Marching Brought Scientists Together—But What Do They Do Now?
PEACEFUL, ORDERLY, RATIONAL, and with a lot of signs too clever by half (actually, 0.56932 according to our measurements)—that’s how scientists march on Washington. It’s also how they march in more than 600 of them all over the world on Saturday, with even a few wintering-over researchers in Antarctica signaling their support. The movement covered all seven continents.
The March for Science was controversial almost from its inception. As you might expect from a field that prides itself on internal error correction, scientists worried about becoming overtly political, and then rightly worried about their own internal politics—a history of exclusion of women and people of color, colonialism, a sordid past with the military and industry. Look, science is only 500 years old. Give it time.
When the march was over and the pictures of crowded streets and fun signs started hitting social media, the participants—scientists and enthusiasts alike—seemed happy. In the afterglow it felt important that hundreds of thousands of people had gathered to advocate for science.
It’s good to see scientists begin to own the messier, human side of their pursuit. In the late 1980s, when social scientists and other researchers suggested that physics and biology were just as socially constructed as religion or philosophy, many scientists didn’t really want to hear it. Anyone who suggested gravity was a social construct was invited to step out a high window to check their theory. It didn’t help that the social scientists were as fogged in by field-specific jargon as any quantum theorist.
But I think today most open-minded researchers, whatever side of the Quad they’re from, agree that culture at least determines what questions get asked and what angles on those questions get funded. And surely it’s not controversial to say that having the whole endeavor dominated by white men is unethical, unconscionable, and stupidly self-defeating. Only fresh perspectives and new ideas can shift recalcitrantly immovable paradigms.
Saturday’s marches showed the world a scientific community that is trying to learn these lessons, that values diversity in both thoughts and thinkers, and that can bring a planet together in defense of science as a concept and an approach to understanding the universe.
That post-march afterglow is warranted. Unification and progress are great—but now scientists will have to consider what that unification looks like from the outside, to the forces they were marching against. In the worst case, it’ll look like a vulnerability.
Scientists can and should be political. They vote. They can lobby for funding. They can run for office. They are, after all, citizens.
But no matter how carefully the mission statements read, a collective march that asserts the fundamental political value of science, not just scientists, is different. It implies a political role for the entire endeavor. And even though it might have been the right move, it was a risky one.
Until now, when Lamar Smith, the chair of the House Science Committee, said that climate scientists come to their conclusions for political reasons rather than science, he sounded like Darth Sidious addressing the Galactic Senate. But now that science, collectively, has operated as a political force, the game has shifted to Smith’s home field. Scientists have engaged in collective action on their own behalf. When officials like Smith and the EPA-hating head of the EPA Scott Pruitt have the long knives out, it’s an admission that could show those enemies exactly where to cut.
Anybody who’s ever been to a political march knows that it’s hard to find three people who agree what the thing is about. But that said, this march had a website. According to the mission statements there, the march was about activating scientists to speak up—“people who value science have remained silent for far too long …. We face a possible future where people not only ignore scientific evidence, but seek to eliminate it entirely.” The assertion here is that science isn’t partisan, but should be part of all policy.
That’s almost noncontroversial. Science is the best way human beings have come up with to understand and affect the universe. It’s a human endeavor, with all the problems inherent in everything humans do—it’s imperfect, full of mediocrity and venality, subject to ego and greed. (Just like journalism!) But it aspires to fix all of that with precision, innovation, repetition, and cleverness. (Just like journalism!)
Maybe that works in an argument over political priorities and policy, too. A good outcome of the march would be that activist scientists will have a new answer to charges of bias or corruption. That’s all part of the method, they’ll say—acknowledge imperfections and talk about how to correct them. The framework for knowledge remains solid.
But I don’t think that’ll work. That’s a winning line at a conference, but not in a congressional hearing. The rhetorical forms are too different. Policymaking certainly aspires to the same reliance on evidence and attempt to build something useful that science does. But politics, as a practice, uses the idea that something was wrong in the past to show it’ll be wrong in the future. You can’t use politics to argue that science transcends politics.