On the Fear of a Backlash Against Science

DC-march-for-Science-22-April-2017Assembling on the National Mall before the March for Science 22 April 2017.

‘Science is my passion, politics, my duty’  

Thomas Jefferson

On Saturday I joined more than 20,000 scientists and supporters of science to March for Science in a soaking rain on the National Mall in D.C. The experience was exhilarating and inspiring. It was a much needed antidote to constant stream of bad news for our environment emanating from the White House and Congress. These days, I sometimes feel as though we are entering a dark time when reason and learning will be driven from the mainstream of public discourse. The March for Science showed that we have strength in numbers and that scientists can, at least for this golden moment, stand united.

There has been much discussion among academics and citizens associated with science about the potential damaging effects of the March for Science on the enterprise of science. We have been admonished to “keep our talk pro-science and positive, not political and negative” (William H Hooke); Others have argued that “science does not need a March but a marketing campaign” (Vox). I note that senior colleagues are very uncomfortable with the notion of brazenly defending science in a public setting. It is just not how we scientists do things. One suggested to me that it is crass to be engaged in self-serving advocacy.

I agree fervently that we must project our humanity to the public. We must do so with humility and genuine willingness to be a part of the larger community. This type of engagement with non-scientists is often foreign to scientists. We remain unknown as people and we are easy to demonize. We must make every effort to be more integrated into the communities where we live. We must also become active as a voting constituency. Funding for academics is easy for legislators to cut because it typically does not cost them votes.

As we connect with the lay community, we need to also recognize that we are members of the community of academics. Historically, academics treat each other with benign neglect or even outright contempt. We seem to lack a concept of what it means to be part of a healthy community of scholars. Bullying and incivility are common within the academy. Collectively, we do not support our colleagues who suffer from mental illness. We often do not respect the wide variety of scholarship and intellectual endeavors that fall outside the dictated norms of academic standards. Service, both internal and external, is not recognized or rewarded adequately, and thus faculty have little incentive to engage in it. Women faculty are treated as second-class members of the academic tribe. Faculty governance focuses on the trivial and immaterial, rather than the huge issues threatening the very survival of academic freedom. We need to clean up our own house and learn to speak with one voice.

The argument that scientists should not be political ignores the reality we live in. All science that matters has political meaning. The very act of designing a study and deciding on which hypotheses to test can be deeply embedded in a cultural context. The March for Science cannot be divorced from the fact that the official position of the Republican party is explicitly antagonistic to key science-driven issues such as climate change. It is hard to dismiss the suggestion that the goal of the Right is to delegitimize science and thus acquire control over those parts of our failing democracy that use science in service of the public trust. This furthers the near-term aims of many corporate and religious interests and it appeals to the anti-intellectual culture of Trump’s base.

Thus, there is no way that we can March for Science without identifying the aggressors in the war on science. The Trump administration was appropriately identified by name in many of the speeches and signs at the March. To ask that the marchers refrain from this is like asking them to describe getting wet during events in D.C. without identifying rain as a the cause. The assault on scientific understanding is explicit and its agents are well funded and highly organized. It is endorsed by the Republican party. Note that I am not arguing that anyone should be pro-Democrat, but instead, that one of our two major parties is overtly and intentionally denying reality. The Democrats have plenty of their own failings.

Those who would have us avoid politics are asking us to be fearful and silent. The time for academic reticence is long past. Although some of my colleagues are judiciously weighing the impacts of activism, others who wring their hands and worry about a backlash are simply avoiding conflict. Administrators need to speak up or they will find themselves working for corporate interests rather than leading our institutions of higher education. If we don’t make a stand now, there will be little left to save in a few years. This is all part of defending the right to free inquiry. It is time that scientists make every effort to build a community rather than staying in their labs or offices and pretending that there is no enemy at the gate.

One thought on “On the Fear of a Backlash Against Science

  1. Steve

    I spent part of Earth Day in Faro, Portugal studying the exhibits in the Municipal Museum – a former cloister full of relics dating from early Rome to present. Portugal has a proud heritage tied to the use of fact and science to master natural forces for the benefit of rulers and adventurers. Henry the Navigator used state of the art knowledge to send dozens of small carvels into the vast and treacherous Atlantic to launch the Age of Discovery. A tremendous feat given that ships at that time were made of wood and powered by oars and sail.

    But he and his captains were in the minority; most people at that time were ignorant, superstitious and obedient to the combined authority of church and state. And their rulers did not use science to keep the peasants in line.

    The Faro Museum had just opened a new gallery of paintings from the 14th & 15th Century commissioned by rulers who used a combination of religious zealotry, serfdom and terror to control their realms. Art was the internet of the time. This was also the time when the Christian Church declared Galileo a heretic and imprisoned him for daring to challenge the conventional wisdom of the ruling elites. I have seen many paintings from this period hanging in the great museums of the world; most tend to focus on religious themes, many showing soon-to-be Saints being killed, skinned alive and tortured by non-believers. But yesterday I saw an image I had never seen before; an oil painting from the 14th Century of a young woman holding her freshly severed breasts in an offertory plate in an act of piety; full frontal nude, in bloody color.

    The painting was not a scientific illustration depicting surgery to remove breast cancer. This young Portuguese woman was sacrificed to satisfy religious beliefs!

    I share this troubling image because it reminds me that beneath the thin veneer of Western Civilization founded on liberal thought lurks a long, dark and relatively recent history of rulers, secular and religious, who will say and do anything, commit the most horrific acts, to subjugate others to their will.

    Time-honored practices based on myth, fear and belief, rather than science, have been used for thousands of years by men whose only objective was to capture and secure their hold on power – power granted by religious institutions, feudal lords or, as we have just experienced, election by the People.

    David E. Bruderly PE

    Bruderly Engineering Associates

    1221 Molokai Road

    Jacksonville FL 32216

    352-281-2696 (m)

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