Marching and Science

I plan on being in Washington, D.C. on April 22 to show my support for science. I did not realize that doing so might be controversial. At the Midwest Political Science Association meetings (which I sadly missed) there was a discussion about what political scientists should do to promote social science. The March for Science  (April 22) was mentioned and several people indicated that the march ought to be boycotted. At first this seemed a strange idea, so I thought I would muddle through it.

A number of different reasons have been put forward for avoiding the march. These include strategic concerns, ethical concerns and self-interested concerns. Strategically it has been said that if the march fails to mobilize enough people, it will show that there is little support for science. Personally, I’m not certain how boycotting will solve this problem. As with all voluntary gatherings of citizens, this is a collective action problem. A more cogent strategic rationale involves antagonizing an already disapproving administration. I take this to be that one should not “poke the hornet’s nest.” Certainly it is true that the President has proposed substantial cuts to a variety of science programs. Certainly members of congress have voiced many of the same concerns about what scientists say concerning health or climate change. But it strikes me that avoiding antagonizing those in Washington means simply giving in to an agenda with which I disagree. While some are worried that the march will expose science to the political spotlight, I do not see that as a bad idea. After all, I am a political scientist and I see politics everywhere. Politicizing support for science is different than politicizing science.

Regarding ethical concerns, it has been noted that scientists should be above petty politics. After all, scientists deliver the facts and should not be involved in what appears to be a partisan fight. This assumes that the March for Science is directed at the party in power and that it will draw exclusively on liberals. There is no doubt that the impetus for the March involves what is viewed as an attack on science. But this is not limited to liberals. Science is about method, the search for patterns and the use of knowledge for all. It does not imply that only liberals have a lock on knowledge. All of us, no matter our partisanship, are devoted to evidence and providing explanation of the complexity around us. The march aims to remind us all that science is an important part of public discourse.

Finally, self-interested concerns have been raised. Some of these concerns deal with the fear of backlash against scientists. By entering the political realm we are putting ourselves at risk. This could be exposing us to public criticism, devaluing the esteem with which scientists are held or even inviting sanctions by employers. Some have resorted to a tribalistic view, worrying that social scientists, by taking action, will be readily sacrificed by natural scientists.     While these are real fears, inaction is unlikely to make things better.

It seems to me that the reasons for attending the march are fairly simple. The world is a complicated place – often made even more complicated by people. Understanding that world requires systematic study – something that scientists of all stripes do quite well. Choosing between public policies requires not just political choices, but evidence about the consequences of those choices. Evidence-based governance is more than just a slogan. It goes to the heart of what scientists do: provide the facts for reasoned choices. This march should call into question a world in which “alternative facts” are treated the same as systematically collected and vetted facts.

While I have always had to defend the social sciences as a “science,” I never thought I would be in a position where I felt I had to defend all the sciences. I will be in D.C. on April 22. I hope to see a lot of my scientist friends there as well.

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