science denial



The March for Science may herald a new activism on the part of scientists, and that is tremendous. People are marching for a variety of reasons (for science, for funding and their jobs, against Trump, for more inclusion of scientists in the political process, to demonstrate a love for science, to change the culture of science away from sexism and racism, etc), and are not marching for a smaller variety of reasons (science shouldn’t be political, marching will send the wrong message and alienate people, scientists are partnering with the wrong people), all of which is typical of the beginning of a movement.

(Some of the many articles about the March for Science are curated at the end of the article, in categories according to approval or disapproval of the march and of activism among scientists.)

One of the most encouraging aspects of the march is that many of the organizers and participants are non-scientists who cherish the wonders of science. A world in which science is integrated with the humanities, social sciences, and other creative pursuits sounds pretty wonderful, and the partnerships being made through the march can bring new understanding and potential into all our endeavors.

But somehow, what the march isn’t is troubling. It isn’t honest. It rebrands itself constantly, to retain the good graces of…hard to say what- the public?

Shouldn’t scientists be more honest about their culture and enterprise to be sure the trust they are requesting from the public is earned? Shouldn’t discussions of the march be deep and provocative and brutally honest?

Instead, there is quiet, disapproval, censorship, in contradiction to the march motto, “Science, not silence.”

The D.C. March organizers deleted tweets about the massive bomb in Afghanistan, chemical weapons, and scientist involvement in weapons. Mention of that disappeared everywhere but in the right- wing press, where it was heralded as a typical anti- patriot left-wing statement, and is still getting air time a week later (Here is a link to a April 19 National Review article.). This deletion is straight-forward censorship. Diversity may, shamefully, be controversial as a topic, but war is forbidden.

March organizers are deciding what is political, and what isn’t. We mustn’t offend anyone! Don’t mention conflicts of interest, weapons research, the harsh penalties for environmental activism or whistleblowing, the pervasive influence of sexism and racism on individuals and kind of science done…. Instead, the march is a pep rally, a Super Bowl extravaganza, an orchestrated national political convention. A look at the National Review article linked in the above paragraph suggests how effective tip-toeing around is in trying to change minds.

Nature just published a quick summary of the march, attributing the initial enthusiasm to post-Trump anger and fear, and then describing the insistence of organizers and supporters that the march is not political.

This decision to placate Republican politicians may be more than inexperience, or cowardice. Both CNN and The New York Times have extensive coverage of this march.

It might also be that scientists have great power in the United States, and they don’t want to perturb that power. While individuals are disposable, science in integrally associated with the military, with the government and regulatory agencies, with academia and with corporations. Perhaps they don’t want to challenge the status quo too much. A good summary of the funding for science that influences research can be found in the SGR statement for the March of Science issued by the UK Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), which supports the march but calls for scientists to stand up for society.

Perhaps the majority make-up of the march -white, educated, perhaps mostly liberal- is not yet ready to be straightforward or to make sacrifices needed for real change in science and for science, for all (if, indeed, that is what they even want). A reminder from friend Jesse White pointed me to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham jail” which King addressed to clergyman who objected to his activist stance.

It seems the March for Science is accepting a negative peace, not yet ready to spend their social capital. But individuals will march for what they believe, and may be able to leverage this opportunity to use science to better the world.