To march? Or not to march?

“…ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy.

“If you want a barge to move, and you kick it, you just hurt your foot. But if you lean against it, sooner or later it has to move your way.”Joseph O. Fletcher.

To march? Or not to march? … that is (Hamlet notwithstanding) NOT the (most important) question – at least not for American scientists.

But it’s a question on many a scientist’s mind. Here at the American Meteorological Society, we’re individually and corporately asked these days what we think about the upcoming March for Science, scheduled for April 22, Earth Day. March, or not? Make a stand and a statement, or stay on the sidelines? Many of those doing the asking, whether our members, or the larger community (including a number of other scientific societies) see the choice as clear cut. But integrate over all the comments, and it’s clear that scientists are divided, even internally conflicted on the issue.

There are thoughtful voices on both sides.

Consider, for example, this excerpt from an article in The Guardian:

Elizabeth Hadly, professor of biology, geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University, has spent more than 30 years studying the impacts of environmental change on animal biodiversity. She explained that “scientists have battled the political and ideological forces against concepts such as evolution and climate change for years. We have patiently articulated the physical and biological laws governing the universe, assembled the data, and presented it in the pages of journals, at public seminars, to the halls of Congress. What is occurring now against science and scientists in the US goes beyond ideology and political party. Now we find our discourse under attack.”James Hansen, former director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies testified to the US Congress about the dangers of climate change in the 1980s. He welcomed the plans for the march, saying that it was “an overdue change for scientists to become more active. Scientists understand the urgent danger that we could leave young people a climate system out of control.”

Professor Anthony D. Barnosky of Stanford University is an expert in past planetary changes, and what they mean for forecasting the changes to come on Planet Earth in the next few decades. “Scientists deal in facts, not politics, so most are reticent about speaking out. Social media and the halls of scientific institutions are now abuzz with scientists upset about an administration trying to muzzle the facts that don’t agree with certain political agendas. That they are ready to march on Washington, tells you just how serious this is”, he said. Barnosky’s concerns are grounded on some fundamental aspects of science. “Basically, the data are the data, and the public has a right to know, so that they can participate in democracy. Filtering the findings of the nation’s government scientists, who are among the best and brightest and whose work is paid for by taxpayer dollars, goes counter to everything America stands for.”

These views were echoed by meteorologist and journalist Eric Holthaus… He explained the explosion of interest in the march. “It’s broader than about limiting communication. Scientists are seeing this as a full scale attack on truth itself and the principle that government should take scientific information onboard and incorporate it into policies and so act for society as a whole.”

Contrast that with the perspective of Robert S. Young, a professor of coastal geology and the director of the program for the study of developed shorelines at Western Carolina University. Writing in the New York Times, he suggests:

Talk is growing about a March for Science on Washington, similar to the Women’s March the day after President Trump’s inauguration. It is a terrible idea.

Among scientists, understandably, there is growing fear that fact-based decision making is losing its seat at the policy-making table. There’s also overwhelming frustration with the politicization of science by climate change skeptics and others who see it as threatening to their interests or beliefs.

But trying to recreate the pointedly political Women’s March will serve only to reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research and findings for their own ends…

 …the lesson I learned from [my] experience… was that most of those attacking our sea-level-rise projections had never met me, nor my co-authors. Not only that, most of the public had never met anyone they considered a scientist. They didn’t understand the careful, painstaking process we followed to reach our peer-reviewed conclusions. We were unknowns, “scientists” delivering bad news. We were easy marks for those who felt threatened by our findings.

A march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.

Rather than marching on Washington and in other locations around the country, I suggest that my fellow scientists march into local civic groups, churches, schools, county fairs and, privately, into the offices of elected officials. Make contact with that part of America that doesn’t know any scientists. Put a face on the debate. Help them understand what we do, and how we do it. Give them your email, or better yet, your phone number.

(And, if you’re inclined to dig deeper, you might check out this post from Vox, which juxtaposes the case both for and against.)

If to march or not to march isn’t the question, then what is?

Robert Young hints at it (and likely Elizabeth Hadly, James Hansen, and Anthony Barnosky, if asked, would heartily agree).

The truth is, any march, however visible or memorable (and there are real risks that the marches won’t be that memorable, or that they’ll be memorable in a negative way) is momentary. Its impact will be fleeting, much like Joe Fletcher’s kick against the barge.

Instead, the real challenge for each of us stems from this sobering reality. We’re not pursuing our science out of our own resources. Instead we’re financially supported, both personally, and through investments in the computers, observing instruments, and laboratory facilities we use, by the larger society – 330 million Americans, most of whom are far more strapped than we are.

True enough, the innovation such research spawns more than repays the investment. (The invention of the transistor, by itself, may well have paid for all the research that has ever been done or ever will be done. Then there’s the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, the mapping of the human genome, etc…)

But in a world where seven billion people face daily crises of every sort and unprecedented long-term challenges with respect to food, water, energy, and quality of life, we can’t afford to be complacent. We personally owe society an account of our stewardship. Scientists should wake up every morning with a sense of urgency, asking Jack Kennedy’s question: What can I give back? How can I best contribute to my country and the world? Today? Tomorrow? Over the rest of my career?

If the social contract between science and society is frayed, what can be done over the long haul to restore it? We need to be as intentional and disciplined in our approach to this question as we are to our science. The answer might lie in advancing the science per se. That’s what we were trained to do and what we do best. But it might lie in devoting a bit more attention to what Robert Young suggests – reaching out to our neighbors and local communities, listening to and coming to understand their concerns. Building trust and mutual acceptance – and then a shared vision.

Here’s a prediction. If we do this, as a continuing way, then society will take notice, and fulfill the other part of Jack Kennedy’s quote. They’ll ask what they can do for us – as they have, steadfastly, for decades. If we look in history’s rearview mirror, we’ll see that American support for science has been sustained for decades if not centuries.

So march, or don’t march, as the better angels of your nature guide you.  But don’t neglect the bigger work of devoting your science to the benefit of life. And be intentional about this; don’t leave it to chance.

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5 Responses to To march? Or not to march?

  1. Bill:-

    Great column!

    For those wishing to emulate King Cnut, feel free to march. Those of us who decry the politicization of science will take no comfort in your actions. Having seen the “Women’s March” actively discourage those women with contrary views from participating, how can a “Scientists’ March” be seen as anything other than a political gesture?

    In fact, on climate change (and evolution) at least, the scientists have won. There is a general belief that the climate is changing. The disagreements that arise are now around what to do about the changing climate, especially in light of the still-significant scientific uncertainties. And those arguments largely depend on the values of the disputants. Those who call for draconian actions (e.g., EPA’s Clean Power Plan) too often seem singlemindedly focused on the climate and ignore the human misery that their actions may cause. Those who are against taking any action ignore the very real climatic events we are already experiencing. The rest of the public – God bless us! – are left wondering at the apparent loss of human compassion by both of the antipodes. So march if you will (after all, walking is healthy), just don’t expect a March to enhance respect for scientists – it likely will be seen as yet another act of political theater.

  2. Rich Clark says:

    Thank you Bill for bringing forward these view points.

    As for me, I will march, not to politicize science even though I realize that others will certainly politicize it, but because science is our only path to a better understanding of reality; an evidence-based convergence on truth. I will be there to stand for truth. The scientific enterprise offers the promise that competing ideas can be tested and schema revised by observations, which lead to new predictions that transport us further down the path of understanding. And the 50 students with me will learn a little about political activism. ☯

  3. Shoe leather won’t save our democracy, much less the world. Yet we retain the cherished “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

    Anytime a citizen chooses to exercise those First Amendment rights, to act rather than remain on the sidelines, I deem it a good thing. Standing up for science, facts, truth in this “demon-haunted world” can only help light a “candle in the dark,” to paraphrase the world-immersed Carl Sagan.

    I endorse the recommendation that scientists connect with their communities, making an honest effort to understand the problems and concerns of others. This is the path to understanding, common ground, a United States rather than the confederacy where we otherwise seem to be headed.

    So march, then go forth to shine the light of truth.

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