A group of scientists and science enthusiasts are planning a March for Science in Washington DC on April 22nd – Earth Day – with satellite marches also expected to take place across the US and the world. Within just a week of its inception, the Facebook group for the March has grown to over 800,000 members. One might wonder what made scientists – a group not as politically active as others, like gun owners, investment bankers, or pro-choice activists – decide to suddenly mobilize and rally for their causes.
It all started with an online discussion about how to stand up against the anti-science stance and policies of Donald Trump’s administration. Some of President Trump’s actions such as his skepticism about vaccines, insistence that climate change was a hoax created by China, and appointment of Scott Pruitt – someone who had repeatedly sued the EPA in the past and wants to limit its scope drastically – to head the EPA were already ringing alarm bells in scientific circles. If that wasn’t enough, within a week of inauguration, the Trump White House removed all mentions of climate change or the effort to fight it from its website, issued gag orders* on multiple governmental science agencies including the EPA, USDA and CDC, prohibiting them from directly communicating with the public through news releases, blog entries, twitter posts etc., froze all grants and contracts from the EPA, met with prominent antivaxxers “to discuss vaccine safety”, and resurrected plans for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines without any concern about the environmental ramifications.
We live in a post-truth world where spokespeople from the government are offering up “alternative facts”, which happen to be just cleverly packaged falsehoods and propaganda. The shrewdness (and danger) of such an approach lies in the claim that being in a position of power makes the government privy to unique facts – scientific or otherwise – to which others do not have access. While the idea of “alternative facts” might find appeal in Orwellian dystopian societies and philosophy, it has no place in science. Science follows a systematic approach of formulating and asking questions, generating a hypothesis, attempting to disprove the hypothesis through experimentation, and gaining knowledge to be shared with others. Scientific knowledge is not absolute and is subject to constant revision; after all, until the 17th century, the popular scientific model in the Western world was that the sun revolved around the Earth. However, what is relevant is that science relies on evidence to accumulate or revise knowledge. We don’t get to cherry-pick facts, nor do we get to come up with claims that cannot be backed up by empirical evidence and pass them off as truth. And that is why we need to stand up and speak against attempts to alter facts to fit someone’s ideology.
Science has never been apolitical. From Galileo to Darwin to Oppenheimer, scientists have had to either tread carefully and fall in line, or else face the wrath of those in power. On top of that, resources and personnel are often limited by the amount of federal funding granted to research institutions, and how we allocate them and what research we fund (or don’t) are important political decisions. These decisions are made not just for economic reasons, but also ethical ones; for instance, a research project that seeks valuable information about a disease but deliberately puts human subjects in harm’s way without their knowledge or consent to achieve that purpose would not be approved or funded these days† for obvious reasons. Another example is therapeutic human cloning experiments, which may enhance our understanding of embryological development and genetic abnormalities that lead to diseases, but the moral issues surrounding the deliberate creation, use, and destruction of cloned human embryos have led to its tight regulation or outright ban in several developed countries‡. Furthermore, what we do with facts discovered by scientific research is also a political decision. Environmental scientists have been warning the government that the climate change threat is real for years, but inaction on the part of politicians sometimes helps them fundraise by favoring organizations or corporations that lobby against climate change.
Science has found itself at odds with religious and political beliefs in the past. Hence, it should not come as a huge surprise that even in the 21st century, opposition to scientific theories still exist. What might be surprising, though, is the fact that this rejection of science does not have much to do with intelligence or education. So, why are smart, educated people denying overwhelming scientific evidence in topics such as climate change or vaccine safety? Research presented at the annual convention of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in San Antonio suggests that a big factor could be that people tend to associate science and open inquiry with a particular political ideology. This results in a reluctance to accept scientific findings if you find yourself on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Moreover, the use of science as a belief system and a tool to feel culturally superior to others only helps widen this rift and create mistrust in science. Hence, as scientists and science enthusiasts, we shouldn’t just demand the right to communicate scientific knowledge freely, but also make sincere efforts to improve how science is communicated to people on both sides of the aisle. This would require better science outreach and communication, which includes understanding what motivates specific groups and tailoring scientific messages to align with those motivations.
For the public to have a better understanding of science, to remove misconceptions about scientific research, and for scientific discoveries to benefit society, what we need is better, more open communication, not less. Basic scientific research funded by public money helps us predict the incidence of natural catastrophes such as hurricanes and floods in advance, maximize crop yields, and prevent pandemics. When science is gagged instead of discussed, we all lose as a society. When knowledge obtained through years or decades of painstaking research is given less weight than the whims and ideologies of those in power, we lose the ability to make better-informed decisions. To me, one of the most encouraging aspects about the March for Science community is the enthusiasm of non-scientist citizens who are coming forward to play an active role in science advocacy, and the engagement of scientists who realize the importance of citizen allies in standing up for science. The March appears to have become a clarion call for those passionate about science to mobilize, but let’s hope it also becomes a movement that increases scientific awareness among all people and encourages them to participate, experiment, and question existing paradigms, and pursue knowledge with great curiosity.
* Some of these orders have been rescinded since the initial reports came out.
† In the past, when Institutional Review Boards and other bodies that ensure the ethical conduct of research on humans were not so prevalent, unethical experimentation was done on vulnerable individuals. (Read about the Tuskegee syphilis research)
‡ In the US, no specific federal laws exist regarding human cloning, but federal funding is prohibited.