Thoughts on the March for Science (By David and Rebecca Friedman, St. James)
I joined tens of thousands of peaceful protesters on a rainy April Saturday at the Washington monument to “March for Science” along Constitution Avenue. In spite of the weather, both meteorological and political, there was a festive feeling to the march. The crowd delighted in each other, in the colorful and whimsical outfits representing every branch of science, and in the clever, nerdy signs making much-needed points about its value and practice. “What do we want? Evidence–based science. When do we want it? When it’s peer-reviewed.” As a chant it scans awkwardly, but as a sign it makes a crucial point.
So what exactly was accomplished? From the right there was grumbling that the whole enterprise was an effort to “politicize” science. How ironic that those who glorify Western Civilization should so fundamentally misunderstand its greatest achievement: the scientific method. The foundation of the scientific method is the premise that truth is determined by empirical data, not by subjective thoughts, opinions, or ideas. What we want to be true or think to be true is not only irrelevant, it is harmful because it obscures what we are after – scientific truth. All scientific experiments or observations attempt to filter out subjective “noise” as much as technically possible. If the observed facts contradict our theory, it is our theory that must be discarded, not the facts.
It’s the feeling shared by thousands and thousands of scientists that the continuing quest for scientific truth is being replaced by a phony debate between conflicting “opinions” (e.g., evolution vs creationism, climate science vs climate change denial) that led them to overcome their natural reticence and turn out in the rain to make a “political” statement. We’ve seen this kind of phony debate before. For years and years, the tobacco industry hotly denied that there was “scientific proof” that cigarettes cause cancer and other deadly diseases. Now we laugh at such claims. But meanwhile, thousands of preventable deaths occurred due to stunted preventative measures. We’ve seen it before, but never so firmly entrenched and with the power to do such widespread damage.
For years the Republican party has frantically tried to rein in the scientists at the EPA and subject them to the dictates of “industry experts”. Now with the Trump administration in power, they are able to do just that. Don’t like the finding of peer-reviewed scientists that even tiny levels of exposure to the pesticide chlorpyrifos could hinder the development of children’s brains? Simple – just discard the finding, which is precisely what Scott Pruitt did last month. Could this have anything to do with the fact that chlorpyrifos is manufactured by Dow Chemical, and the $1 million dollars Dow gave to the Trump inaugural committee?
The centerpiece of the Trump administration’s efforts to ignore peer-reviewed science is its push to undo the Obama Clean Power Plan. The argument for this exercise in magical thinking is that fracking more oil, mining more coal to burn, building more pipelines carrying in bitumen from Canada will lead to more jobs. Aside from the problem that this argument is false, as anyone who has experienced a fossil fuel boom and bust cycle knows, and as other nations hustling to build a renewable energy industry also know, it is also irrelevant. The science of climate change is very clear. The Laws of Physics will have their way, and we ignore them at our own peril. Once the powerful energy of human-induced global warming is fully unleashed we will not be able to oppose it, any more than the strongest swimmer can fight his way out of a rip tide without drowning.
One of the signs at the march read “Have the Plague? Me Neither. Thank Science!” If our planet is to survive the strain our prolific species is placing upon it, by adopting smarter and more efficient ways of living, the best hope is science. Objective, peer-reviewed science, free of political interference and economically-driven wishful thinking. In Washington D.C. and in hundreds of locations around the world scientists and non-scientists alike were sending a timely warning: that if we poke out our eyes and stop up our ears and refuse to see and hear what science tells us, it is ourselves (as well as thousands of innocent creatures) that we are dooming.