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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Marching for science

By Phil Plait

[Thousands of people crowded the Plaza de César Chávez in San Jose for the March for Science on April 22, 2017. Credit: Phil Plait]

Over this last weekend, quite literally all over the world, people attended rallies to show their support for science. These were called collectively March for Science, and the motivation was due to the outright and appalling attacks on science made by Donald Trump and his administration.

I attended the March for Science in San Jose (aka Silicon Valley). After the march, itself, a diverse group of speakers took the stage to talk about science, how important it is, and how important it is we support it. That part was MCed by Rachel Bloom, who is a big science fan, and I had the honor of being one of the speakers.

I decided to give an overview of why we were marching, and how important it is to not only defend science against attack, but to positively support it and, just as critically, support the wide variety of humans who do that science.

I want to note that there has been a lot of controversy in and among the science community about the march, a lot of it centering on claims that the organization marginalized the voices of women and people of color. Because of this, many people didn’t participate. I read a lot of the analysis, and I certainly understand why some people decided to sit it out. I considered my own options and, in the end, decided to speak because then I might be able to raise some awareness of the issue. As I’ve noted before, there’s a deep irony to a white man getting more attention when he talks about race and feminism issues than when the affected people in those groups themselves do, but for now, it’s a fact of life. If I can help with my soapbox, I will.

There’s a decent video of my speech taken from pretty close by online, but I can’t embed it, so here’s one taken from a bit farther back. I have a sortof-transcript below, too.


We’re all here because we love science.

This may shock you, but I love science as well.

I always have, my whole life, literally since I was a little kid. I was into dinosaurs, I was into astronomy, the usual cliches. I loved the exploration of it, the discovery…

It was later in life I learned to love the process. The doubt that gets injected, the desire to find where your idea may be wrong, where your observations and experiments might be flawed, and where your conclusions — and even your thoughts going into the process, itself —could swayed by bias. It’s hard - it’s damn hard - but I’ve tried to live my life applying those same critical thinking skills to everything. Even my politics.

Now, sadly, that is not a two way street. While we might all try to be scientific in our politics, politics has not quite been so kind to science. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. These two fields of human endeavor start from different perspectives, so some tension is to be expected from that, especially if politics is more important to you than facts.

Politics, and the political process, need not be antithetical to science and the scientific process. But they can be, and once they start down that merry path, all bets are off. Politics can twist science, and can twist the scientific process, itself, especially when the funding for science comes from the government.

Hey! Don’t like climate change? Question the scientists, question their motives, cherry-pick the data. Do you think the Earth is 6000 years old? Do the same thing, and mandate it be taught in school. Don’t think vaccines are effective? Play up bad data, rely as much on anecdotes as you can, and ignore study after study showing their efficacy.

These attacks on science are motivated by various factors. Ideology, sometimes, or perhaps fossil fuel funding, say. But the result is the same no matter what the impetus: Denial of reality. And once you embrace that denial, it needs to be sustained despite all evidence against it. The best way to do this is to accuse the scientists of what the deniers themselves are guilty - falsifying data, and coveting funding.

And then comes the greatest hypocrisy of all: Politicians saying that the science has become political and partisan. They, themselves, made it that way.

Let me ask you:

Is a gun political? In and of itself, not really. It’s just a tool; just a thing. But if I walk with one openly on the street, you can be damn sure it’s making a political statement.

Is a uterus political? You wouldn’t think so, but apparently having one and deciding — based on copious evidence — how it should be used is making a political statement.

Is skin color political? It is when it’s used to marginalize, and to suppress.

Is science political? We’d like to think it isn’t, but the conclusions of science often run counter to what people want to believe, and that perforce thrusts science into the political arena.

And mind you, science is done by scientists. By humans. This is what a lot of people, even scientists and some skeptics tend to forget.

“Keep politics out of science”? Yeah right, we can carve that on its headstone.

“Keep politics out of science”? I’ll ask climate scientists if they agree with that.

“Don’t let gender and identity politics interfere with promoting science”? I’ll ask women, and people of color, and marginalized groups, how they feel about that...when they can’t do any science because of the political climate, and no one will listen to them or lift a finger to help them.

Perhaps no tool is political in a vacuum. But science doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is an endeavor performed by humans, and as such it is, has been, and ever shall be politicized.

And there’s more to it than that. This Congress, this President, haven’t just politicized science: They’ve weaponized it. They’ve used it against itself and organized against it. They’re threatening our very existence as a nation and as a species due not just to their denial, but from their active attacks on science.

We have to stop this. We are the lovers and the doers of science...the supporters of science and the scientific process. We have to make our voices heard. We have to speak up and we have to vote.

When it comes to science, facts do not speak for themselves. They needs advocates.

Be those advocates.

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