Sunday, April 23, 2017

Thoughts after the March for Science

About 10000 people turned out (according to the Houston Chronicle) for our local version of the March for Science.   Observations:

  • While there were some overtly partisan participants and signs, the overarching messages that came through were "We're all in this together!", "Science has made the world a better place, with much less disease and famine, a much higher standard of living for billions, and a greater understanding of the amazingness of the universe.", "Science does actually provide factual answers to properly formulated scientific questions", and "Facts are not opinions, and should feed into policy decisions, rather than policy positions altering what people claim are facts."
  • For a bunch of people often stereotyped as humorless, scientists had some pretty funny, creative signs.  A personal favorite:  "The last time scientists were silenced, Krypton exploded!"  One I saw online:  "I can't believe I have to march for facts."
  • Based on what I saw, it's hard for me to believe that this would have the negative backlash that some were worrying about before the event.  It simply wasn't done in a sufficiently controversial or antagonistic way.  Anyone who would have found the messages in the first point above to be offensive and polarizing likely already had negative perceptions of scientists, and (for good or ill) most of the population wasn't paying much attention anyway.
So what now?

  • Hopefully this will actually get more people who support the main messages above to engage, both with the larger community and with their political representatives.  
  • It would be great to see some more scientists and engineers actually run for office.  
  • It would also be great if more of the media would get on board with the concept that there really are facts.  Policy-making is complicated and must take into account many factors about which people can have legitimate disagreements, but that does not mean that every statement has two sides.  "Teach the controversy" is not a legitimate response to questions of testable fact.  In other words, Science is Real
  • Try to stay positive and keep the humor and creativity flowing.  We are never going to persuade a skeptical, very-busy-with-their-lives public if all we do is sound like doomsayers.


Anonymous said...

I liked "So bad, even introverts are here"

I was (am?) sceptical about this march. I think we've been preaching to the choir.
The people that would need to pay attention (to the fact that facts matter and that science is best positioned to provide facts) will not be changed in any way by this.

I get that that is not a good reason not to let ones voice be heard, but the potential problem is (and I have not -yet- listened to Fox/Hannity/Limbaugh to confirm this) that this march will be construed by those who should be paying attention as some partisan affair - which would in fact strengthen the resolve of those who should be paying attention to in fact not to pay attention.
(It appears I've found a new PC way to speak about those on the other side of the isle...)

Don Monroe said...

Here in Boston, I thought the positive affirmations of the importance of science far outnumbered the smattering of partisan or anti-Trump signs and speeches, so it seemed to me to add to polarization less than I feared. But the negative signs did exist, and I've already seen one poster about tiny hands featured in the coverage of the DC march, which may be enough to stoke the flames.

Ross H. McKenzie said...

For a good critical response to the Marches, I recommend this blog post

Scientists should take a harder look at themselves. How can we claim to stand for truth when many promote hype, use metrics, publish nonsense about topics such as quantum biology in luxury journals, and make ridiculous claims such as building a solid state quantum computer using Majorana fermions (which will of course be used in drug discovery and materials by design)?

Douglas Natelson said...

Ross, thanks for the interesting link. Scientists should, indeed, take a harder look at ourselves. We should try to do better. Science is an endeavor practiced by humans, and so it will not be perfect. There are hype artists, hucksters, and occasionally people who are not very nice or considerate. That being said, if the argument is that somehow the imperfections of science as-practiced are so grave that it is appropriate or better to cede the field to people who consider science no better than astrology or purely ideological opinion, I don't buy it.

DanM said...

Ross, I have to side with Doug on this one. Of course science is imperfect. That's obvious. However, it hardly justifies giving equal weight to creationists or people who think that vaccines cause autism or that all the extra CO2 in the air is a good thing. I mean, the kind of "how can we stand for truth" question that you asked could equally well be applied to ANY enterprise at all. How can the Roman Catholic church claim any sort of moral high ground when some small fraction of its priests are pedophiles? How can the American government claim any legitimacy to govern when there have been some congressmen convicted of fraud? How can we laud firemen as heros when I once knew a fireman who was a coward?

You mistake the flaws of the few for the legitimacy of the overall effort. To me, it certainly seems legitimate that we (the scientific enterprise) CAN claim to stand for truth, even if some of us (individuals) aren't very good at our jobs.