How the March for Science Can Hurt Science

I think the March for Science is a very bad idea for the simple reason that the March is likely to politicize science to a dangerous degree. Robert S. Young, a professor of coastal geology, wrote an essay for the NYT entitled, “A Scientists’ March on Washington Is a Bad Idea.”  Young explains:

But trying 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.

[…]

A march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.

Wise words.  Let’s now flesh them out to help illustrate how the March for Science could seriously damage science for a long time.

Let’s begin with some Pew Research data that shows Americans place great trust in the scientific community:

Why do you think it is that 76% of American’s trust the scientific community to do what is in the best interests of the public?  I would propose the driving cause is the perception that scientists are non-partisan.  That’s why they cluster with the military and doctors and are at the opposite end of the trust spectrum from politicians and the media.  In other words, you could look at the same ranking and view it as people scoring groups in terms of the group being apolitical and/or non-partisan.  Human beings naturally place more trust in those whom are perceived to have no agenda other than helping or defending all people.

So let’s bring the March for Science into the picture.  They are careful to claim they are “nonpartisan group.”  But how believable is that?

Word of advice.  If you are going to have a political march while claiming to be nonpartisan, you had better well be nonpartisan.  Because if you are not, you can expect you political opponents to pounce all over that claim, uncover its untruthful essence, and shout it from the rooftops.  For not only would you be exposed as just another partisan voice, but a voice that lied about it being non-partisan.  And the casualty would be science’s greatest asset – the trust of the people.

So how well will this nonpartisan claim hold up?

It looks to me like it is on very shaky ground.  Consider the baggage.

  1. The March for Science looks like it was inspired by and modeled after the anti-Trump, partisan Woman’s March.
  2. There is clearly an anti-Trump, anti-Republican undercurrent to the March for Science that will not be easily masked.
  3. Earth Day, of all days, was chosen as the day for the March.
  4. The webpage for the March for Science originally displayed it’s left-leaning partisan perspective. See here and here.

Of course, all of this is kind of esoteric and unlikely to gain traction among people who are on the proverbial fence with a five minute attention span.  What would be truly damaging is a simple, unambiguous scientific fact that completely undercuts the nonpartisan posturing.

Well, such a fact exists.  It’s a fact that is not widely known, but thanks to the March For Science, it could eventually be common knowledge and a political talking point.

Did you ever wonder how many scientists are Republicans and how many are Democrats?  How many are conservative and how many are liberal?  Once again, Pew Research has the data:

Ouch.  While 55% of scientists are Democrats, only 6% are Republicans.  There are actually more women in science than Republicans in science.  The massive imbalance is even more severe when leaners are included, where we find that over 80% of scientists are Democrat or lean Democrat.  And as you can see, political ideology is likewise severely skewed.

Those data are not exactly supportive of the claims of nonpartisanship with regard to the March for Science.  In fact, if the March for Science does provoke a political response from its opponents, those data are ready-made talking points as part of some rather influential pushback.  How so? Such data are likely to be “news” for millions of Americans.  According to another PewReseach survey:

Interesting.  So 64% of Americans mistakenly believe that scientists are neither liberal nor conservative.  Pew Reseach put it this way:

The sharp political divide between Republicans and Democrats on issues such as climate change raises the question of whether a wide range of Americans’ attitudes about science – and scientists – are viewed through a political lens.

Our survey of 2,002 adults nationwide, conducted in August 2014, suggests that’s not the case.

Some 64% of Americans perceive scientists as neither liberal nor conservative.

Yet 52% of scientists are liberal and only 9% are conservative.

What this means is that Americans’  high level of trust in the scientific community is likely tied to Americans’ ignorance about the scientific community.

So if the Left wants to use the March for Science as a way to bait the scientific community into some unified merger, such that the left-wing political agenda is cloaked with the cultural authority of science, expect political pushback.  And such pushback could come in the form of a President Trump tweet stating, “Did you know only 6% of scientists are Republicans?” and “This is a March for Democrat Science.”  Now, imagine this message being pushed among the right-wing media for years and years.  Good luck trying to counter that one.

Remember that original Pew Data?

I think we can expect that 84% number to start dropping into the 50% realm, all beginning with the March for Science (assuming the March gets serious attention and is not a flop).

And where do we go from there?

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5 Responses to How the March for Science Can Hurt Science

  1. mechanar says:

    First of all when it comes to Politics I am more of a proud cynic however
    What I dont understand is why liberals would behave this way?Portray themselves as absolutly innocent yet they are just as much to blame for this polarized times the world is in now as conservatives. No you have Optinions you are not the arbiter of truth stop thinking that!

    Instead of reflecting they double down on these Methods! where do we go from there indeed?

  2. stcordova says:

    Excellent analysis, Michael.

    FWIW, there was an attempt to politicize science and expel Einstein and have Heisenberg jailed:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deutsche_Physik

    I don’t know if has any relevance to your point, but I felt I should mention it for historical purposes.

    “Deutsche Physik (literally: “German Physics”) or Aryan Physics (German: Arische Physik) was a nationalist movement in the German physics community in the early 1930s opposed to the work of Albert Einstein and other modern theoretically based physics, labeled “Jewish Physics” (German: Jüdische Physik). The term was taken from the title of a 4-volume physics textbook by Nobel Laureate Philipp Lenard in the 1930s. A pseudoscientific movement, it nonetheless won the support of many eminent physicists in Germany.”

  3. stcordova says:

    Rather than making science apolitical, associating science with the left can also associate it with the extreme left. A few days after the March for science is a really scary “women’s” event that is headed up by terrorists and crooks:

    http://nypost.com/2017/02/25/the-next-womens-march-is-co-organized-by-a-terrorist/

    “On March 8, organizers seem to be aiming for a different vibe than the librarians-in-pussy-hats element that made the first women’s march after Trump’s inauguration so adorable.

    Instead of milling around Washington, organizers have in mind a “general strike” called the Day without a Woman. In a manifesto published in The Guardian on Feb. 6, the brains behind the movement are calling for a “new wave of militant feminist struggle.” That’s right: militant, not peaceful.

    The document was co-authored by, among others, Rasmea Yousef Odeh, a convicted terrorist. Odeh, a Palestinian, was convicted in Israel in 1970 for her part in two terrorist bombings, one of which killed two students while they were shopping for groceries. She spent 10 years in prison for her crimes. She then managed to become a US citizen in 2004 by lying about her past (great detective work, INS: Next time, use Google) but was subsequently convicted, in 2014, of immigration fraud for the falsehoods. However, she won the right to a new trial (set for this spring) by claiming she had been suffering from PTSD at the time she lied on her application. Oh, and in her time as a citizen, she worked for a while as an ObamaCare navigator.”

  4. Dhay says:

    I see some of the other ‘Day without a Woman’ March organisers are little better.

    *

    An obvious example of science being politicised is Sam Harris’ recent paper, Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence, which as I point out elsewhere might very validly be re-titled Neural correlates of [“Regressive Leftists”] maintaining [their] political beliefs in the face of known exaggerations, distortions and whopper lies.

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2016/12/09/is-new-atheism-incompatible-with-transgenderism/#comment-16079

    I see no useful conclusion from so badly designed an experiment; it seems to be merely a hanger on which to hang sneering insinuations about one wing of Harris’ political ideological opponents.

    *

    It puzzles me, why was truth not considered persuasive, why did this experiment rely upon known exaggerations, distortions and lies; and it occurs to me that perhaps this is the second attempt at the experiment, with a truthful and factually accurate set of persuasions used in the first attempt subsequently replaced by exaggerations, distortions and lies after truthful and factually accurate persuasions failed to achieve dramatic enough results.

    *

    Following links at the bottom of the Science article quoted by Michael, to another article entitled, “The £6 billion man: New top job in U.K. science goes to Mark Walport”, I find that Britain has a newly appointed equivalent to Francis Collins. (No, I have been unable to find out his religious or otherwise views, and they would be irrelevant to the point I will end up making.)

    Walport will head:

    … UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The umbrella organization for the existing research councils[, it] will serve as the strategic command center of government research funding.

    http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/02/6-billion-man-new-top-job-uk-science-goes-mark-walport

    Walport has a long history – here’s from six years ago – of advocating pruning science:

    Mark Walport , Director of the Wellcome Trust, on the other hand, spent a fair proportion of his ‘air time’ telling scientists to ‘stop whingeing’, saying that scientists must ask ‘important’ questions – and defending, in a nutshell, an ‘excellence’ based structure of science research funding where less people are given more money. This wouldn’t lead to less jobs, he argued, but rather more focused work on ‘important’ questions. I am of course paraphrasing, Walport also had some good things to say, which I think were somehwat contradictory to his paraphrased statements above. …

    https://sylviamclain.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/scientists-need-to-ask-important-questions-oh-and-stop-whingeing/

    This blog post continues with an interesting discussion of the pros and cons of that position. I am absolutely sure that Walport is an excellently well qualified person for such a top post; he’s certainly far better able to make those important funding decisions which will steer the direction of UK science than I will ever be; I am sure he will perform his role well; he has a long-standing determination to do away with, er, unimportant research, whatever the complaints from those whose jobs are pruned away; so I have no direct criticism of him or expectation that he will perform his role other than to the highest professional standards.

    But I do have an overview: a government committed to making every spending cut possible (or so it seems) has appointed someone who, surprise, surprise, looks like he will do just that; it looks rather like a politically motivated appointment.

    The bottom line is, government funding for science is inevitably political, inevitably controlled by the current government and its ideology. And protests against actual or possible funding cuts, or the redirection of research along government-directed (instead of scientist-directed) pathways will inevitably look rather like the Fire Brigades Union campaigns against fire station closures, it may well be persuasive that lives will be put at risk and firefighter safety compromised by later arrival of backup, but however persuasive, never forget that like the firefighters, scientists are a special interest group, and their special interest group will (also) be acting in their special interests.

    Science and scientists, and politics and politicians are in practice intertwined.

  5. Michael says:

    An obvious example of science being politicised is Sam Harris’ recent paper, Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence,

    Here’s the paper: http://www.nature.com/articles/srep39589

    If you click on Sam’s name, you’ll see him affiliated with Project Reason. Huh? I thought Project Reason was dead.

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