On the Fear of a Backlash Against Science

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Assembling on the National Mall before the March for Science. 22 April 2017.

‘Science is my passion, politics, my duty’
Thomas Jefferson quote gratuitously stolen from Joe Romm at Climate Progress.

On Saturday I joined more than 20,000 scientists and supporters of science to March for Science in a soaking rain on the National Mall in D.C. The experience was exhilarating and inspiring. It was a much needed antidote to constant stream of bad news for our environment emanating from the White House and Congress. These days, I sometimes feel as though we are entering a dark time when reason and learning will be driven from the mainstream of public discourse. The March for Science showed that we have strength in numbers and that scientists can, at least for this golden moment, stand united.

There has been much discussion among academics and citizens associated with science about the potential damaging effects of the March for Science on the enterprise of science. We have been admonished to “keep our talk pro-science and positive, not political and negative” (William H Hooke); Others have argued that “science does not need a March but a marketing campaign” (Vox). I note that senior colleagues are very uncomfortable with the notion of brazenly defending science in a public setting. It is just not how we scientists do things. One suggested to me that it is crass to be engaged in self-serving advocacy.

I agree fervently that we must project our humanity to the public. We must do so with humility and genuine willingness to be a part of the larger community. This type of engagement with non-scientists is often foreign to scientists. We remain unknown as people and we are easy to demonize. We must make every effort to be more integrated into the communities where we live. We must also become active as a voting constituency. Funding for academics is easy for legislators to cut because it typically does not cost them votes.

As we connect with the lay community, we need to also recognize that we are members of the community of academics. Historically, academics treat each other with benign neglect or even outright contempt. We seem to lack a concept of what it means to be part of a healthy community of scholars. Bullying and incivility are common within the academy. Collectively, we do not support our colleagues who suffer from mental illness. We often do not respect the wide variety of scholarship and intellectual endeavors that fall outside the dictated norms of academic standards. Service, both internal and external, is not recognized or rewarded adequately, and thus faculty have little incentive to engage in it. Women faculty are treated as second-class members of the academic tribe. Faculty governance focuses on the trivial and immaterial, rather than the huge issues threatening the very survival of academic freedom. We need to clean up our own house and learn to speak with one voice.

The argument that scientists should not be political ignores the reality we live in. All science occurs in a political context. The very act of designing a study and deciding on which hypotheses to test can be deeply embedded in a cultural context. The March for Science cannot be divorced from the fact that the official position of the Republican party is explicitly antagonistic to key science-driven issues such as climate change. It is hard to dismiss the suggestion that the goal of the Right is to delegitimize science and thus acquire control over those parts of our failing democracy that use science in service of the public trust. This furthers the near-term aims of many corporate and religious interests and it appeals to the anti-intellectual culture of Trump’s base.

Thus, there is no way that we can March for Science without identifying the aggressors in the war on science. The Trump administration was appropriately identified by name in many of the speeches and signs at the March. To ask that the marchers refrain from this is like asking them to describe getting wet during events in D.C. without identifying rain as a the cause. The assault on scientific understanding is explicit and its agents are well funded and highly organized. It is endorsed by the Republican party. Note that I am not arguing that anyone should be pro-Democrat, but instead, that one of our two major parties is overtly and intentionally denying reality. The Democrats have plenty of their own failings.

Those who would have us avoid politics are asking us to be fearful and silent. The time for academic reticence is long past. Although some of my colleagues are judiciously weighing the impacts of activism, others who wring their hands and worry about a backlash are simply avoiding conflict. Administrators need to speak up or they will find themselves working for corporate interests rather than leading our institutions of higher education. If we don’t make a stand now, there will be little left to save in a few years. This is all part of defending the right to free inquiry. It is time that scientists make every effort to build a community rather than staying in their labs or offices and pretending that there is no enemy at the gate.

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