
    E) they value high involvement by private companies and big business or military applications often to the detriment of research with little business funding or pure research without a technological application on the horizon (although despite such beliefs all genuinely scientific research ultimately contributes to technological application)

    The march should be seeking to undermine these beliefs by demonstrating how pure research translates into improvements in the modern world and how it usually involves many people and is translated in unpredictable ways before it becomes useful technology or advances. Examples electricity, powerful engines that do work that would have taken 100s of humans and animals working in harsh conditions, vaccines, water pumps and sewerage systems, iodine wiping out cretinism around the world, all geological mineral and oil exploration depends on geological knowledge including plate techtonics, rock formations and earth history, understanding of atomic dating. Modern products depend on chemistry that itself depends on physics. Modern engineering depend on (mostly)newtonian physics and much high technology depends on quantum physics. Lasers, CAT scans, etc.
    Instead of whingeing about the evils facilitated by science (e.g. dynamite – which is essential in construction and infrastructure building, atomic which is used for electricity and medicine as well as war, chemical weapons – chemicals normally used for good) better to point out that uses of technology are a political issue not science issue. The vast majority of technology is made possible by science – and been used for good. Life expectancy skyrocketed world wide across classes since WW2 thanks to medical science and agricultural improvements. Practises like cannibalism, foot binding, sutti immolation, a thing of the past and infanticide very much reduced in the world. Fewer people in absolute poverty and much greater middle class world wide. Moreover prosperous power of last 400 years have been the scientific ones – and this science can be used to benefit all nations.


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