05.1.2017

Making sense of the March for Science

reportedly sees the 22 April March for Science, held in Washington, DC, and hundreds of other locations worldwide, as “pretty unprecedented” among past analogues, thanks to “a broader perception of a massive attack” on “notions of truth that are sacred to the scientific community.” Why the qualifier “pretty”? Maybe Proctor sees what took place, but—like most other observers quoted or writing in the media—can’t confidently formulate a coherent theory to explain the data. It’s easy online to retrieve copies of coverage, most of it relying heavily on the comments and witty signs of participants. The New York Times, reporting anecdotally in a visual way, placed online a vivid photo collage of march scenes. The Washington Post, Slate and others posted photo collages showing marchers’ signs. Any survey of the news coverage likely suggests that the most-reported slogan was probably some version of “What do we want? Evidence-based policy. When do we want it? After peer review.” Nature reported on science marches around the world—Mexico City, Boston, Washington, Denver, London, Paris, Munich, and Sydney—and presented long comments from participants and holdouts. The Sydney Morning Herald tied the march to Trump and reported head counts of 3000 there and 4000 in Melbourne. Despite march organizer Caroline Weinberg’s claim of nonpartisanship, most reporting and commentary has been founded on a simple assumption, borne out in what’s quoted from participants: If there had been no President Donald Trump, there’d have been no March for Science. One news report quoted a Washington speaker, Denis Hayes, cofounder of the first Earth Day in 1970, charging that the White House “reeks of greed and sleaze and mendacity.” He declared, “America has had 45 presidents, but we have never before had a president who is completely indifferent to the truth. Donald Trump makes Richard Nixon look like Diogenes.” In a commentary at Fortune, editor in chief Clifton Leaf, conscious of marchers’ witty signs, called the march successful thanks to “left-brained whimsy in a sea of supposedly right-brained thinkers.” His premise was that the target wasn’t politics or a politician, but “a core driver in the human psyche: fear”—that is, unsettling fear of disruption associated with science, from climate change to the technological churn of industries. The marchers “didn’t try to counter fear with stridency,” Leaf wrote. Instead, their “antidotes were humor, cleverness, and the celebration of human ingenuity.” Science March skepticism For all the celebration, there was also plenty of criticism to go around. Unsurprisingly, a lot of it concerned climate. In a 3-minute Fox News clip, Princeton physics professor William Happer declared that most marchers don’t actually know any science. Happer, who has been floated as a potential Trump science adviser, complained that climate research hasn’t actually been science anyway, but is religious dogma instead. Physicist and national science leader Steven Koonin didn’t condemn the March for Science, but he posed a deliberately timed challenge to participants and supporters. On the day before the march, a Wall Street Journal op-ed appeared from him under the headline “A ‘Red Team’ exercise would strengthen climate science: Put the ‘consensus’ to a test, and improve public understanding, through an open, adversarial process.” Koonin framed it, at both start and end, in terms of the march. He was calling for climate science to adopt a formal vetting process used in, for example, national security matters—with the inherent, and inherently volatile, presumption that much remains debatable about the science of climate. The process, he wrote, is important because the “public is largely unaware of the intense debates within climate science.” The “inherent tension of a professional adversarial process,” he predicted, “would enhance public interest, offering many opportunities to show laymen how science actually works.” The March for Science has drawn further criticism, some of it quite harsh. A portion of it builds on the complication expressed earlier in the Atlantic, that the march had too many stated goals to be coherent. The Atlantic discerned 21. At Fox News, the physics-PhD-holding science journalist Michael Guillen, declaring himself “a theoretical physicist,” condemned the march as “a brazen attempt by political activists to hijack science.” National Review editor Rich Lowry scowled that the march’s problem was “its larger ambition to enlist science in the anti-Trump movement” and declared that it was actually the marchers who “literally” sought to politicize science. Another National Review article joined other publications in condemning march organizers’ alleged sympathy for terrorists bombed by US forces. “According to the scientists running the March for Science twitter page,” the article charged, “terrorists who burn people alive, hack off their heads, and gang rape adolescent girls are ‘marginalized.’” Further criticism came in the form of navel-gazing from participants and supporters. Taylor Tobin, a graduate student in astronomy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, addressed in Nature the much-discussed diversity dimension:

Initially I was planning on going, but now I’m not so sure. I agree that we need to fight to hold this administration accountable about the truth and, specifically, climate change. But the way many of the march branches have bungled inclusion and the needs of scientists as a diverse set of humans has given me second thoughts. Associated leaders of certain branches have been actively harassing women of color on social media, and I’ve seen people label the push for equity and inclusion in the March as divisive. But if you shy away from inclusivity, that’s divisive, too. I’ve heard that the Champaign-Urbana March is making efforts towards equity, so I’ll probably go to that one. I do plan on making multiple signs to hold up: some about truth in science, and some about equity and inclusion. They’re both big problems that need to be addressed.
A commentary at Forbes.com contemplated women’s ubiquity in the march and asked “why we don’t see more women speaking at technical conferences, quoted in the media, or idolized as icons of science[.] Why is a group so numerous, so ready to hit the ground and speak out for what they believe, still almost invisible in many of the channels that amplify the voices of men?” At Huffington Post, with an entirely different focus, an essayist dismissed science march participants as having supported a “naive objectivist view” that “denies the actual reality of the world in which human cognition operates.” A commentary at the Atlantic concluded that the significance of the event was that the participants “seemed to learn how to be a little more comfortable with activism.” In some sense, condemnations must represent something like a theory for making sense of the data, and if that’s so, one apparently supportable generalization is this: The march elevated the status of Bill Nye as a combative, controversial, much-criticized advocate for science. Appearing on a CNN panel with Happer, he criticized CNN for including the climate scoffer. A Washington Post Style section article summed up Nye’s status: Two decades after his 1990s TV show, he “has become more than the zany educator-entertainer who charmed kids with cartoonish sound effects. He is an activist for science, leading those now-grownups into political battle.” Looking for results In the Scientific American article “The March for Science is just the first step,” march organizer Weinberg expressed the hope of channeling marchers’ “passion into a lasting movement that breaks down the barriers between scientists and their communities.” Citing “community centers, retirement homes, rotary clubs or athletic leagues—wherever it is,” Weinberg apparently believes that the march can generate a transformational, consequential new relationship between scientists and society. So what is next? The March for Science website proclaims, “We marched. Now, we act.” It emphasizes three kinds of action: citizen science projects, STEAM projects (where the inserted A stands for art), and contacting Trump. Physicist and AAAS CEO Rush Holt emphasized to an interviewer the need to “put in place a process for capturing all the energy and the talent of the marchers and channel it to effective action.” He named goals for that effective action, but said little about how to establish the process. Recently New York Times columnist and ardent Trump critic Charles M. Blow wrote about what he called the “resilience of the resistance” to the president. He never mentioned the March for Science, but he could have, since that resistance spirit pervaded the event. And if he had looked at the webpage introducing a 3-minute video for another march for science, the 29 April People’s Climate March for Climate, Jobs, and Justice, he’d have seen this assertion: “Trump’s game plan has been to relentlessly attack our communities and shock us into despair.” It may be that nobody yet understands how to formulate a high-level understanding of the 22 April march, but it’s completely clear who inspired it. Steven T. Corneliussen is Physics Today’s media analyst. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA’s history program, and was a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.   This article appeared on the Physics Today website at http://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.5.8216/full/]]>

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