What I am less enthused about are opinion pieces from scientists and science policy professionals arguing against the march. Dr. Robert S. Young writes in the New York Times that he is worried that “[T]rying to recreate the pointedly political Women’s March will serve only to reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research and findings for their own ends” or as CSPO program manager Jason Lloyd writes on Slate that it will interfere with the larger project of “[F]iguring out how scientists can build an enduring relationship with all segments of the American public, so that discounting, defunding, or vilifying scientists’ important work is politically intolerable.”
The argument of these op-eds is that this march will be counter-productive because it will be seen as partisan, directed solely against the current president, and that therefore scientists will lose their objectivity. That precious quality allows scientists to act as a neutral mediator to between competing factions, and will be abandoned if scientists come out with slogans and posters. I think this is wrong, based on a misunderstanding of the relationship between science and society, and that marching is a general duty for scientists and those who regard themselves as science advocates.
Objectivity is a key scientific norm, but objectivity doesn’t come from holding oneself aloof from politics. As Robert Merton described it, science is objective because it is universal. A scientific truth owes its truthfulness to referencing as external quality of reality that does not depend on the particularity of the observer. Objectivity comes from the process, not the person. And following Karl Popper, scientific statements are scientific because in a logical sense, they are falsifiable. They say “This is how the world, and if I’m wrong, the world is some other way.” A lot of scholarship since then has shown how science often does not achieve these very high ideals, I am particularly fond of the complications of experimenter’s regress as discussed in Collins and Pinch’s The Golem, but even if science as-it-is-done is the work of privileged insiders, bounded by a theoretical paradigm, inextricable from “post-normal” considerations of value, and so on. Still, these ideals of science give us something to aim towards
But the reason why I don’t much like the op-eds against is the unspoken reasoning behind their arguments: If scientists hide behind objectivity and don’t criticize Republicans, they’ll listen to us in the future, and maybe they won’t cut our funding. This is abuse victim thinking (with deepest apologies to real victims of domestic violence). Objectivity comes from speaking and thinking carefully, not from stripping yourself of any prior values. Indeed, if scientists don’t talk more about their values, demonstrate those values in public, then I don’t see how non-scientists can take them seriously as “honest brokers” of complicated knowledge.
Professor Megan Halpern put it more eloquently than I ever could:
“We have an obligation to march precisely because we are in a position of power. For the past few centuries, science has occupied an incredibly powerful position in the world. Marching from a position of power may seem contradictory, but it isn’t. I think by marching, we can show our strength. We have this opportunity to stand up for children and families without safe water, such as those in Flint, Michigan, or to speak up about the causes of disintegrating ocean ecosystems and rising sea levels. We don’t march because people at the EPA are being oppressed; we march so that the EPA can effectively protect us all. We are not disenfranchised underdogs, but it is up to us to stand up for those who are disenfranchised when our work is ignored or abused. And if we fail to show up? We tell a different story. We reveal ourselves as weak, not strong. This is why it is important that AAAS, Sigma Xi, and 25 partner organizations have joined the march. They are our megaphones. In short, with great power comes great responsibility.”
Rallies are about demonstrating power. The March for Science is a moment to affirm that science has value to society, that scientists are not unemotional robots but people who care about the same problems that everyone else does, that we are part of a vibrant political coalition. When utter nonsense rules the day, and I direct anyone who is skeptical on this to @realDonaldTrump, scientists have a duty to stand up and say that hard work matters and external reality exists. Truth is determined by experiment and discarding all other alternatives, not what is most politically expedient. Words have meaning and power must be precise in thought and action because mistakes get people killed.
I’d like to close by quoting from one of my favorite philosophers of science, Ludwik Fleck. Fleck was a Polish Jew, a doctor who hung around philosophical circles in the 1930s and wrote an early book on the sociology of science, which Thomas Kuhn repackaged as ‘paradigm shifts’ in The Structure of Scientific Revolution. He developed a typhus vaccine in the L’viv ghetto and survived the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald to have a distinguished postwar scientific career.
Fleck wrote “A fact is that which opposes arbitrary thinking.”
On Saturday, I’ll be at the March for Science.