Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Why I think the March for Science is misguided

There's been a lot of discussion of the upcoming March for Science, among both scientists and non-scientists.  I respect the motivations of the people organizing it and the people taking part, but the fact is, I've given it quite a bit of thought and concluded that at best this march will be very ineffective, and at worst it could be very counterproductive.  My key reasons are as follows:
  • First and foremost, the biggest general problem science faces isn't a particular administration, but rather general ignorance about what science is and how science works.  This ignorance pervades the government, the press, popular entertainment, and society at large.  Short of outright saying "let's vote for what's true", it's hard for me to think of a worse way to illustrate how science is than a popular march.  Yeah, I suppose there will be a few signs like this 
    but I suspect there will be a lot more like this
    and if seeing this guy influences your opinion about climate change in any way, that's not science.
  • Marching for "science" is a bit like saying "All lives matter": you risk diluting the legitimate problems by overgeneralizing.  In spite of the generic problem discussed above, the fact is that most scientific research marches forward blissfully unaware of the political maelstroms raging around it.   The truth is that very specific fields of science are facing anti-science attacks, and these attacks tend to align strongly with particular political ideologies. We should be very clear as to what these are. It's true, Republicans tend to be very anti-science when it comes to climate studies,
    They also have a tendency to be anti-evolution, but the Democrats have nothing to be proud about in that area either.
    Speaking of Democrats, they take the lead in being anti-science when it comes to GMOs, nuclear power, EMFs,
    and a whole smorgasbord of "alternative medicine" gobbledygook.  The anti-vaccine movement seems to be a pretty bi-partisan stupidity these days, but liberals still tend to be the most vocal about it
    Each of these things requires a totally different plan of attack. Trying to take them on all at once is - as a colleague of mine likes to say, "moving forward in all directions". 
  • Not political?  Give me a break.  Sure, the website says all the right things about how it will be "non-partisan" and how "both sides are guilty", but there's no hiding the that that this is a reaction to our collective disbelief that someone as disconnected from objective reality as Donald Trump got elected. Believe me, I'm as dumbfounded as anyone, but science has been in trouble before.  Canceling the Superconducting Super Collider was a blow to US science that we have yet to recover from.  We did rally scientists, but there was no generic "march for science".  That's because we all thought of Bill Clinton as a smart guy, even though a lot of his Administration's science policies were extremely short sighted.  Even if people show up with the best intentions, if there are even few signs like this
    then it's a political march, not a scientific one, which brings us to...
  • You can't control who shows up to a march, and protests are invariably remembered for the worst people who come to the party, even if they weren't invited.  I'll bet a beer that most of the people who show up won't be scientists, or people in any way associated with science, and that it won't be just a bit political, it will be very political. I guaranty we'll see a lot of signs like these
    and it doesn't take many to completely de-legitimize the whole thing.  But course, things could get much worse.  Whenever there's a protest, there's a chance these Black Bloc whackadoodles
    will show up, and if they do, no one is going to care that they didn't get an engraved invitation.  It's just not a risk worth taking.

So what can we do? The system really can work, but you have to be specific with what you're asking for.  Back in 1997, a group of Congressmen, led by Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin was moving to cut all US funding to the LHC.  Rather than a generic call for "science", physicists from all over the country went to Washington to educate and lobby Congress and the result was that funding was preserved and remains large today.  Later this month, I'll be part of a delegation that goes every year to meet with Congresspeople. We're not asking them to support "science", we're making very specific requests with respect to one field of science.

The big issue at hand is climate science, so why dilute it by throwing in a bunch of other stuff?