The March for Science Is the Problem, Not the Solution

On the 47th Earth Day, scientists and other concerned citizens marched for science. This march was “the first step of a global movement to defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments.”[1] Although it is not evident that scientists should become activists, most of us, scientists and laymen, would agree that science and technology have helped to improve our lives. Electricity, antibiotics, nuclear energy, genetically modified organisms, and information technology, which all have a basis in science, are useful to large numbers of people. Showing public support for this kind of science would appear to be unobjectionable. Nevertheless, the March for Science is controversial,[2] since it celebrates a different kind of “policy-relevant” science that does not have the same track record.

Public support for science

Science is broadly supported in the Western world. Governments spend large sums of money on science, and use it extensively in their policy-making. The general public has confidence in science as an institution, but the level of support should not be exaggerated.[3] In the US General Social Survey, responding to the question “as far as the people running [the scientific community] is concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them,” 40% say they have a “great deal” of confidence,[4] with 50% having “only some” confidence.[5] Those with a college degree, who have learned about the scientific method, have more confidence in science than those with less than high school: 50% v. 29%.[6]

Interestingly, Republicans have less confidence in science than Democrats (35% v. 42% reporting a great deal of confidence[7]). This may reflect the fact that Republicans include more religious people, who may tend to be more critical of science. It may also reflect the fact, however, that the scientific community tends to include proportionally more progressives than conservatives.[8] The lack of intellectual and ideological diversity is a problem in all fields of science, but more so in social, biological and environmental sciences, i.e. those areas that produce policy-relevant science. So, maybe, Republicans distrust science more than Democrats simply because there are less scientists that endorse their political viewpoint. This assumes, of course, that a scientist’s political viewpoint influences the science that he or she produces.

Controversy

Indeed, the March for Science has become controversial precisely because it takes a political stand. In the initial planning, the March for Science was directed directly against the Trump administration’s “science denial,” “war on science,” and “war on facts.”[9] In response to criticism about the non-scientific, defensive attack on President Trump’s policies, the organizers have restated the objective in more positive terms: it would be “a celebration of science.” More specifically, “it’s not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.” But science provides only selective and limited insights into the complex policy issues governments face.

Even the restated objective is not a plea for the unbiased search for objective truth, with the retreat of science to where objective truth can be found. It is not even clear that the organizers believe in objectivity and truth. Rather, they advocate a particular vision of society and public policy-making. According to the organizers, science is “a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.” Uniting “a diverse, nonpartisan group,” the March for Science therefore calls “for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest.” The organizers draw attention to “an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery.” Faced with these trends, we are invited to ask “can we afford not to speak out in science’s defense”? This question, of course, is rhetorical, and the organizers thus tell us: “There is no Planet B. Join the #MarchForScience.”[10] Scientists should therefore involve themselves in politics. But if they do, what will this mean for science?

Despite the attempt to deflect the political stance inherent in the March for Science, this short statement reveals that the organizers have implicitly made a set of assumptions about science that are not scientific in nature. Five such assumptions require close scrutiny: science is true, scientific discovery may not be restricted, science promotes freedom and prosperity, scientific consensus must be respected, and public policy must be based on science. Each of these assumptions reflects unspoken (and, maybe, unspeakable) opinions and positions with respect to the philosophy of science, the sociology of science, and the proper role of science in society.

Science Is True

The idea of science is that it can help us find truth. But the point should not exaggerated. According to the astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”[11] This is a bit of an overstatement; science is not true by definition, unless the definition of science presupposes its truthfulness. “Science isn’t true, nor is it false,” statistician William M Briggs, an independent consultant and past professor at the Cornell Medical School, explains, “it is a collection of facts and predictions, some of which are true or good, and some false or bad.”[12] In the tradition of “scholasticism,” we knew something was true because scientists said so [13] – the modern, Enlightenment version of scientific truth, however, eschews authority as a source of knowledge, and replaced it with evidence: truth can be found through a (never-ending) quest for evidence and falsification. If scientists rigorously follow proper methodology, their observations are likely to be the best approximation of observable, objective truth currently available, but that does not mean that science is true by definition.

Assuming that science is true is assuming the problem away. Science, as a product of the scientific method, may be true, and may be more likely to be true if it is produced in accordance with sound methodological standards. If science is merely a method for developing knowledge, its truthfulness requires a separate enquiry. Such an enquiry may show that a scientific finding is doubtful. False scientific theories and findings are unavoidable, but, ideally, the scientific community addresses these issues and, over time, corrects the erroneous findings. Science, as a human activity, is not self-correcting by nature. To the contrary, the fear has been expressed that science “isn’t self-correcting, it’s self-destructing.”[14] Even if science does not destroy itself, however, it cannot be equated with truth. At best, science can be a useful way of developing knowledge about reality.

Not all supporters of the March for Science agree that science is either true or objective. Shay Akil McLean, a Ph.D. student University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has rejected this notion. “[T]o think there are universal truths,” he argues, “perpetuates a particular kind of able bodied white cisgender male logic, a world where everything is measured in comparison to them as the ideal type of human that everyone else aberrates from.”[15] Shay studies the intersection between science and social justice, and has little need for objectivity or truth. These scholars believe that “science without a strong social-justice bedrock — that is, without politics — is a myth, and that embracing this myth will only led to hardship and oppression.”[16] To avoid the tricky issues associated with this stance, the March for Science has tried to steer away from the notion of science as politics.

Scientific Discovery May Not Be Restricted

The claim that scientific discovery may not be restricted is unpersuasive at various levels. First, this claim would seem to imply that science is entitled to public funding. Although it may well be wise to fund some science from the public purse, the scientific community is not entitled to any guaranteed level of funding – in the political decision-making process, funding for science has to be justified, and different politicians favor different levels of funding and different areas of science. There is nothing inherently wrong with these diverging political preferences, at least not from a scientific viewpoint.

Further, some scientific research may conflict with the ethics of a society. In the history of science, many examples of unethical research have come to light: from the Tuskegee syphilis experiment[17] to the recent EPA inhalation studies.[18] Until forced to do so, the scientific community had not adopted its own ethical research codes. In addition, even if scientific research can be conducted ethically, society might decide that it does not want certain knowledge or technology to become available. For instance, society could decide that science aimed at understanding how to control the human mind (which government might like) is simply too risky. Thus, the proposition that scientific discovery may not be restricted is doubtful.

Science Promotes Freedom and Prosperity

Science does not naturally promote human freedom or prosperity. There is nothing inherent in science that would automatically generate this effect. Sure, science, if well designed and executed, can improve our understanding of the world and be used to promote desired ends. But science could also be used to achieve the opposite, and restrict freedom or prosperity. For instance, communication science could produce knowledge that allows government to think up and disseminate large-scale propaganda effectively, or microbiological science could enable the creation of deadly microbes causing untreatable disease.

In fact, there is no reason to believe that scientists intend to develop knowledge that can be used to promote freedom and prosperity. Science could be (and, in fact, is) aimed at promoting equality, rather than freedom. Fervent supporters of the March for Science, for instance, have stated that:

“[c]olonization, racism, immigration, native rights, sexism, ableism, queer-, trans-, intersex-phobia, and economic justice are scientific issues.”[19]

These issues are only to a limited extent scientific issues – they relate in important ways to values, subjective and political preferences, and the like, and science plays only a small role on some issues that are possibly related to the main problem. Many marching for science greatly overestimate science’s role in resolving social issues.

Scientific Consensus Must Be Respected

Under the notion of precautionary regulation, activists have been arguing that minority science should be the basis for policy making. For example, on the issue of biotechnology and genetically modified organisms, activists have argued that strict regulation is necessary because some minority science has established potential risks associated with this technology. In this case, the argument is that the consensus should not be decisive because it does not rule out the possibility of adverse effects.

The emphasis on minority science, however, is not consistent. In other cases, such as climate change, activists argue that the majority, consensus science should be decisive. The Academies of Science from 80 countries plus many scientific organizations are reported as believing that humans are causing global warming. Approximately 97% of active climate researchers are said to endorse this consensus position.[20] This claim has been disputed,[21] but that is not my concern here. The point simply is to note that those who claim that scientific consensus must be respected, make exceptions where the consensus does not produce the desired policy results.

More generally, there is no objective as to why politicians must agree with a scientific consensus position. It all depends. Politicians and the public at large may have good reasons to disagree with settled science.[22] That there is consensus among a certain group of scientists does not make a claim true.[23] It is the evidence, not ‘”expert judgment,” that determines whether a claim is true. The March for Science is hypocritical – rather than celebrating scientific evidence, it pushes for vigorous enforcement of the scientific consensus. This, in turn, creates perverse incentives for activist scientists to construct “consensus,” which produces adverse effects, including the suppression of scientific debate and dissenting voices.

Public Policy Must Be Based on Science

The proposition that public policy must be based on science is both false and useless or even counter-productive.[24] It is false in that policy could legitimately be based on values, rather than science. For instance, a government could decide to permit the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment, even if the scientific evidence suggests it may pose risks, because it values innovation and the prospects if may offer. Likewise, a government could prohibit abortion and euthanasia on the grounds that it desires to protect human life – science does not ground an objection against such a policy.

At the same time, the claim is useless or even counter-productive because it would aggravate the current problem of politicization of science.[25] If politicians are required to produce science in support of the policies they push, they will make sure that the necessary science is generated. Scientization of politics inevitable leads to the politicization of science.

The March for Science Is the Problem

Science has always been vulnerable to abuse and distortion for political ends. Because science provides powerful ammunition in political debate, it is valued by politicians. Thus, science is at risk of becoming a political tool. The main risk may not be that policy makers “deny the science” or wage “war on science,” but that they cause the production of politically convenient science and hide behind scientific evidence to avoid accountability for political choice. In climate science, this dynamic is at play. Once the norms of science have eroded under political pressure, science loses its ability to produce objective knowledge, and thus its social justification.

It has been argued that the March for Science misunderstands politics – it assumes, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, that the application of science to politics will create “an unbroken chain of inquiry, knowledge, and public benefit for all.”[26] The slogan “evidence-based science for evidence-based legislation,” endorsed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science,[27] reflects this incredibly naïve conception of the science-policy interface. Relatedly, the March for Science misunderstands science itself, and exposes “other issues that are not solely external to science.”[28] It misunderstands science’s rationale, legitimation, and role in society and policy making in particular. In modern technocracies, science is not a certain recipe for human betterment and progress.[29]

Not only will the March for Science fail to address the real issues that plague science, it might also hurt science by portraying it as a progressive political project. A research director for the Union of Concerned Scientists has labelled the march “a huge moment and huge opportunity to expand the scientific community’s influence on policy.” In her view, the march is the start of “a big, diverse, inclusive movement that puts science to work for people.”[30]

Unfortunately, the March for Science, rather than put science to work for the people, will “simply increase the size of the echo chamber.”[31] In all likelihood, it will be viewed as celebrating the science-based technocracy controlled by educated elites that some people frown upon.

The March for Science is a symptom of the underlying problem of politicization. In many areas that are policy-relevant, science has been overextended and charged with a mission impossible: finding scientific evidence to support government policies. It pretends to provide objective analysis of complex, value-laden problems that cannot be approached without subjective choices. The study of problems such as climate change and immigration requires that the scientist adopt a vision of the desirable society, since, without such a vision, it will not be possible to make a selection from the wide range of questions that can be studied and facts that can be developed.

Science has become a victim of its own success. The March for Science ignores the real problems — pretending that science today is non-partisan and apolitical. It is part of a strategy adopted by activist scientists and politicians to scientize politics and politicize science. This is the issue that is at the heart of the perceived “war on science.”[32]

Politicization of science has already reduced science’s value for society. Rather than embracing politicization and a particular world view, scientists should restore the conditions under which policy-relevant science can produce objective knowledge. Only if they succeed in doing so will this kind of science have a bright future.

Notes

[1] https://www.marchforscience.com/

[2] https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2017/04/20/the-regressive-left-and-the-science-march/

[3] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/04/20/science-march-war-truth-political-polarization/100636124/

[4] https://gssdataexplorer.norc.org/trends/Politics?measure=consci

[5] https://gssdataexplorer.norc.org/trends/Politics?measure=consci

[6] https://gssdataexplorer.norc.org/trends/Politics?measure=consci

[7] https://gssdataexplorer.norc.org/trends/Politics?measure=consci

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/10/31/academias-rejection-of-ideological-diversity-has-consequences/?utm_term=.39931e1b3ae1 ; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/11/01/on-the-causes-of-ideological-imbalance-in-the-academy/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.9d6944e58a17 ; https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2953087

[9] http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/4/19/14331168/science-march-earth-day-route-livestream-signs-speakers ; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/15/why-scientists-are-fighting-back-we-have-had-enough-of-trump-war-on-facts?CMP=twt_gu

[10] https://www.marchforscience.com/

[11] https://twitter.com/neiltyson/status/345551599382446081?lang=en

[12] https://stream.org/march-for-politics-scientism-scidolatry/

[13] http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2016/07/how_do_we_know_what_is_true.html

[14] http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/saving-science

[15] https://decolonizeallthescience.com/2017/03/02/the-peoples-science-a-call-for-justice-based-ethics-for-the-march-for-science-beyond/#more-54

[16] http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/04/the-science-march-sparked-a-big-argument-about-objectivity.html

[17] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuskegee_syphilis_experiment

[18] https://eelegal.org/pm2-5-human-experimentation/

[19] https://twitter.com/ScienceMarchDC/status/825496158269227009

[20] https://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-intermediate.htm

[21] https://www.forbes.com/sites/uhenergy/2016/12/14/fact-checking-the-97-consensus-on-anthropogenic-climate-change/#71d989211576

[22] https://stream.org/doubt-scientific-consensus/

[23] https://stream.org/the-march-for-science-is-really-a-march-for-conformity/

[24] http://reason.com/archives/2017/04/21/scientists-march-on-washington

[25] https://judithcurry.com/2016/10/25/politics-and-the-changing-norms-of-science/

[26] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/04/march-for-science/523803/?utm_source=twb

[27]https://twitter.com/aaas/status/852582803707502593

[28] http://www.pmcsa.org.nz/blog/on-marching-for-science/

[29] http://issues.org/33-3/perspective-its-not-a-war-on-science/?utm_content=bufferd5975&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[30] http://edition.cnn.com/2017/04/19/politics/march-for-science-earth-day/index.html

[31] https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/01/31/opinion/a-scientists-march-on-washington-is-a-bad-idea.html?referer

[32] https://judithcurry.com/2017/04/22/untangling-the-march-for-science/

Lucas Bergkamp

Lucas Bergkamp, PhD, is a partner at Hunton & Williams, Brussels, and is emeritus Professor of Environmental Liability Law at Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Advertisements
If you enjoy our articles, be a part of our growth and help us produce more writing for you:
Lucas Bergkamp

Lucas Bergkamp, PhD, is a partner at Hunton & Williams, Brussels, and is emeritus Professor of Environmental Liability Law at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

15 thoughts on “The March for Science Is the Problem, Not the Solution

  1. “Science+” anyone? This is a yet another attempt to co-opt an existing group or cause for social justice activism. They will try to politicize it to increase their influence, but end up fracturing it instead. What when a scientist (especially a biologist and anthropologist) finds a result THEY don’t like? What if they use the “wrong” language? What if they wear the wrong shirt on TV?

  2. People criticized the Women’s March the day after the inauguration, but it was awesome. People now criticize the March for Science, but it was awesome. Those of us who marched want to make the point that there are many, many people who are very, very concerned about the rights of women and challenges to issues we care about; and there are many, many people who care about cuts to research budgets, appointments of people who are anti-science, and dismissal of scientific work relevant to numerous policies. If you’re not worried, you’re not paying attention.

    Pictures – of thousands and thousands of people all over the globe who are concerned enough to dedicate a day to marching – are more powerful than gazillion clicks on online petitions. The pictures will be in the minds of our people in congress when we call their offices and remind them of our concerns.

    Don’t like the marches? Fine, organize something else just as powerful. But don’t pretend there’s no cause for concern.

  3. I hesitate to repeat the comments “gobbledegook” and “hasn’t got a fucking clue”,but I did get the impression right from the start of the article that the writer (irrespective of any debate about “the march of science” ) has never quite understood what science is about. Science does not reveal the truth but enables us to asymptotically approach the truth.
    DJA

  4. Science is a method, but the methodology depends on data and observations to test hypotheses. Its the data collection and interpretation where one has to be careful to not say more than the data allows and to vigorously test one’s hypotheses, i.e, to be a good scientist, you have to be your own worst critic. Gore that ox! Find the violations to your pet theories.

    Calling something “facts” does miss the point and I cringe when people refer to scientific findings as “facts”. Data are only as factual, so to speak, as the methods used to collect them. As Richard Feynman said, “Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty: some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.”

  5. Not all supporters of the March for Science agree that science is either true or objective. Shay Akil McLean, a Ph.D. student University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has rejected this notion. “[T]o think there are universal truths,” he argues, “perpetuates a particular kind of able bodied white cisgender male logic, a world where everything is measured in comparison to them as the ideal type of human that everyone else aberrates from.”[15] Shay studies the intersection between science and social justice, and has little need for objectivity or truth. These scholars believe that “science without a strong social-justice bedrock — that is, without politics — is a myth, and that embracing this myth will only led to hardship and oppression.”[16] To avoid the tricky issues associated with this stance, the March for Science has tried to steer away from the notion of science as politics.

    Jesus wept. If you think the laws of gravity effect only cis-gendered white heterosexuals feel free to demonstrate your immunity from the laws of physics by riding a unicorn off a rooftop.

  6. Quite. This is what happens when you hire a lawyer to pronounce on matters of science. The scientific method is about testing theories against reality; the law is about battering your target with excess verbiage until one side or the other runs out of money.

  7. “Science isn’t true, nor is it false,” statistician William M Briggs, an independent consultant and past professor at the Cornell Medical School, explains, “it is a collection of facts and predictions, some of which are true or good, and some false or bad.

    The guy doesn’t have a fucking clue. Science is a method, not a body of knowledge.

LEAVE A REPLY