The ReThink Blog

Starting from scratch in politics and science


Science Doesn't Need a March

Resist Trump signs from the Socialist Alternative at the March for Science
Pictured: "not political"

There are no peer-reviewed, double-blinded studies that provide even modest evidence that decreased funding to the E.P.A. will have any demonstrable effect on the climate. There is no scientific consensus on the value or morality of abortion. Science strives to divorce itself from the fickle values and morals of human dogma. In other words, science is not political.

Why, then, did last week's "March for Science" seem like such a deeply partisan affair? Perhaps it had something to do with its very nature. Whereas liberals across the country are always up for a good protest march, conservatives aren't typically moved by such rallies--notwithstanding the Tea Party movement--nor do they try to proclaim themselves to be the sole carriers of scientific literacy. Anyone surprised that right-wing thinkers largely chose to sit out a nation-wide march must not put stock in historical precedent, especially when it was a given from the start that the march was going to be more focused on government spending and the need to curb climate change through federal regulation than, say, the need to resist GMO labeling laws or end FDA exemptions for alternative medicine.

Some blame for the blatantly partisan nature of the march can certainly fall on conservatives, for their reluctance to be loudly decried until they can get a word in edgewise. If more conservatives participated, maybe they could have turned it into a legitimate conversation instead of the left-wing equivalent of a jingoistic religious revival it became. Then again, maybe they'd be more likely to participate if it weren't front-loaded by the likes of Bill Nye, a man without a scientific degree who has decided to spend his later years being a left-wing advocate for government intervention while shouting at people with actual scientific degrees for not knowing what they're talking about when they try to be more nuanced about the nature of climate change and what can be done about it.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson poster
Hero worship is not particularly scientific

To people on the left prone to agreeing with their hardline stances on climate change and other politico-scientific matters, there is nothing wrong with Bill Nye or his counterpart, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. As science educators and communicators, they're perfectly respectable human beings. However, for those with a more conservative or even a more balanced view, Nye and Tyson can come across as gratingly arrogant and condescending. To be fair, I happily have my son watching Nye's old science shows for kids, because when "The Science Guy" sticks to the basics and encourages us to love science, he's awesome. However, nowadays, Nye is more about preaching a gospel of government than he is demonstrating the coolness of empiricism. Also, in the interests of full disclosure, I'm a fan of Neil DeGrasse Tyson and respect his credentials, but he's prone to putting his foot in his mouth when he gets out of his wheelhouse. No matter how much I like the new Cosmos, a degree in mathematical physics doesn't make one an expert on public policy.

When people on the left hear that Nye and Tyson are going to be major parts of the "March for Science," though, they don't understand why everybody else seems less than enthused about it. They tend to equate disliking the cool science bros with disliking science itself. And so they had their march with Nye as keynote speaker, and I'm sure they use the lack of participation from very many non-left-of-center thinkers to justify believing that the left is the only place to go for scientific truth. To them, it's empirical evidence that science necessitates liberalism, rather than evidence that their own arrogance is alienating them from the rest of the country.

That said, of course there's a lot of ridiculous anti-science coming from the political right in this country. Evolution denial is rampant throughout the red states of the Bible belt, and there are plenty of conservative thinkers who question not only the proposed solutions to climate change, but even the fairly clear data that supports its very existence. Top that off with one of the least scientifically-minded presidents in memory in Donald Trump. But come on, it's not like the left is immune to anti-science ignorance. Just as nearly all scientists agree about the reality of climate change, they also agree that GMOs are not only safe but are the best way to combat worldwide starvation. Just as evolution by means of natural selection is most definitely real, so too is homeopathy most definitely not.

March for Science poster
Airtight argument, that

A good scientist doesn't rely on dogma, doesn't appeal to authority, and treats every premise with a high dose of skepticism. Therefore, a fan of science shouldn't trust the words of celebrity science communicators and shouldn't assume that every problem revealed by science can be solved by government.

To argue against a carbon tax is not to hate science. To believe that an unborn child might just have a right to life that supercedes a teenage girl's right to have an abortion in the third trimester without notifying her parents is not to disregard empiricism and critical thinking. To believe that science should be advocated with compassion rather than denunciation is not to champion a return to the Spanish Inquisition. To believe that the free market can do more to advance science than federal programs and bureaucratic administrative offices is not to want the world to destroy itself in ignorance. To not be thrilled by the idea of marching alongside people who accept the reality of climate change but believe vaccines cause autism is not the same thing as not being thrilled by the revelations of scientific enlightenment.

What I'm trying to say is that the "March for Science," though perhaps well-intentioned, was never going to actually be about science. It was about liberals reinforcing their own echo chamber beliefs, not about them being champions for reason. Marches, after all, are emotional affairs, not rational ones. Reasoned discourse, empirical thinking, and a nuanced understanding of the data don't lend themselves to rallies or marches. Only simplistic political notions of right and wrong do, and there are few places, if any, where science and politics make wholesome bedfellows.

-e. magill 4/26/2017

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