March, scientists, march
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President Trump’s first month in office has been more than a little concerning to those interested in the sciences. From the dissolution of the EPA to the approval of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education to the removal of nearly all mentions of climate change on the White House website, the Trump administration has already done much to hinder the spread of scientific knowledge, defund critical federal scientific ventures and create an overall political climate that feels antagonistic to science.
Trump’s ascendancy has since galvanized scientists to take action. In the days leading up to Trump’s inauguration, researchers had been backing up climate data stored on federal servers, fearing that it would be later deleted.
And more recently, a group of scientists have been planning to do much more than that.
In the wake of the Women’s March on Washington, which spawned a much broader movement that saw marches not only in all fifty states but in several nations overseas, some scientists have proposed a March for Science in Washington, meant to highlight many of the issues scientists face in the modern era: distrust of researchers, scientific denial, censorship and, more specifically, climate change denial.
“The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter,” states the March for Science’s website at https://www.marchforscience.com/ . “It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.”
The march is currently scheduled for April 22 — Earth Day. And though the March for Science proper is in Washington, it has inspired 361 other satellite marches around the world, including five in the Bay Area (as of today). But this proposal has been controversial within the scientific community.
Some fear that the march will politicize science by directly pitting researchers against the Trump administration. Science is fundamentally founded on a premise of objectivity and, hence, inherent apoliticality — that regardless of one’s personal political views or caprices, the truth is objective and irrefutable.
Others contend that the march would still be apolitical — after all, the march is conducted in response to legitimate fears and events perpetrated by the Trump administration.
Further still, some argue that, regardless of the actual partisanship of the march, it will be perceived as partisan by politicians and the general public, and that alone is enough to dissuade action.
For a long time, I myself was not sure whether I supported the march. Both sides have pragmatic and legitimate opinions. I can understand the fears of politicizing science — the action could make it seem that scientists personally oppose Trump and cause Trump supporters to reject anything scientific on instinct because of a supposed political bias to science. And I can also understand the concerns of the marchers, of wanting to fight back against a political climate that is inhibiting scientific inquiry and exacerbating climate change by cutting scientific funding and influencing the public against science.
While the concerns of making science political are well-grounded and mindful, I do not believe the march will politicize science — or, more specifically, I do not believe it will politicize science any more than it already is.
Science is not voluntarily political. Researchers pride themselves in objectivity and truthfulness. But certain extant political forces have already established themselves in staunch opposition to science, such as the anti-vaccination movement, the anti-nuclear power movement and, of course, climate change denialism.
Special interest groups that have economic or political incentives to oppose scientific findings, such as fossil fuel companies, have already themselves made science seem political.
The scientists’ march would not create new political enemies to science. Those who would oppose science for personal gains already do — the only group without a current incentive likely to be inflamed by the semblance of all scientists opposing Trump is Trump’s supporters. But given Trump’s professed support of the anti-vaccination movement and denial of climate change as a “Chinese hoax,” even that group has already been established in opposition to science.
It is very uncommon to have an innate reason to oppose science, and generally, demographics that oppose science for non-economic reasons, such as conspiracy theorists and religious fundamentalists, already do.
This movement does not politicize science — in my eyes, it is an apolitical reaction to a political action, and only thereby has the superficial appearance of being political. The original events that the scientists’ march is in response to — climate change denial, censorship and inaction — are themselves political, motivated by fossil fuel conglomerates. To argue for free discourse and unfettered scientific publication is only just.
Finally, even if the march would politicize science, it may be a necessary sacrifice to effect change. The current trends of climate change are grim; for instance, the recent Oroville Dam flood is but one indicator of increased extreme weather events we are unequipped to deal with.
In addition, the Scientists’ March on Washington and its sister marches in other cities are likely to draw lots of public attention to the issue of climate change and may help educate the public (though this could be countervailed, I admit, by increased opposition to information or increased misinformation).
A Pew Research poll from October 2016 reveals that only 48% of surveyed adults believe climate change is due to human activity, and that only 27% believe there is scientific consensus about humans being the primary cause of climate change. These numbers are harrowingly low. About 97% of scientists believe it is extremely likely humans are the primary cause of climate change — and overwhelming scientific consensus.
There will be no do-overs with climate change. This is the critical time to take action and mitigate the inevitable. It is rare that one looks back and regrets having prepared — one can never oversave for retirement, or overresearch a paper. Why should we be hesitant with climate change?
The stakes are too high. Climate change threatens the destruction of biomes, the rising of worldwide sea levels, destabilized ecosystems and increased temperatures. In a more practical sense (or perhaps selfish), climate change threatens the destruction of arable land, mass human displacement and migration and the salinization of water supplies among a host of woes. Taken together, an increased scarcity of food and potable water and a monumental flux of immigration would create an unprecedented global crisis and potentially destabilize the international social order.
We cannot wait four years for a new president that might not even be amenable to the planet’s plight. If ever there were a situation so pressing as to necessitate political action from an apolitical group, it is now.
“All the way from funding to reporting of data and findings, the very core of what science really is is being able to report what you’ve learned,” Upper School Science Department Chair Anita Chetty said. “I think when people feel threatened that they won’t be able to do that or that will be highly regulated, there doesn’t seem to be any other recourse at this point than to stand up and say ‘wait, this is not what we ought to be doing.’”
So march, scientists. March upon the hills, cry out for the noble cause, and let the truth of nature be known.