As a resident of our nation’s capital, I’ve attended my fair share of protests—usually by accident.
I once emerged from the Smithsonian Metro stop and tried to cross the National Mall, only to be sucked into a stream of shouting protestors. I had made it halfway across the Mall when a group of students stopped me and pointed a video camera in my direction. They were conducting interviews for their film class, they said. One of the students shoved a microphone at me. “What are your reasons for coming to the march today?” she asked. Her classmates behind the camera stared, arms crossed. I knew she wouldn’t like any answer that didn’t use the word “solidarity” at least four times. But I had to be honest.
“Actually,” I confessed, “I’m just trying to get to the National Air and Space Museum. There’s a really cool IMAX film about the moon.”
I think the hapless impassivity I showed that day reflects many scientists’ attitudes toward political advocacy. It’s not that we’re naïve about the need to defend our work—many of us are just uninterested in that aspect of it. We spend every day repeatedly ensuring that we’re acting on objective interpretations of data. We want the unblemished facts to drive policy. But we can get really bored by the word “policy.” And, sometimes, we just want to watch the cool IMAX film about the moon.
That’s starting to change, however, and a lot more scientists are becoming politically active. On 22 April, my hometown, along with more than 100 cities worldwide, will host the March for Science. Scientists—and those who aren’t scientists but know how awesome we are—will take to the streets in lab coats to remind the world that our work deserves support, attention, and credibility.
At first I wasn’t sure whether I should attend. I read a piece by geologist Robert S. Young in The New York Times arguing that the march would legitimize the accusation that science is politically affiliated, thus further polarizing public impressions of scientists. Reporter Brian Resnick, writing for Vox, doubts the ability of scientists representing the political spectrum to speak with a unified voice—and, if they do speak with one voice, he agrees with Young that they’ll be accused of not representing the political spectrum.
It’s certainly a valid fear. When trying to avoid an “us versus them” situation, it’s tricky to march shouting, “Us! Us! Us!” And the point of attending the march is to be part of the solution, not (as the old chemistry joke goes) part of the precipitate.
Ultimately, though, I see these arguments not as reasons to cancel the march—but rather to make sure that we do it right. In my opinion (which I’m allowed to have even though I’m a scientist), however the event may be perceived, there’s no question that we need to vociferously remind the world that it makes sense to base policies on data.
If you’re still on the fence, imagine if you worked not in science, but in home construction, and you spent your career hammering, pouring concrete, and installing glass. That’s your interest: making houses.
Then one day your cousin with the incendiary bumper stickers and the dwindling number of Facebook friends says, “I don’t believe your houses are real.”
You’d be baffled. “Of course my houses are real,” you’d say. “Come visit me, and I’ll show you.”
“Nah,” your cousin would reply. “They’re not really there. They’re just optical illusions. Here you go, wasting all this money on building supplies, and then you don’t even make houses.”
Your cousin does this sometimes. This is why Thanksgiving is so tense.
“You know what,” you’d tell him, “I don’t care if you believe my houses are real or not. It doesn’t matter. I know they’re real, the people who live in them know they’re real, and that’s all that matters.”
But you’d be wrong. It does matter what your cousin thinks, because it turns out that your cousin is going around telling everyone to never pay you to construct a house again. And his friends are talking about building their own houses on the very plots where yours stand—which they can do because, as far as they’re concerned, your houses aren’t there. And somehow they found the one contractor in a thousand who agrees with them, and they keep citing his findings instead of, you know, just looking at your darn houses.
To be fair, your houses are sometimes hard to see. Some of them have complicated façades, so explaining that there’s a house behind the façade can take a little finesse. But behind the façade is a house, a solid house, and what does your cousin think you’ve been doing all this time? Pretending?
We wish that we could hole up in our labs and focus on our scientific work. We wish that legislators would trust our results so that we could stick to researching, discovering, and publishing. But we don’t have that luxury.
Maybe we never did. Science has always had to defend its existence, and our forebears have fought more than one uphill battle. It’s not fun to be the spoiler who says, “So, actually, guys, the sun doesn’t revolve around the Earth.” Or “Hey, you know your book that claims the planet is only 5000 years old? Yeah, about that.” It’s hard to tell anyone something they don’t want to hear, which is why I cringe every time I announce to my kids that it’s bedtime. But none of us became scientists because we like to do easy things.
Still, a lot of us are new to this protest thing. Our professional instincts might lead us to create protest signs with lists of references and supplemental data available online. For that reason, I’m pleased to offer some suggestions for you and your colleagues to write on poster board and carry on a stick:
MY B.S. HELPS ME DETECT BS
NO PUBLICATION WITHOUT STATISTICAL EVALUATION
POWER TO THE PEOPLE = WORK TO THE PEOPLE / TIME TO THE PEOPLE
POPULATION GENETICSTS SAY: DON’T MESS WITH TAXA
IF YOU STOP OTORHINOLARYNGOLOGISTS FROM STUDYING THE NOSE, WE’LL PICKET
WE ARE THE 99% (who believe climate change data)
And finally, the sign I’ll be carrying on 22 April:
YOU CAN HAVE MY PIPETTE WHEN YOU PRY IT FROM MY COLD, DEAD HANDS, OR WHEN IT NEEDS TO BE SENT FOR RECALIBRATION
I’ll see you at the March for Science, where you’ll join thousands of scientists marching down the National Mall, reminding the world that it makes sense to base policies on data. At least until our route takes us past the National Museum of Natural History, where there’s a sweet IMAX film about dinosaurs.