Politics, Diversity, and the March for Science

On April 22, there is a March for Science in Washington, DC, with satellite marches around the world. The march is in response to recent acts by the US government (such as the silencing of government scientists, anti-science cabinet appointments, restrictions on international movement of scientists, and a general rejection of facts and expertise), as well as concern about future actions.

Although the response from the scientific community to the march has been largely positive, there is a significant minority out there complaining, or more often concern trolling, about “politicizing science.” So for those of you who feel that science should not be political, or who have to deal with people who say things like “don’t make science political,” here are a few thoughts.

Science is Already Political

Yes, ideally, the conclusions of scientific inquiry should not be influenced by political factors. You do the experiment or analysis, and the results are what they are. In some fields, that ideal may even be achievable in practice.

But everything surrounding science is inherently political, like what questions get asked, who gets to ask them, and who becomes famous for finding the answers. If we take a broad view of “political,” the activity of science is political at every level. Departmental politics affect access to resources, and disciplinary politics affects which science gets published in which journals.

We can give the “don’t make science political” folks (DMSPs) the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are referring specifically to the government. But here, too, science has long been political. In the post–World War II era, the predominant model of science has relied on government funding. Universities and science-advocacy groups spend millions of dollars every year on lobbying about science funding, as do religious and other interest groups. Ignoring politics altogether means handing over control of the funding and oversight of science to those who don’t ignore it, including many groups with explicit anti-science agendas.

Maybe You Meant Partisan?

I suspect that what some of the DMSPs mean is that we should be careful not to make the March for Science into a partisan issue, where we are all chanting, “Science good! Republicans bad!” This is perhaps a good argument for requiring that scientists receive a better general education.

It is true that, overall, federal funding of science in the United States has had pretty good bipartisan support. Yes, when some asshole congressman ignorantly mocks NSF-funded research projects, it is usually a Republican. On the other hand, the biggest increases in NIH funding in decades came under George W Bush. Republicans and Democrats have often prioritized different areas of science, but for most of the past seventy years, the inherent value of science has not been a particularly partisan issue.

from the Center for American Progress http://ampr.gs/2lD3kku

It seems reasonable to say that we should be careful not to alienate the party that controls the government. The problem is that that party is currently dominated by people with an unequivocally anti-science agenda. It is not necessarily that they are going to defund all science — in fact, some areas of research may even benefit in the short term. It is that there is now an overt agenda to silence and delegitimize science that does not conform to specific ideological pre-commitments.

I suspect that there are many Republicans in congress who privately support quality independent scientific research. But so far, very few Republicans have been willing to take stands against any of the extreme policies of their leadership or the new administration. That makes it feel like the fight for science is a partisan one, but not because scientists chose to make it that way. To misquote Ronald Reagan, science did not leave the Republican party, the Republican party left science. We must fight for science, and that fight will, in the short term, be partisan. Hopefully, if saner Republicans are able to regain control of their party, that won’t always be the case.

But Actually You Meant Diversity

In reality, what most of the DMSPs are actually mad about is not politics or partisanship, but diversity. The first significant backlash against the March for Science came after the march organizers posted their diversity policy. For example:

The diversity statement has gone through a couple of iterations over the past weeks, but here is the current version:

The March for Science strongly supports diversity, inclusion and equality in science.

American and global citizens are best served when we build and sustain an inclusive scientific community. We advocate for equal access to science education and scientific careers. When evidence-based science and policy are ignored, marginalized communities are differentially and disproportionately impacted.

Scientists and people who care about science are an intersectional group, embodying a diverse range of race, sexual orientation, (a)gender identity, ability, religion, socioeconomic and immigration statuses. We, the march organizers, come from and stand in solidarity with historically underrepresented scientists and science advocates.

To characterize a statement like this as “anti-science” is just absolute monkey-bonkers. It’s the sort of thing you expect to see from a twitter egg or one of those frog people. It’s hard even to know where to start. For one thing, there is pretty good empirical evidence of the effect of various systemic -isms and -phobias on representation in science and elsewhere. You might even call that evidence “scientific.” You may recall from something you read about sixty seconds ago that questions of who gets to do what science — and who gets to become famous for it — are always steeped in politics. People who believe that science is somehow a pure meritocracy, where the best, purest scientists rise to the top of a colorblind (genderblind, etc.) hierarchy are 1) typically people whose careers were advanced, rather than impeded, by systematic biases, and, 2) wrong.

But What About Just Focusing on Science?

Other critics — those who are not the favorite cognitive scientist of libertarian man-babies and closeted white supremacist pseudo-intellectuals — have tended to criticize this pro-inclusion, pro-diversity stance as a “distraction,” or as something that risks alienating some of our would-be allies. These critics say that the march should just focus on science.

The focus-on-science criticism is actually saying, “I don’t care that you have these other concerns. You should be focusing on my concern.” I’ve seen variations on this argument in a lot of places. Unsurprisingly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it coming from someone volunteering to help organize anything.

Most of the organizers of the March for Science appear to be members of underrepresented groups, because that’s who stepped up. As soon as the march became a big deal, in comes a brigade of, let’s say, non-underrepresented scientists. These guys (yes) criticize the march for addressing issues that are not of direct relevance to them. There tends to be a lot of entitlement, as if, obviously, the organizers will defer to their authority and reorganize the march to their liking. Actually, the whole pattern makes a nifty case study in one of the reasons why pro-active diversity efforts are necessary.

Defending diversity in science is not a distraction from the defense of science. Science is an activity done by human beings who exist in the world. You may not view civil rights and civil liberties as being relevant to science, but they are certainly relevant to scientists, without whom there is no science. Protecting current and future scientists from persecution, exclusion, and discrimination is just as important to science as protecting science communication from censorship.

And if your top concern is that explicitly valuing diversity will alienate potential allies, then you need to aspire to a better class of ally. Discounting diversity concerns as irrelevant is selfish and ignorant, but suppressing those concerns to curry favor with bigots is a whole other level of shitty. If our only hope of saving American science relies on the largesse of racists and xenophobes, we are in even more trouble than we thought.

What’s a DMSP To Do?

So what should your your DMSP friend do? The friend who wants to support science, but who is turned off by talk of diversity. Or what should you do, if you’re the unlikely DMSP who has not already rage-closed this post?

Here’s the good news: the March for Science, like pretty much all political actions not organized by totalitarians, will be heterogeneous, idiosyncratic, and a little bit chaotic. Odds are, you won’t really be able to hear the speakers, and their diversity won’t affect you one way or another. The “message” of the march will be only loosely controlled by the organizers.

More than anything, the message of the march will be the sum of the messages of the individual marchers. So, if diversity isn’t your issue, don’t make your sign about diversity. (But if you’re an advocate of evidence-based decision making, you should talk — and listen — to some scientists from underrepresented groups and think about whether maybe it should be one of your issues.)

And if you are, for whatever reason, unable to empathize with the concerns of scientists who don’t look, or act, just like you, maybe think of this: the people who round up minorities for incarceration, deportation, or extermination are generally the same people who round up scientists and other intellectuals for reeducation. The story of fascism does not end with, “but then the white men were given adequate funding and intellectual independence to pursue their research without interference from their otherwise-Orwellian rulers.”

Or maybe you’re just clinging to the hope that you won’t need to get involved in any of this political stuff. The impulse to avoid taking sides is strongly ingrained in many scientists. But not taking sides may soon not be an option. We are moving into the Geddy Lee zone, where if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

Choose wisely.

2 thoughts on “Politics, Diversity, and the March for Science

  1. I can never understand why people don’t realise that intersectional equality issues (be it race or gender or whatever) affect pretty much every aspect of our lives. Why would science and science funding not be included? I’m not even American, but I’m horrified by the possible future of science in the US, and I’ll be sure to be there waving my sign if there’s any satellite march near me.
    Loved that you pointed out that Republicans don’t necessarily hate science, too!

  2. Social science is not science. It is the lens through which to look at society that is in vogue at any particular time. Why not look at it in terms of class? Much more unifying and inclusive. If you’re going to focus on difference at least do it responsibly.

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