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The March for Science Isn’t ‘Political’—It’s a Defense of Basic Truth

Some scientists feel uncomfortable about the Science March, arguing that it will ‘politicize’ science. I couldn’t disagree more.

By Eric Holthaus


Earlier today, the organizers of the D.C. March for Science announced a date for the rally: Earth Day, April 22nd, 2017. The event could very well end up being the largest demonstration of scientists in our nation’s history — hundreds of satellite rallies are already being planned across the country. There are already more than 1.3 million supporters across Facebook and Twitter — and observers are already drawing comparisons to the massive Women’s March held the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Since the March for Science is taking place on Earth Day, there will probably be a special focus on environmental science, and on the particular threats climate science faces under a Trump administration that’s openly hostile to objective truths they don’t like. But above all, organizers hope the March for Science will be a celebration of science and the fact that scientists are citizens too — acknowledging the enormous debt we owe to those who devote their lives to furthering human understanding. (The most recent episode of my podcast, Warm Regards, focuses on the tension that scientists now face under Trump and how scientists form a key part of the resistance to a post-fact world.)

Still, there are some scientists who feel uncomfortable about the March for Science. Geologist Robert S. Young wrote a New York Times op-ed on Tuesday capturing this view and arguing that “a march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about.” I couldn’t disagree more. Here are three reasons why:

  1. Science has always been political. (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Gavin Schmidt has a good thread on this today.) Any time there is new knowledge that forces us to confront received wisdom and the status quo, there will be winners and losers. For hundreds of years, going back at least to Galileo, scientists have been singled out for insisting on a reality that is at odds with closely held beliefs of those holding political power. It is the job of science and scientists to explore reality and tell the truth, no matter how hard it is to hear.
  2. Scientists are human beings with families. (My podcast co-host Jacquelyn Gill — who is also one of the organizers of the D.C. march — has a good thread on this today.) We have values and ethics and hopes and dreams for our children, just like everyone else. We make mistakes too, and our values directly influence our choice of what we study. We do not know everything. But we have a very powerful tool — the scientific method — that helps us to set aside (at least at some level) our preconceived beliefs and find out what really is, not just what we want the world to be like — even as we imperfectly explore the world around us. This is the process of science, and why science, by definition, must be open and collaborative and diverse. (Hmm … a good model for society as a whole?) You can see why scientists might be angry, frustrated, and nervous about an administration that seems to reject these core values.
  3. Scientists must defend the truth. When scientists (or anyone, really) notice a threat to society that is so large as to be potentially existential — like climate change or the proliferation of nuclear weapons — it is our duty to say something, and say it loudly. Scientists may think of themselves as introverted or apolitical — and many of us are — but that should never stop you from using your voice at this critical moment. We don’t have to have all the answers; that’s what our elected representatives and leaders should be debating, in theory. But if our leaders are not even having an effective debate (or, in this case, are actively making things worse), it is our responsibility to insist on action for the good of society as a whole.

At risk is the very idea of our country’s decades-long commitment to upholding things like scientific progress and human rights and democracy itself. In his first statement as a former president, Barack Obama went even further on Monday, warning on just the 10th full day of the Trump presidency, that “American values are at stake.”

It all feels surreal, but it is actually happening, including the administration’s insistence — even in the face of incontrovertible, objective evidence — that their reality, their truth, is the real truth. From photographs of the crowds on inauguration day to this weekend’s outpouring of emotion at airports nationwide — the White House has continued to insist things are proceeding smoothly and that Trump is winning, whatever that means. The Washington Post even ran a confounding report about how Trump insisted that the clouds parted and the sun came out during his inauguration speech — when video, and radar, and satellite imagery clearly show that it was cloudy and raining. We are now living in a country where our head of state routinely utters falsehoods about even mundane things — about things that can’t possibly have happened the way he says they did. As a scientist and journalist and someone who has dedicated my life to pursuing truth, it is deeply, deeply offensive to me that the idea of truth itself is being called into question. How are we supposed to carry on as normal? The answer is that we don’t. The answer is that we march.