Why I support the March for Science

First, I have not the slightest concern about politicizing science. Science has long ago been politicized. It was politicized when elected representatives, from school board members to United States Senators, denied the reality of global warming (climate change, if you prefer), biological evolution, the deleterious effects of pollution, the urgent need for everyone to be vaccinated, and the need for conservation of our natural resources. Science was politicized when Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution, when Oppenheimer was denied his security clearance, and when the Trump administration decided to delete certain EPA webpages (later rescinded).

Robert S. Young (presumably no relation to me) proclaimed in the New York Times that a scientists’ march is a bad idea. He bases his thinking largely on an anecdote: He once co-authored a report warning that sea level might rise by 39 inches (1 meter) by the end of the century. Real estate and other interests attacked the report, and the legislature passed a law that prohibited any planning based on an anticipated rise in sea level. Professor Young’s conclusion is that neither the people in general nor the legislators in particular had ever met a scientist, so scientists should go out and

[m]ake contact with that part of America that doesn’t know any scientists. Put a face on the debate. Help them understand what we do, and how we do it. Give them your email, or better yet, your phone number.

He has a point, but as Jerry Coyne notes, we would have to stop being scientists and become lobbyists.

Professor Coyne is concerned about politicizing the March, which he fears might change from

a pro-science march to a pro-social justice march. Now there’s nothing wrong with marching in favor of minority rights and against oppression, but if you mix that stuff up with science, as the March organization seems to be doing, well, that  is a recipe for ineffectiveness.

Here I have to agree with him, but the quotation he provides has by his own admission already been withdrawn.

What I fear, however, is that the March will become politicized in a different way: It will be seen as a liberal activity, and science itself will be seen as a liberal activity. Indeed, it may already be seen that way: Most of the denialism that I cited above is entertained by the right wing; only vaccine denialism is prominent among liberals. Indeed, I found the following exchange on the March website. A punctuationally challenged individual wrote,

… the president is not a symbol of america, he’s a symbol or [sic] ignorance and stupidity. it’s no longer the 1970’s america. learn to use a computer for [expletive] sake

to which someone replied,

clearly, the leftists have to resort to vulgarity sans facts. Sad.

Unfortunately, both of those people probably see science as a liberal activity.

For that reason, I urge the organizers of the March to eschew overtly partisan signs and speeches, and also (in agreement with Professor Coyne) leave concerns about “inclusiveness” or discrimination for another time. I was gratified to see that, according to photographs posted by the Boston Globe, the marchers on Copley Square in Boston did exactly that.

Unfortunately, the other day, I saw this query on the March’s Facebook page:

Have you guys reached out to or heard from any LGBTQ+ equality organizations? The two that come to mind … are NOGLSTP and oSTEM. I would love to have a contingent of other concerned gay/trans scientists to march with in solidarity.

I have not the vaguest idea what those initialisms mean, but March for Science responded positively. March for Science Denver now, as I am writing, just posted something very sensitive about working “to make science available to everyone and encouraging individuals of all backgrounds to pursue science careers, especially in advanced degrees and positions.” Which is fine, as long as the March speakers and marchers stick to the science.

Now, it would not hurt to humanize scientists a little bit, as Professor Young advises. But, with Professor Coyne, I still think that the March should be mostly about science as such, and I frankly hope that it will not become swamped in a haze (sorry) of special interests. The March should be about science policy, scientific thinking, evidence-based science, junk science, alternative “facts,” suppression of scientific results, and not about inclusivity, social justice, and so on. Jeffrey Mervis of Science magazine echoes the advice of a “veteran science lobbyist,” Michael Lubell, of City College:

Make it a march for science, not a march by scientists.