More on the March for Science, with added PCC(E)

March 2, 2017 • 1:30 pm

Emily Atkin, who writes for The New Republic, interviewed me about the March for Science a few days ago, and has just written a piece about it, “Is the march for science bad for scientists?”  It’s a fair piece, and I’m chuffed that she talks about my old days of activism, including my arrest at the South African Embassy for protesting apartheid, which of course gives me “activism cred.”

My take on this March has been consistent: I’m waiting to see how it shakes out before deciding whether to participate. I’m willing to march as a scientist to defend the truth, our methodology for determining the truth, and to defend those issues for which science has a best-guess idea of what the truth is (vaccination is not harmful, humans cause global warming, evolution is real). I just don’t want the march to fracture along identity-politics lines so that it becomes a “cause of the moment” potpourri of stuff. And I think the less prescriptive the march is, the more useful it will be. By all means tell people that global warming is real and is caused by our species, and you can even say it’s going to do bad things to the planet–and to our species. But should we be advocating for nuclear power plants? (I do, but many disagree). And yes, I’ve seen Ed Yong’s description of the psychology study supposedly showing that scientists don’t lose credibility when they advocate for specific policies, but that study, which I’ve read, is weak, and in fact does show that prescribing certain policy changes, like building more nuclear power plants to combat global warming, can damage a scientist’s credibility. And I’m not talking here about whether that limited study even addresses the issue.

Finally, I think a neglected but crucial aspect of the march is the drastic cut in the government’s science funding that has taken place over the last several decades. Basic research has taken it in the neck, and, with Trump threatening to cut $54 billion from the non-defense budget, it’s going to be hurt even more. I haven’t even seen that mentioned in conjunction with the march, but bringing that to public attention may be the best thing the Science March can accomplish. Science, nearly all of which rests on basic research (largely funded by the government) has immensely improved human life, and yet basic science is endangered. Do Americans know that? Well, let them know. And if it’s prescriptive for me to say I want to see fewer goddam cruise missiles and more money in the NIH and NSF budgets, well then call me prescriptive.

At any rate, I’m still waiting to see what the organizers decide to do about the Science March, and if it’s to my satisfaction, I’ll be out there with my colleagues. I see from Atkin’s piece that there’s now an educational component to the March, described below, and I endorse it wholeheartedly (my emphasis):

Perhaps, then, the real value of the march will not be converting the non-trusting public, but educating them. Seventy percent of Americans cannot name a living scientist. They don’t know what the $70 billion in non-defense spending for research is used for; nor do they know how that research contributes to their lives. And there are countless ways it has. Federally funded research has led to the development of everything from Google’s search algorithm to advanced prosthetic limbs to Lactose-free milk.

“We think it’s important to have a huge part of our post-march programming be connecting scientists to people,” Weinberg said. That’s why the march in D.C. will be followed by a teach-in on the National Mall, where speakers will talk about their research “in a more intimate way than most people are used to,” she said.

That may wind up being the most impactful part of the March for Science: Providing a public platform for the work that so often goes unnoticed. Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist who hosts a talk show on the Weather Channel, has often cautioned scientists against political speech. But he said he supports the March for Science if it can stay focused on what science does for society—and perhaps humanize his colleagues to the rest of the country.

I do want to correct one bit from the New Republic piece; I’ve put it in bold below:

Jerry Coyne knows a good protest when he sees one. Once a rambunctious leftist, the esteemed evolutionary biologist recalls traveling regularly to Washington to march for civil rights. He remembers when state police chased him off his own college campus for protesting the Vietnam War. For his most climactic endeavor, Coyne says he tried to post an anti-apartheid petition on the door of the South African embassy, and was arrested for trespassing.

Despite this activist streak, Coyne isn’t sure he’ll attend the March for Science on April 22 (Earth Day), when millions of scientists and their supporters are expected to march on Washington and other cities across the country. He says the march’s message has the potential to “alienate the public.”

“I’m in favor of rights for gay people. I don’t care what bathroom somebody uses. I’m pro-choice,” said Coyne, an occasional the New Republic contributor. “But scientists can’t get involved in that kind of stuff. Science cannot adjudicate issues of morality.”

I did not mean that scientists shouldn’t engage in political activism–far from it! What I meant is that the Science March should avoid wedding itself too closely to specific remedies, especially those involving “social justice.” Participating in a march, however, is not the same thing as personally advocating for societal changes. Had Martin Luther King, Jr. marched not just for civil rights, but for every other wrong in the world, would those marches have been as successful? Nope, for he kept his eyes on the prize. And so should we.

37 thoughts on “More on the March for Science, with added PCC(E)

  1. A great column about the pros and cons. We’re with you all the way. Keep up the insightful writing.

    1. +1 Yes funding for basic science is so important and people need to know that science is important and why.

  2. Yes, 54 billion more for military will be a bust for science as well. And it will be hard on people in general. The cold war ended how many years ago and the military budget never missed an increase. Take the next 10 largest military budgets in the world and it does not hold a candle to ours. Like Trump says with his really big lies – the military is in terrible shape and he is going to pour money all over it.

  3. Agree with nearly , very nearly, 100 % of what you say, including a very strong notion that, as Frum has said, we should expend a tremendous amount of energy on what is achievable.
    However I do think Science/math can get involved in issues of morality i.e.: % of Trans population involved in assaulting females in bathrooms vs % of sitting US presidents who walk in on (sometimes underage) females in dressing rooms and then brag about their timing. Study incomplete to date but you get the idea.
    Thank you for this blog.

    1. I think that the outrageous behavior and speech of Mr. Trump is a lousy excuse for forcing the presence of penis-possessing individuals onto undressed women and girls.

      1. “A sexual predator who falsely claimed to be transgender and preyed on women at two Toronto shelters was jailed indefinitely on Wednesday.

        Justice John McMahon declared Christopher Hambrook — who claimed to be a transgender woman named Jessica — was a dangerous offender.”

        This is exactly what people like me are fearing. Meanwhile, Ctrl-Left have declared the Hambrook case “a myth” because he is No True Transgender, similarly to the Muslim sex abusers who were first covered up and then declared No True Muslims.

        1. +1 why the fixation with transgender anyway? They are a tiny minority and Yes some we need to make some accommodation but not where its a big deal to the majority. There are so many burning social problems even in the western world. Nature has been torturing people for millions years just to reproduce successfully and securely and increasingly we have means to do that at lower cost in pain and life quality. That to me is what matters most

          1. I’ll modulate re transgender – I sympathise with someone transgender who potentially fears mockery or even violence in male loos – especially in school or college or boarding environments. Hardly think tho female to male trans will want to be in male loos if they don’t have the apparatus. Given its .03 of pop how do you stop people who pretend to be trans abusing that –

            there are disabled bathrooms, unisex bathrooms – maybe more unisex bathrooms or more secure ones that are rooms for one person at a time. Honestly there are so many super major social problems – don’t we have to prioritise?

            Also I really don’t think the science march should be caught up with such issues – its got to be the key issues as JCC says. Data flaunted at such should be the big data that are about solving the big problems – food, health security, environmental security etc how this impacts on millions of humanity

        2. Let’s agree that it can, has and will occur. Predators will use a means to act. Just as some may don a suit and tie to gain access and confidence, or a robe and collar.
          You even cited a case. But sheer numbers suggest that your kids would be in greater danger in a church or in other settings than they are threatened by transgenders or people pretending to be. Singling out a small percentage of the population with restrictive legislation is not the fix.
          It’s a salve for an irrational fear that the numbers don’t bear out. I don’t want a tiger ( penis bearing or not) to have access to a woman’s bathroom, but I’m not in favor of enacting legislation to ban them because it simply doesn’t happen enough to warrant concern. And I know that one simple solution is things like single user bathrooms.
          I appreciate the objection to the ” no true Muslim” trope.
          I also believe it’s a bad argument. But I also spend a lot more time and effiort attempting to protect my children from smoking, alcohol abuse, promoting vehicular safety and good eating habits because those are all far more real dangers than terrorism.
          Again it’s just numbers. 30k Americans die each year on the road. Don’t know how many a year as a result of smoking, obesity related heart disease, etc, but we can probably agree it’s a much smaller number than by terrorist action. We just fear terrorism more than fast food.
          I’m just a huge fan of working the numbers and the science when allocating resources.

          1. I agree per JCCs article the March should focus on the role of science for all humanity – like understanding the environment for both improved living standards and avoiding damaging consequences (e.g. climate change). Science has to be used for people but basic science as a whole has made incalculable differences to human life in the last few centuries as for example
            A plea for culinary modernism
            Life and disease in renaissance italy

            Also for me although cultural issues are most important and the dangers of terrorism are overrated, the hyper masculine mentality of extremist Islam encourages ever more attacks where there is continued success, in my view. For example Osama Bin Ladens gloating that Americans were effeminate and afraid to confront the mujahideen who god willed to be vanquished by holy warriors etc.

            Unlike ordinary criminals Islamic terrorists hope to damage the society and the state – not simply individuals. If a society assumes complete openness to violent extremist plotters, always gives them the benefit of the doubt and encourages sympathisers – we could eventually get enough terrorism to destabilise normal everyday life and undermine critical infrastructure.

            1. I think you put it well. I’m of the mind that our reaction and response to terrorism has been more damaging than the acts themselves.
              This does not mean I don’t have a tremendous amount of sympathy for the people directly affected by terrorist acts ( or the people who are victims of crimes, and this is not equating transgender with terrorists). Those are real injuries and need to be fully addressed.
              However I think having an abuser in chief does a tremendous amount of real damage to a larger number of people, as I think singling out a minority with discriminatory legislation injures far more people, who are arguably already at risk, than will be injured by people using their bathroom of addition it seems that these laws are also a means to legalize discriminatory practices in housing and hiring. Again my argument is that we can ascertain which threat is more immediate by using scientific methods, statistics and reason and then direct the appropriate amount of resources to mitigate the threat. 2 dudes getting married is not a significant threat to my health or well being. The president denying climate change is. Bad legislation does damage lives. Good laws save lives.

          2. Single user bathrooms are a good solution. They will benefit also other users, such as people assisting a child or disabled person of the opposite sex.
            However, there are activists (e.g. Lila Perry) who have been given private space for their own and nevertheless insist for unlimited access to female-only private places which is, of course, against the wish of many cis female.
            They talk about rights, respect and acceptance, but what I see is a relentless drive to dominate and abuse. I’d wish studies to be set to find out what makes such individuals so antisocial. However, no scientist will touch the subject with a 10-foot pole, for obvious reasons.

            I disagree about the numbers. Things like terrorism or capital punishment pervade the society affected by them, even if the deaths caused by them are very few.

              1. I do not respect the right of some people to abuse other people, even if under the disguise of human rights (I am increasingly having problems with the hidden assumption that only some people have human rights).

  4. You are being attacked on twitter by people like David Steen from Living Alongside Wildlife, for your comments. Others are piling on, as they always do and it’s convinced me to kill my twitter once and for all. No doubt the scientist you were interviewed with, Jacqueline Gill, I think her name was, will also be ranting and raving against you, as she is quite fond of the “everything in science is sexist and racist” trope. I worry we may be losing an entire generation of scientists to regrissivist hubris. And I worry that a generation of young girls and minorities will grow up with the regressive fear-mongering of “everything in science is sexist and racist” echoing in their heads and either cause them to attribute every failure or slight as “proof” that “Science” hates them or that they will avoid their scientific dreams altogether for that reason. I know Darwin was talking about orchids when he said it but the sentiment fits me today: “But I am very poorly today & very stupid & hate everybody & everthing.”

  5. Had Martin Luther King, Jr. marched not just for civil rights, but for every other wrong in the world, would those marches have been as successful? Nope, for he kept his eyes on the prize.

    You’re as right as rain here, Jerry. But let us not forget that, despite dire warnings from his many of his fellow civil-rights activists (and notwithstanding the expected wrath of LBJ, who saw it as a stab-in-the-back after his support for civil rights), Martin came out strongly against the Vietnam War (and also expanded his activism to include “poor people” of all races).

    Keep the March for Science clean and focused. But never allow the warriors to give social justice a bad name.

  6. Snark: Isn’t most federal funding for scientific studies related to DARPA, agro-business and turning natural foods
    into a jillion unnatural products that last forever on grocery shelves? Also, chemicals, fertilizers and GMO, fresh produce engineered to withstand travel but losing taste, etc.

  7. I get it. Though I say, do it up! Where a tee shirt reading “Science Must Destroy Religion”.

  8. I’m beginning to think the march would be a good thing. The caveats mentioned here are important.

      1. I am not aware of any laws banning freedom of assembly in IL. Are you aware of any state the is in this potential situation?

        1. Not currently. But there is a push to make public protests illegal and to hold peaceful protestors accountable, if *any* of the a protestors (or an instigator)cause property damage.

  9. Curiously, this discourse echoes the Werturteilsstreits, one between the World Wars, the other after World War II. They revolved around whether science produces knowledge which should dictate politics, and by that way was also about positivism (which is a view which suggests yes).

    What’s curious about it? The reluctant and skeptical position expressed by Jerry, and I agree, resembles in some ways that of the Frankfurt School, i.e. anti-positivists. The organizers appear to be Regressives, who are typically accused of being Frankfurt School “Cultural Marxists”, and yet they take the opposite position — the sides are curiously switched.

    However, their reasoning is not well documented, and due to deletion of the SJW/Intersectionality/Woke/Identity Politics stuff now largely opaque. It seems they care more about the symbology, like resistance to Trump and virtue signalling — but that could be good still, if it motivates journalists to kick off a debate about science funding for example.

    1. I think its better to keep philosophy out of science at least in such critical matters as funding science full stop or countering science denialism.

      Im not convinced that philosophy has Ever proved anything empirically. Im not including mathematics – it may be apparently purely theoretical but its ultimately nothing to do with human politics, and always has some kind of application in the real world. Being spatial and or quantitative mathematics is ultimately based on the senses – being analogous to touch, prioperception, sound, hearing etc.

  10. Latest news from the Science March is that they’ve reached out to ask why “female” students sometimes eschew STEM, and were immediately bombarded with accusations of horrible misogyny for referring to women and girls as mere “females” (a message many in this comment section apparently missed as well).

    This is apparently dehumanizing language, even though it isn’t. And the brave Science Marchers obediently tucked their tales and apologized for the grievous offense of using correct terminology that SJWs have arbitrarily decided is no good anymore.

    And these yellow-bellied imbeciles are supposed to stand up to Trump when they can’t even deal with overgrown playground bullies on Twitter?

  11. My wife and I have decided to participate in the DC March, despite the distance from Portland. I was curious about the Climate March that occurs the following week, but on checking that website, that march is not just about Climate Change, but for “Jobs and Justice” as well. That dilutes the message, so we decided not to go with that one. (As one of my law professors said after I answered one of his questions in class, “That is perfectly general, perfectly true, and perfectly meaningless”.) I hope that the March for Science is focused, which is a concern that has been rightly raised.

    In any event, my two main concerns about life now are the survival of science and our republic, both of which are, in my opinion, in mortal danger at this moment. The marches for the republic will be forthcoming as things get worse.

    Since this march looks like it is as close to addressing one of those concerns as can be reasonably expected, I would regret it if we did not take part.

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