On April 22, something truly remarkable happened. Scientists and non-scientists alike marched in protest in more than six hundred locations around the world, including Stockholm. Never before have the advocates of science been so united, and so public in their concern. What prompted this extraordinary event?
Story by: Matthijs Dorst
The troubled history of Science
Let’s take a step back. Science has always had its opponents: when Galileo reasserted that the heavens did not revolve around the Earth, the inquisition was less than pleased. John Snow’s germ theory on the cholera outbreaks in London was received as “peculiar”. When Sir Ronald Fisher proposed that smoking could cause cancer, it took decades before this was generally accepted. The list of controversial scientific views goes on: from genetically modified foods to the idea of a flat earth, someone, somewhere, will disagree with scientific consensus.
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”
Of course, disagreeing with scientific consensus in itself is not always a bad thing: if Einstein did not question Newton’s law of universal gravitation, our sci-fi movies would have far fewer wormholes. Trying to disproof a theory is practically the definition of the scientific method. And even when dissent is not based on proof, its effects may be harmless: if your crazy uncle thinks the earth is flat, at worst the family Christmas dinner will get a bit more awkward.
But what if your crazy uncle also believes that vaccines should be avoided? In Romania, 17 children died in a recent measles outbreak, after vaccine coverage dropped from 97% in 2007 to just 86% in 2015 (1). And what if your crazy uncle is a senator? A congressman? A president? What if policy is being on unfounded believes, rather than scientific fact?
Science, not Silence.
“This isn’t just about jobs to us, if we cared about money we wouldn’t be in this field in the first place. This is about the future of every organism on earth, many that haven’t even been born yet. We have to fight.”
User retardcharzard on Reddit
The initial spark happened in that marvellous but unlikely corner of the internet known as Reddit, on the day of Trump’s inauguration. As is custom, the White House website was updated that day, and soon it became apparent that all references to climate change had been scrubbed. When this story from Motherboard appeared on Reddit, it quickly gained tens of thousands of upvotes, and calls for action by many of its users.
In the days that followed, more worrying news emerged: the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, banned its scientists from speaking directly with the press. Existing data would be made inaccessible, possibly even deleted. A similar policy was enacted in Canada years before, when former prime minister Stephan Harper severely limited how environmental research could be communicated. This blatant censorship rubbed many scientists the wrong way, and this time they were ready for it. They were prepared. The rogue Parks and Recreations twitter account was not having any of it, and inspired by the Women’s March on Washington earlier, the call came for a Science March on Washington.
Since various scientists generally get along about as well as a sack full of cats, it must have come as a surprise to be greeted with approval. The organizers soon found willing organizers everywhere to march in solidarity, even in countries like Sweden where public trust in science is high. Ere long, satellite marches were organized everywhere, from the North Pole to the Antarctic(2). Scientists, never particularly vocal in matters of policy, had decided to make the biggest political statement in the history of science. The responses started rolling in soon after.
Does marching for science risk being a political statement, wondered many aloud? “Yes”, came the answer, “that’s sort of the point”. It remained a difficult topic throughout: scientists did not want to be seen as “anti-Trump”, yet they clearly marched against the policies he enacted. The organizers explicitly stated that they have no intention of promoting one political party over another, so we must assume any semblance between their mission statement and the manifest of certain political parties was entirely coincidental(3).
Vigilant as the organizers were to condemn any form of partisanship, their attention to diversity left something to be desired. That is to say, many people felt they should try having some. [#ZQ4] Simultaneously, some scientists like Steven Pinker publically criticized the march for being too “anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric”.
Science has a long and somewhat embarrassing history of slightly exhibiting systematic racism and discrimination. Eugenics for example was directly inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution, and advocated by many famous scientists (4). Similarly, sexual harassment and sexual discrimination are rife to this day, with famous scientists like John Searle receiving accusations of misconduct and their administrations shielding them from prosecution. “Could we perhaps make a statement to condone this racial and sexual discrimination, and to stand up for marginalised scientists”, some asked? Surprisingly, “diversity is a distraction from the real work of the march” was not the answer many were hoping for. Eventually, early organizers who were pushing for more inclusiveness, like Jacquelyn Gill, left the organizing committee and bannered under the #marginsci hashtag. In an extreme example, the city of Memphis, Tennessee saw two separate marches for science: one striving to be as unpartisan as possible, and one organized directly to support marginalized communities in STEM. Scientists, as it turns out, really cannot agree on anything after all (5).
The Future of Science
Where will Science go from here? Ultimately, the goal of the March for Science is to ensure the continuation of scientific research, to promote science-based policy making, and to enable scientists to work on important issues even when politicians would prefer them not to. But how do you go from holding up a sign on the streets, to affecting the mind-set of, essentially, everyone?
A study in 2013 (6) reported that Americans watching conservative media like Fox News were less likely to trust scientists. In turn, this decreased their belief in scientific consensus on issues like global warming and vaccinations. More recent studies found similar results: the less people trust scientists, the more likely they are to doubt scientific findings. Many science advocates have called for more and better scientific education. But the main problem is not scientific illiteracy. Many climate chance deniers know very well that scientists believe humans caused global warming. They simply don’t trust those scientists.
Whatever good the march may have done, it was only a first step in regaining trust in science. Now is the time for scientists to reach out, to convince their local community that science helps people, and that science-based policy helps everyone. Perhaps more importantly, to show everyone what a real living scientist looks like, and what scientists try to accomplish. We cannot expect people to trust in science without first convincing them to trust in scientists. Hopefully, with the help of good science communicators, more people will trust scientists to act for the good of all of us. With time, policy may follow.
(1) The recommended interrupt transmission threshold for measles is 95%.
(2) Presumably, the penguins observing the march were very impressed.
(3) Narrator: It was not.
(4) For a local reminder, visit one of the statues of Gustav Retzius on the Karolinska campus!
(5) Much to the relief of fortune-tellers everywhere, who assumed that any group of scientists agreeing and collaborating with each other for so long must surely herald the impending apocalypse.
(6) Hmielowski, Jay D., et al. “An attack on science? Media use, trust in scientists, and perceptions of global warming.” Public Understanding of Science 23.7 (2014): 866-883.