March for Science affirms value, pertinence of discipline

The numbers are in: Tens of thousands of scientists and their fellow protesters took to the street on Saturday, March 22, to demonstrate against the Trump administration’s reckless approach to science. Estimates show that, despite the rainy weather, approximately 40,000 people participated in the March for Science in Washington, D.C., while another 40,000 people joined the protest movement in Chicago (Resistance Report, “The Attendance Numbers From the March for Science are In,” 04.22.2017). Not only that, more than 20,000 people took part in the protest in New York City and 10,000 people marched down in Philadelphia to show their support. And those numbers only represent the number of people from four cities–the reports show that a total of 600 marches were organized worldwide from London to Tokyo.

It may not be a huge, shocking revelation, but there’s a whole lot of people who care about the sciences and feel that Trump and his policies are guiding the country and the world in the wrong direction. Originally conceived in January in the wake of the highly successful Women’s March, the March for Science slowly but surely gained momentum as the Trump administration made assault after egregious assault on the scientific community: appointing Scott Pruitt (who saw no need for the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA) as the head of the EPA, proposing budget cuts that will slash 18 percent of the National Institute of Health’s funding, the dismissal of climate change and the safety of vaccines, and so much more (The New Yorker, “The Usefulness of a March for Science,” 04.23.2017).

“It’s been frustrating to watch as certain forces in our society try to squelch science or their refusal to believe in it or propose alternative realities and facts–alternative facts, whatever the f*ck that is,” stated one Washington, D.C. demonstrator (CNN, “March for Science: Protesters Gather WorldWide to Support ‘Evidence,’” 04.22.2017).

Throughout the entire day, all sorts of signs were lifted up, some with clever science jokes (“Science is Real. Your Alternative Facts are √-1”), while others were more straightforward (“I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit”). Either way, the main goal of the march was to communicate the sheer outrageousness of Trump’s actions in the past 100 days and to send him a message that those who support logical analysis and facts stand in opposition to his anti-science proposals and appointments.

“I can’t think of a time where scientists felt the enterprise of science was being threatened in the way scientists feel now,” said Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard professor who specializes in the history of science (The New York Times, “Scientists, Feeling Under Siege, March Against Trump Policies,” 04.22.2017).

But while it’s evident that a lot of protesters got the chance to stand in support of the scientific community, one must ask: Did the March for Science manage to sway anyone?

For some scientists, there’s a likely chance that the protest movement unwittingly backfired and divided the country even further. For instance, coastal geologist Robert Young worries that the march might overly politicize science and reinforce the conservative narrative that scientists only spout biased opinions that favor the liberal agenda (The New York Times, “A Scientists’ March on Washington Is a Bad Idea,” 01.31.2017). According to Young, the March for Science, while well-intentioned, “will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.” While Young did attend the march to support his friends, he argues that scientists should make more of an effort to teach others how they conduct their research, talk in churches and schools and connect with Americans more personally.

Indeed, those who believed that the march would remain nonpartisan were quickly proven wrong as countless people joined the protest holding not only anti-Trump signs but also anti-Republican signs. Even during the rally in Washington, many of the official speakers attacked the administration and congressional Republicans to the sound of booing from the crowd (STAT, “7 Takeaways from the March for Science,” 04.23.2017). It’s undeniable that an usvs-them sentiment was present throughout the march–only time will tell whether this will negatively impact the scientific community in the future.

But despite fears of possible negative repercussions, I can’t help but believe that the March for Science did far more good than harm.

For one thing, the march served to instill pride in the scientists in what they do. The scientific community is not known for banding together under a political cause and historians have commented how the March for Science “is pretty unprecedented in terms of the scale and breadth of the scientific community that’s involved” (The Washington Post, “Historians say the March for Science is ‘Pretty Unprecedented,’” 04.22.2017). It might not have persuaded any stubborn Trump supporters to change their mind, but the march itself was largely a celebration of science, causing people to realize how much they have taken the works and discoveries of scientists for granted.

The movement brought together science enthusiasts of all ages, from bright-eyed 7-year-old children to the gray-haired elderly who showed their support with their own hand-made, nerdy signs.

In a sense, the march reaffirmed the value of science. It not only let politically active demonstrators bond with lab experts who rarely entered the political sphere, but it also allowed young children to meet their heroes, the nerdy yet brilliant scientists, in person, potentially inspiring the next generation to become even more excited about science. For that, I think the march was well worth the effort.

Of course, even if the march has ended, the movement is far from over. There’s still much work to be done, and Robert Young is right: More effort should be made toward getting people to understand the scientific process and teach them not to fear it. In the eyes of many people, there exists a significant barrier between the general public and the scientific community that only serves to cause further distrust and misunderstandings.

While scientists may be holed up inside their labs, focusing only on their research, the fruits of their work will ultimately end up wasted if the general public is constantly kept in the dark with confusing acronyms and obscure terminology. In order to really reach the hearts and minds of Americans, scientists must be willing to step outside their lab and join the conversation on an eye-to-eye level.

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