“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
So read numerous signs at New York City’s March for Science on April 22. The zinger from pop-science hero Neil DeGrasse Tyson was originally a response to creationist and climate-change-denying guests on Real Time with Bill Maher, but it has since become a rallying cry for self-proclaimed defenders of science.
Most signs at the march declared the importance of science to making decisions for the good of humanity against those who seem to claim the opposite. Targets and topics included Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s choice for EPA director, who denies that climate-change research is definitive; Trump’s removal of “terrible, job-killing” rules restricting pollution from coal mining; Trump’s attempt to weaken President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and so renege on the Paris Climate Agreement; and the potential defunding of the EPA by 30 percent.
So much of the preparation for the march was focused on recent political developments, and so much of it was overwhelmingly critical of Trump’s policies and those of other Republicans, that March for Science organizers released a statement claiming to be above the political fray: “We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest…The application of science to policy is not a partisan issue.”
So what did the March for Science advocate? “A robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.” The organizers frame this as a nonpolitical, common-sense proposal: more money equals more science, and more science makes society better.
But given that so many chants, slogans, and signs amounted to calls to resist Trump’s agenda, it is curious to claim that support for scientific endeavors is apolitical. Marchers seemed to want to have it both ways: on the one hand, science supports a liberal political stance, and should be invoked to oppose conservatives who deny the existence of climate change or the need for government intervention to protect the environment; on the other, it is commonsensical, something everyone agrees on, that exists separate from political debates. As I overheard in one conversation, “Why can’t everyone agree? Science is literally just facts.”
Let me state plainly: I attended the March for Science because I do support federally funded scientific research, I agree that climate change is a real threat that should be dealt with through a collaboration of international agencies, and I believe that discoveries arrived at through the scientific method should be brought to bear on domestic and international policy. If one were to go through a checklist of policy questions, I expect I would land on the same side as most of the March for Science attendees. It’s with these concerns in mind that I fault them for two major problems in their thinking: about the nature of scientific investigation, and about the purposes of political life.
The first problem is that marchers assume anything labeled “science” is beyond criticism, or worse, that any critic of it must be “anti-science”: ignorant, bigoted, irrational, or a Luddite. (I saw more than one sign at the march calling for us to struggle against the Luddites who would impede “progress.”) Evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin explained in his book Biology as Ideology:
We think science is objective. Science has brought us all kinds of good things. It has tremendously increased the production of food. It has increased our life expectancy from a mere 45 years at the beginning of the last century to over 70 in rich places like North America. It has put people on the moon and made it possible to sit at home and watch the world go by. At the same time, science, like other productive activities, like the state, the family, sport, is a social institution completely integrated into and influenced by the structure of all our other social institutions.
In other words, the scientific enterprise is not exempt from the influence of human institutions, opinions, or conflicts. The questions we ask, how we attempt to investigate them, and even the conclusions we come to are subject to sway of social, cultural, economic, and yes, political circumstances.