March for Science 550

So What Did the March for Science Accomplish?


In the words of a wise former colleague, “don’t know, can’t say.”

With this historic event only a week behind us, it’s going to take time to figure out if the March for Science accomplished anything significant. Part of this is due to the fact that its stated goals were rather diffuse. Data, of course, needs to be collected, sorted, and analyzed, which will happen because the March was studied by a slew of sociologists. Turnouts at the more than 600 marches worldwide were high, with enthusiastic crowds displaying a diverse cornucopia of signs and slogans not usually paraded about in public. As far as I can tell, the marches were uniformly peaceful affairs, with no counter protesters demonstrating in favor of “alternative facts.” I also saw a number of people sharing religious points of view, happily conveying their opinions that one can believe in both God and science. There was even a group of Satanists marching; I didn’t know until visiting their website that they, too, take a pro-science stance.

For me, there were two overarching (but not mutually exclusive) themes leading up to the March. Both of them were well represented in the colorful posters wielded by marchers. The first theme was an overall sense of disbelief and outrage over the spinning of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, a trend that has been co-opted and greatly expanded by the Trump administration. People are incensed when they hear the outrageous claims made by the President, and wonder how he can get away with making such patently false assertions (such as his actually winning the popular vote in the last election, or that the crowd for his inauguration was larger than Obama’s in 2009). As science is an enterprise built on a bedrock of facts and data, Trump’s contemptible lies weigh heavily on the minds of those who have both an understanding and respect for the scientific process. The second theme was an impassioned defense against a general attack on science itself. The two most widely cited examples were President Trump’s buy-in to the discredited idea that vaccines are linked to autism, and his oft-repeated claim that climate change is nothing more than a Chinese hoax. The recent removal of information about climate change and clean power from the EPA website has also stoked fears among environmental activists.

Did the March for Science transport us back to the truthful world, thereby freeing us from the swirling maelstrom that constitutes our “post-truth” environment? Have we now heard the end of “alternative facts?” Sadly, I think the answer to both questions is clearly no. Many people, however, are now more tuned into questioning the veracity of various news stories, keeping the good folks at Politifact and Snopes very busy. It’s also driven large numbers of people to subscribe to President Trump’s least favorite newspaper, the “failing” New York Times. Despite the fact that many industries report declining job numbers in recent years (including both journalists and coal miners), the need for professional fact-checkers looks to be very strong going forward.

So what did the March for Science accomplish? This is currently being debated in many quarters, and one thing I can say for sure is that initiating change is never easy. As Frederick Douglas noted, “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.” I can point to a number of positive trends highlighted by the March, and these may eventually bear significant fruit:

- It created a stronger sense of community for those who attended as well as those who weren’t able to. This applies to both scientists as well as lay people who passionately stood in defense of science. It’s always nice to know that others share the same perceptions as we do. Prior to the March I encouraged people to share their stories about what got them excited about science, and I told my personal tales of the joy I felt watching Mr. Wizard (aka Don Herbert) perform amazing experiments on TV decades before Bill Nye became the Science Guy. I even confessed how much time I spent watching episodes of Fireball XL-5 or playing with my Gilbert chemistry and Erector sets.

- It informed politicians that there’s a new coalition that they can target for votes and that they will need to pay attention to going forward. This was evident in the number of politicos that showed up at the various marches. In Seattle this included the mayor, a congresswoman, and the governor. The March also put politicians on notice that they will be held accountable (at least by some of their constituents) for making or backing policy decisions that are not science or fact based.

- It brought diversity discussions into the forefront of science debate. This included the idea that it’s important to recruit members of under-represented groups into the science community, which has been a long-standing but seldom discussed problem. It also pointed out the ramifications of poorly vetted policy decisions (where the science is ignored) that sometimes disproportionately and disastrously affect minority communities (e.g. the high lead levels in the water in Flint, MI).

- It engaged the next generation(s) of people to think about the role that science plays in their lives. Role models of actual scientists attending the march were abundant, as were numerous signs with science-themed puns. Here in Seattle, I was particularly taken by the appearance of 97-year-old Nobel laureate Ed Fischer, who came to the rally to make his voice heard in support of funding the NIH and the EPA. His sign actually illustrated what he won the Nobel Prize for; it’s hard to top that.

- It illustrated that even scientists had a variety of opinions about the advisability of the March, with concerns voiced that not only would it not accomplish anything, it could actually make things worse. Rather than being marginalized, these views were widely reported in the popular press. A diversity of opinions is always welcome in scientific debates as well as discussions about science. Some suggested that science literacy as well as an understanding of how science works was likely poorly understood by supporters of the March, as if this somehow undermines its general goals. I saw many signs calling for an increase in science education in general and in STEM subjects in particular.

- It showed that concerns about a lack of truthfulness by politicians, and the making of policy decisions that disregard actual data, is not confined to the U.S. While many would point to policies and pronouncements of the Trump administration as the inspiration for the March, there were at least 67 countries participating. This clearly highlighted the fact that many of the issues that concern the marchers, such as climate change, are truly global.

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Time will tell if the March for Science was merely a way for people to blow off steam, or whether it will truly reconnect us to the importance of truth and a shared contempt for “alternative facts.” A disregard for science is not confined to any one point on the political spectrum. While climate change and evolution deniers are generally associated with the right, those who are anti-vaccination are more often allied with the left. At this point it’s in our hands to follow up on the March and stay engaged. As Bobby Kennedy put it, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
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