A March for Science on Washington?

Source: an opinion piece by Robert S. Young, professor of coastal geology and the director of the program for the study of developed shorelines at Western Carolina University, in The New York Times, January 31

Talk is growing about a March for Science on Washington, similar to the Women’s March the day after President Trump’s inauguration. It is a terrible idea.

Among scientists, understandably, there is growing fear that fact-based decision making is losing its seat at the policy-making table. There’s also overwhelming frustration with the politicization of science by climate change skeptics and others who see it as threatening to their interests or beliefs.

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.

I am a coastal geologist. I direct a center where our mission is to conduct scientific research and then communicate that science to elected officials, regulators, even private entities and the public. There is no question that the proposed March for Science will make my job more difficult and increase polarization.

Please understand, I don’t shy away from openly presenting the facts about the changing climate and rising seas. But I’ve learned that doing so is not without risk.

In 2010, I was a co-author of a report for North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Commission that said sea levels along the state’s coastline could rise by as much as 39 inches by the end of the century. That conclusion was based on the best peer-reviewed science and was intended to help policy makers plan for the future.

But it alarmed real estate and other economic development interests, which quickly attacked the report. The coastal commission ignored it. The authors, myself included, were widely slandered. And the legislature passed a law that barred state and local agencies from developing regulations or planning documents anticipating a rise in sea level. “I think this is a brilliant solution,” the comedian Stephen Colbert said at the time. “If your science gives you a result that you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved.”

You might think that the lesson I learned from that experience was to distrust the political establishment. No. What I learned was that most of those attacking our sea-level-rise projections had never met me, nor my co-authors. Not only that, most of the public had never met anyone they considered a scientist. They didn’t understand the careful, painstaking process we followed to reach our peer-reviewed conclusions. We were unknowns, “scientists” delivering bad news. We were easy marks for those who felt threatened by our findings.

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.

Rather than marching on Washington and in other locations around the country, I suggest that my fellow scientists march into local civic groups, churches, schools, county fairs and, privately, into the offices of elected officials. Make contact with that part of America that doesn’t know any scientists. Put a face on the debate. Help them understand what we do, and how we do it. Give them your email, or better yet, your phone number.

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2 responses to “A March for Science on Washington?

  1. mike holliday

    Okay Robert, let’s see if I’ve got this right. Politicians will say and do anything to protect and garner favours from super rich sponsors who don’t care about anything other than their profits.
    And the response to this is to go and talk to people so you can undo eons old ignorance, fear and mistrust about the role of science and scientists.
    Good luck with that one while at the same time countering outrageous attacks from professional liars with years of experience in fooling the public.
    I think it’s about time you got off the fence and started talking, in prole-understood words, about what’s happening and what you’ve discovered.
    And that means entering the political debate.
    Your laboratories might be pristine and germ free, but you should get your hands dirty.

  2. it seems to me possible to support the march (if any) on DC AND to reach out to public groups as the author suggests. Reaching out can reduce the risk of polarization. But a march, properly handled and publicized, could also help bring regular people into contact with scientists, as the author believes would be helpful. (He may overestimate the average person’s desire to learn facts that are inconvenient for him.)