Will the Big Turnout for the Science March Help or Hurt Its Cause?

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While the public is polarized on many scientific issues, it holds scientists and science in relatively high esteem—at least for now.

By Seth Masket

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Protestors are seen at a rally at the Boston Commons during for the March for Science on April 22nd, 2017. (Photo: Ryan McBride/AFP/Getty Images)

Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Washington, D.C., and across the country this past Saturday for the March for Science. What kind of effect is this likely to have?

Scientists across a wide range of disciplines have rightly called out the Trump administration for its hostile actions toward the scientific community, which include clamping down on government scientific research and preventing scientists from collecting and disseminating their findings. Protesters have also pushed back against efforts by elected officials, mainly Republicans, to dismiss scientific findings with which they do not agree, particularly those related to climate change.

But what is the best way to resist this? We should note that a public demonstration is just one of many tools in an activist’s toolkit. And it is an important tool, but not necessarily appropriate for all circumstances. Marches were vital at many key moments during the civil rights movement, for example, but it was lawyers that won the Brown v. Board of Education case, civil disobedience that opened up lunch counters, and courageous children, patient organizers, and armed soldiers that integrated Little Rock Central High School.

While scientists have traditionally not been ones to organize mass demonstrations on behalf of their profession, many have been active politically in other ways. Scientists have lobbied Congress and state legislatures for decades on a variety of important topics. Some have engaged in acts of civil disobedience as well. Carl Sagan was arrested protesting nuclear testing back in 1987, and earlier this year some scientists sought to copy federal climate change data to preserve it, while others began alternative Twitter accounts to keep their voices from being silenced by the new administration.

It could potentially do for the scientific community what the Women’s March did for many women back in January — remind them that they are not alone and have organization, energy, and numbers on their side.

A mass, multi-city demonstration, like Saturday’s action, was a new approach though. And it carried some risks. Geologist Robert Young warned that highly visible displays of scientists politically pushing back against Republicans just confirm conservative arguments about scientists — that they’re a disproportionately liberal interest group and that their claims are just as political as those of their opponents.

Further, as political scientist Megan Mullin suggested, the march has the potential to polarize the public about science. As she notes, while the public is polarized on many scientific issues, it holds scientists and science in relatively high esteem (at least compared to other institutions) on a bipartisan basis. The mass public isn’t necessarily the primary target for these demonstrations — policymakers are — but if the public becomes more polarized in its attitudes toward science, that could potentially make the problem worse.

This research pushes back against several arguments I’ve seen in favor of marching, including this article by David Roberts. The piece beautifully describes the roles of science and the crisis it currently faces, but doesn’t really explain why a march would help this situation. Roberts’ conclusion is basically that science is already polarized, so we might as well march. But as Mullins’ research shows, things could still get substantially more polarized, and the march could potentially worsen that.

On the other hand, the march could do science some good. It could demonstrate substantial public support for science, reminding elected officials that they stand to make some passionate and influential people very angry if they dismiss their work out of hand. It could bring attention to these issues for a mass public that might hold scientists in high esteem in the abstract but not follow their concerns very closely.

It could also just offer some expressive outlet for many scientists who have felt beleaguered and dismissed, or even threatened, for some time now. It could potentially do for the scientific community what the Women’s March did for many women back in January — remind them that they are not alone and have organization, energy, and numbers on their side. That’s not a small thing. It might even encourage some scientists to run for office, which could be quite beneficial.

These are challenging times for the scientific community, and some form of pushback is most definitely warranted. We should know pretty soon whether the march helped or hurt in this endeavor. But we should also remember that a march is just one way to try to effect change, and it’s not automatically the best one.

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