by Judith Curry
Pondering some thorny issues regarding science, its place in society and its relationship to politics.
Well today is the much-hyped March for Science. Last month I wrote a post Exactly what are scientists marching for? Since my previous post, something like a bazillion words have been written about #marchforscience. Some of them are pretty insightful, and I have been pondering the broad implications of what has been going on here.
What scientists are marching for – revisited
The twitter hashtag #marchforscience provides a wealth of information about the motives of individual scientists for marching. The naivete of many of these tweets and signs is rather striking – many scientists appear not to understand the process of science or the policy process.
A survey in Science Business of 1040 scientists who are marching found:
Ninety three per cent of respondents said, “Opposing political attacks on the integrity of science” is very important to them as a reason for participating, 97 per cent said that “Encouraging public officials to make policies based on scientific facts and evidence” was a top priority, and 93 per cent said the same for, “Encouraging the public to support science.”
Other reasons that most respondents rated as very important included: Protesting cuts to funding for scientific research (90 percent), Celebrating the value of science and scientists to society (89 percent) Promoting science education and scientific literacy among the public (86 percent). Fewer respondents ranked “Encouraging scientists to engage the public” (70 percent) and “Encouraging diversity and inclusion in science” (68 percent) as highly. Nevertheless, solid majorities said these reasons were very important.
Why Memphis has two marches for science is very illuminating:
The tension in Memphis parallels debates in the larger scientific community over the March for Science, and the relationship between science and politics. After many revisions of its mission statement, the national March for Science now explicitly describes itself as a political movement—and more than that, that it’s officially about diversity in science. But some scientists in Memphis, along with many others nationwide, want to keep the movement’s focus on improving public understanding of science and underlining the importance of funding for research. They wanted to avoid associations with a political movement—and even more emphatically, partisan politics.
Dave Roberts has an interesting take in an article at vox.com that in many ways describes the conflict in Memphis. Roberts differentiates ‘science-t’ — fundamental science, from ‘science-p’ — applied science. A better approach would be to frame this in terms of Pasteur’s quadrant
Any ‘war on science’ is related to the bottom half of the diagram — applied research, which relates to values and politics. In my quadrants post, in context of climate science, I labeled the 4th quadrant as ‘climate model taxonomy’ whereby the output of climate models was used to make alarming proclamations about what would happen in the 21st century. Note: it is in the bottom half of the diagram where ‘consensus’ is deemed important and is manufactured and enforced in the interests of influencing policy.
A very different take is provided by March for Science as a microcosm of liberal racism:
You may be asking yourself, why are scientists marching on Washington? Scientists as a collective are generally silent on political battles—until you threaten their research funding as Trump has. Trump’s war on science has been so egregious that it has spurred the dormant scientific community to mobilize and march on our nation’s capital. However, after numerous science-related crises, such as the Flint, Mich., water crisis, it was lost on no one that the scientific community did not stand up en masse until its own interests were on the line.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science that its true whether you believe it or not”
I was astonished to find a profound statement about ‘dropping truth bombs’ in an article at desmog:
Dropping truth bombs. This is a terrible reason to join a science march. Don’t do this.
Marching for science might seem comfortingly straightforward. Science activism has a shiny allure of certainty. Your placards come with citations. You’re on the side of evidence. You. Have. A. Graph.
But to believe science is that simple is bad science itself. And though it’s not bad as actively campaigning to undermine science, it’s up there.
Those on a science march shouting SCIENCE WORKS, BITCHES, will look like dogmatic, hectoring fools. We’ve got quite enough of them already at the moment. Plus, it’s profoundly misunderstanding the nature of science. And that’s just embarrassing.
Science is about evidence, and it is worth standing up for that. But science is not about absolute certainty and closing arguments. Moreover, the way we do science right now is rife with bullying, exploitation of junior staff, sexual harassment, racism, dealings with the arms trade and oil companies, and a whole host of other problems. All of that shapes scientists’ work.
Modern science is, in many ways, a very beautiful thing which we should celebrate and stand up for. But it has big problems too, and it’s blinkered to ignore them.
Go to the march, just leave the I HAZ TEH DATA HEAR ME ROAR banner at home.
Well, it looks like the organizers of the March for Science didn’t get the Truth Bomb message.
In an article Bill Nye perfect talking head for March for Science:
Nye is a good example of someone who promotes science as a close-minded ideology, not an open search for truth.
A real “March for Science” would celebrate scientific puzzles, disagreements, and competing ideas rather than fear them.
Just ask Italian philosopher of science Marcello Pera. In his book The Discourses of Science, he writes that science advances as scientists argue about how to interpret the evidence. They can only do that, though, if they are free to challenge established ideas and advance new ones.
Those who truly want to support science should defend the right of all scientists — including dissenters — to express their views. Those who stigmatize dissent do not protect science from its enemies. Instead, they subvert the process of scientific discovery they claim to revere.
From A march for conformity:
Organizers describe the march as “a call to support and safeguard the scientific community.” But then they silence and expel those who won’t bow to the community’s majority opinion — the “scientific consensus.”
March organizers say “our diversity is our greatest strength.” They say “a wealth of opinions, perspectives, and ideas is critical for the scientific process.” But they don’t really mean it. Their passion for diversity extends to race, religion, nationality, gender and sexual orientation, but not to opinions, perspectives and ideas.
For a really interesting essay on ‘truth’, see What role values play in scientific inquiry.
John Stossel sums it up succinctly in his article Earth Day Dopes:
The alarmists claim they’re marching for “science,” but they’re really marching for a left-wing religion.
An interpretation of the March as a cri-de-coeur against the Trump administration is provided by Cliff Mass :
Let me end, by saying that there is nothing wrong with marches against the current administration or the current Republican leadership in Congress. But don’t involve science in it. If folks are honest, they would admit that this is basically a political protest against the current leadership in DC. Perhaps the most problematic leadership in the history of our country. So have a march, but don’t use science as a cover, and don’t put science at risk.
Its not a war on science is very insightful, well worth reading with lots of history. Excerpt:
What appears to be a war on science by the current Congress and president is, in fact, no such thing. Fundamentally, it is a war on government. To be more specific, it is a war on a form of government with which science has become deeply aligned and allied over the past century. To the disparate wings of the conservative movement that believe that US strength lies in its economic freedoms, its individual liberties, and its business enterprises, one truth binds them all: the federal government has become far too powerful.
Science is, for today’s conservatives, an instrument of federal power. They attack science’s forms of truth-making, its databases, and its budgets not out of a rejection of either science or truth, but as part of a coherent strategy to weaken the power of the federal agencies that rely on them. Put simply, they war on science to sap the legitimacy of the federal government. Mistaking this for a war on science could lead to bad tactics, bad strategy, and potentially disastrous outcomes for both science and democracy.
For conservatives, the enemy is not science itself but the further expansion of powerful, centralized, science-informed government. For them it’s as much a crisis moment as it is for climate scientists: win now or lose the war for another century.
If protesters want to change policies, they need to target the values, interests, and power structures that shape how research is applied. Taking Sarewitz seriously suggests that values, interests, and interpretive frames should be at the center of policy formation. Here, the march organizers offer little help. As they portray the world, there are only two kinds of people: pro-science and anti-science. Likewise, there are only two ways of acting: on the basis of science—facts, truth, data, evidence—or unscientifically, in accordance with ideology, self-interest, or mere caprice. “Political decision-making that impacts the lives of Americans and the world at large,” the march website declares, “should make use of peer-reviewed evidence and scientific consensus, not personal whims and decrees.”
Ron Bailey at Reason reminds us of an important point:
One problem is that many of the marchers apparently believe that scientific evidence necessarily implies the adoption of certain policies. This ignores the always salient issue of trade-offs. For example, acknowledging that man-made global warming could become a significant problem does not mean that the only “scientific” policy response must be the immediate deployment of the current versions of solar and wind power.
Something worth marching for
Some snippets that I pulled, but the attribution is lost:
A true “march for science” might tackle problems like the “replication crisis” or “confirmation bias.”
A real “March for Science” would celebrate scientific puzzles, disagreements, and competing ideas rather than fear them.
Andrea Saltelli : March against scientism, deficit model, commodification of science from predatory publishing to domination of corporate interests in science
From the Atlantic:
The most obvious thing that our government can do, and our society along with it, is to help science to flourish in its own right, and accept what it has to teach us.
The practice of science is one of those human activities that elevates our lives a bit above merely surviving from day to day. Our brains, as wonderfully imperfect as they are, didn’t evolve to solve problems in quantum mechanics or biochemistry. But we haven’t been content to use our intelligence merely to scrounge up food and shelter. We’ve turned our attention to the stretches of the cosmos, the depths of time, and the mysteries of our own consciousness, and returned with remarkable discoveries.
And finally, I’ll repeat a statement that I made in my recent Congressional Testimony:
The ‘war on science’ that I am most concerned about is the war from within science – scientists and the organizations that support science who are playing power politics with their expertise and passing off their naïve notions of risk and political opinions as science. When the IPCC consensus is challenged or the authority of climate science in determining energy policy is questioned, these activist scientists and organizations call the questioners ‘deniers’ and claim ‘war on science.’ These activist scientists seem less concerned with the integrity of the scientific process than they are about their privileged position and influence in the public debate about climate and energy policy. They do not argue or debate the science – rather, they denigrate scientists who disagree with them. These activist scientists and organizations are perverting the political process and attempting to inoculate climate science from scrutiny – this is the real war on science.
The ‘take away’ message
From 538: Marching scientists will have a lot in common with angry 70’s farmers. Excerpts:
Starting national conversations by protesting on the Mall is a longstanding tradition, and it’s important, Benton-Short said. But change doesn’t usually happen quickly afterwards, she said, citing early 20th century women’s suffrage marches as an example. The goal is really to make it clear to politicians that this is something people care about, and to start the process of creating political pressure. When it comes to specific political goals, Benton-Short wasn’t sure what the March on Science hoped to accomplish. “I know the big picture,” she said. “But what will be interesting is to also see the reaction to that. How congressmen, senators and Republicans interpret the day and the messages they walk away with.”
From Ron Bailey at Reason:
Microbiologist Alex Berezow: “From the very outset, the march started as an anti-Trump protest. Then it morphed into a solidly progressive movement, embracing all manner of left-wing social justice causes.” Berezow added that the march could well end up harming the interests of the scientific community: “For decades, science has received broad bipartisan support. (In fact, Republicans usually funded science better than Democrats.) By biting the hand that feeds them, scientists risk losing funding, as well as alienating taxpayers. That is an awful idea, and it hurts everybody.”
Well it remains to be seen how the folks on The Hill react to all this. I anticipate that they will ignore it. I fear that the end result will be that we have a new cadre of scientist/activists, further polluting the objectivity of scientific research in support of policies that they don’t understand.
Its not a war on science articulates why the March won’t have its intended impact. Read the whole thing, here is a hint:
Know your enemy, Sun Tzu reminds us in The Art of War. Science is in a war, but not the one many think. To avoid costly mistakes, scientists and those who support them need to know and understand the forces in the field. Those forces are not engaged in an attack on science—or the truth.
I think the ‘Memphis split’ is the most illuminating thing in all this. No one is fighting a war against scientists in the top half of the quadrant diagram, where the concerns are about funding and immigration. The ‘war’ relates to the bottom half of the quadrant diagram, when there is specific advocacy by scientists for certain policies, not to mention concerns about cherry-picked and biased science. The attempt by activist scientists and some politicians to scientize policy and political debates is at the heart of the perceived war on science. The biggest danger for the top half of the quadrant diagram is pollution from activist baggage associated with the bottom half of the diagram.
Ultimately, the scientists have failed in The Art of War, in terms of knowing their ‘enemy’.
The March for Science has unleashed many things, that will be clarified down the road with analyses from different perspectives. Hopefully some of these things are for the good of science, but I fear substantial backlash on one side and reinforcement as ‘science as dogma’ on the other side may be the main result of all this.