Science Isn’t Just for Fun

Back in April, I was invited to write an op-ed for a national newspaper explaining what I thought was wrong with the March for Science. I argued the organizers were confusing enthusiasm for a political movement. When the editor declined to publish the piece, I shelved it, thinking it was probably for the best. Did I really want to be the person screaming “You’re doing it wrong!” from the sidelines?

Fast forward six months. The March for Science has yet to find its footing. This week, a group of volunteers associated with the March for Science issued an open letter outlining their concerns about the purpose and actions of the March, including issues of financial accountability. Stories in The Atlantic and the Washington Post elaborated on volunteers’ ongoing concerns that the March for Science is more interested in advocating for the institutions of science than it is in social justice.

The following was written on April 25, 2017. I stand by it.

The hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who participated in the March for Science last weekend have returned home. The shirts have been washed and folded, the pun-filled signs stashed in the basement or recycled. Now the organizers face the tough job of converting the genuine enthusiasm and concern of the crowd into a sustained political movement.

To date, the organizers have assumed that what unites their movement is a love for science. The post-march emails have attempted to balance routine calls for political action, like signing petitions, with more emotional pleas for scientists to share their passion for science with friends and strangers. To a surprising extent, the emphasis is on fun. Scientists might host a science-themed game night, for example, or perhaps attend a science-themed happy hour.

The March for Science has inadvertently raised a new question for political mobilization: Is it possible to build a political movement from fun and fandom?

In the months leading up to the March for Science, it was hard for outsiders — and even some insiders — to figure out what kind of event it was. Because the idea for the march emerged shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, many observers assumed that the march would draw attention to how the new administration’s policies would harm federal scientific institutions and, by extension, all Americans who count on evidence-based politics to protect the environment and their health. But the organizers quickly distanced themselves from this interpretation, even claiming, at one point, that the march wasn’t “political.” They eventually settled on “political but nonpartisan.” The vision statement, still available on the March’s website, described the event as a “celebration of science.” [Note: Link is broken as of October 25, 2017]

It turns out the organizers weren’t planning a protest at all. They were planning a science festival.

Science festivals have become familiar springtime rituals in cities with research-based economies. The Atlanta Science Festival, held in March, “celebrates the integration of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in our lives today” and aims to “expand our community of science enthusiasts.” The Cambridge Science Festival, which just concluded, is a “celebration of science, technology, engineering, art and math.” The Philadelphia Science Festival, which happens each April, is a “community-wide celebration of science.” Not to be outdone, the Chicago Science Festival, in May, bills itself as “a celebration of the wow-inspiring, mind-expanding, human-benefitting awesomeness that is S.T.E.M. research in the Chicago area.”

The typical science festival combines hands-on science demonstrations, public lectures, happy hours, and street fairs. In Philadelphia, I once participated in a stand-up comedy event called “Sounds Made Up,” that used outlandish events from the history of science to draw laughs from the crowd. Science festivals are fun. But with their corporate sponsors and focus on regional economic growth, science festival programming typically steers clear of controversy. They’re great for public relations, but less good at speaking truth to power.

Though no two satellite marches were alike, many featured familiar aspects of science festivals, with experiments for kids and science-themed rock bands. In Philadelphia, Science Cheerleaders rallied the crowd. The national March for Science fully endorsed this approach, declaring on its website that “The best way to ensure science will influence policy is to encourage people to appreciate and engage with science.” This approach assumes that to know science is to love it. If the public, and their elected officials, only knew more about science, the story goes, surely they would respect its autonomy.

These scientific evangelists ignore the fact that many people have good reasons to distrust science — or, if not science itself, misdeeds carried out in the name of science. Scientists and medical doctors have, over time, endorsed lobotomies, sterilizations, and institutionalization for people whose bodies they deemed unfit. Psychologists have helped military researchers identify the most effective strategies for enhanced interrogation, also known as torture. Doctors supervise state-sanctioned executions. University researchers have repeatedly turned to the bodies of poor people, especially poor black people, as the raw material for scientific and medical experiments. Not all science deserves celebration.

Two less proud moments in the history of science made their way to the public’s attention this past week, far from the festival stages. The Thursday before the march, the Massachusetts Supreme Court dismissed more than 21,000 drug convictions based on fraudulent samples tested by chemist Annie Dookhan at a state laboratory. Anxious to outperform her colleagues and please prosecutors, Dookhan spiked the samples or simply made results up. Few prisoners are expected to be released, however, as most of those convicted had already served their time. On Saturday night, HBO premiered The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a film that explores how racism, poverty, and medical ethics turned a cancer victim’s cell lines into a medical workhorse without the family’s consent.

These two incidents aren’t simply cases of individual scientists exercising bad judgment. They’re examples of how scientific institutions have repeatedly aligned themselves with powerful forces that reproduce inequality. They remind us that science based on injustice cannot produce social justice.

It’s not too late to imagine an alternative approach to scientific activism for the Era of Trump. What if, instead of taking “celebration” and “appreciation” as their starting points, scientists took a long, hard look at why so many members of the public — on the left as well as the right — distrust scientific authority? What if, instead of creating new venues for scientific outreach, as one of the first post-march calls to action suggested, every scientist who attended the march committed to attending a grassroots community meeting, and just listened? What if, instead of running for office themselves, scientists threw their support behind candidates of any professional background who committed to using empirical evidence and moral values in the fight against sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, xenophobia, and economic inequality?

Last weekend, amidst the celebratory signs, a few stalwarts flashed more unabashedly political messages, ranging from “Science Has No Borders,” and “Black Scientists Less Likely to Receive NIH Funding,” to “No More Flints!” How many more would we have seen if the organizers shelved their commitment to fun? How many more people might have participated if they thought their fears might be heard?

American scientific institutions need allies. If the March for Science wants to convert the enthusiasm of the hundreds of thousands of marchers into a powerful force for social change, its organizers must move past the language of celebration. At least some of the participants in the March for Science have put aside fun to focus on the serious business of reorienting science for a better world. Will the leaders follow?