Why the March for Science failed, as demonstrated by its own protest signs

The March for Science succeeded in many ways. It called out the growing and dangerous tendency of people to reject facts simply because they don’t like them. It made the case for decision-making based on evidence. It raised concern about the cuts in research funding and science programs planned by conservatives in Congress and the White House. And it rallied the Science tribe and empowered it to speak and stand up for its beliefs.

It surely succeeded by giving everybody in the broad “Science” tribe a chance to wave their particular banners. Some, as with all the other anti-Trump marches, marched to…

Many marched in support of the evidence about...

Some marched against cuts in science programs and funding

Some marched in favor of gender equality within science.

Many marched simply in support of the power of science to provide…

But if there was one underlying theme to it all, this was a March for…

…and to the extent that the March for Science was at its heart a rally in support of The Truth, it failed, because there is no such thing as THE Truth…and it ignores, or denies, massive scientific evidence to suggest there is. The March for Science did for the social sciences about human reasoning and perception just what it railed against for so many other issues. It was overt denialism of scientific evidence that competes with the tribe’s views, and it was self-defeating as a result.

The idea that there is a Truth with which we all agree, about anything, is laudable, but laughable. That science can establish a universally accepted Truth, about anything, is a worthy aspiration, but entirely unachievable. Research — scientific research — has established beyond any question that while the scientific process is great at establishing the facts, in the end how we see those facts is subjective…affective…a blend of the facts and how we feel about them. Social science and neuroscience research on congition and how the mind works confirms, and helps explain the reasons why, we have always lived in world of alternative facts depending on who you ask. This may be frustrating, but it’s hardly new.

So it is either uninformed, or intellectually arrogant, to assume we can ever achieve what one hero of The March for Science dreams of;

Dream on Dr. Tyson. Dream on, all you who march in the name of the Enlightenment ideal that science can provide THE Truth, a body of evidence before which we must all bow down just because it was developed using the scientific method. Research, done by the same scientific process you venerate, tells us that this is simply not how human cognition works.

In fact, didn’t the March for Science itself, by voicing its frustration with a “post-truth” world of alternative facts

and science denial,

in essence acknowledge the reality that all our perceptions are subjective, that all reasoning is motivated, that no matter how strong the evidence, we will see the facts as we choose to, as we need to, through the lenses of our feelings and experience and education and values and tribal identities.

And didn’t many of the signs suggest that marchers were either unaware of, or chose to deny, what science has taught us…that the facts, by themselves, do not determine our views …

that the ‘stuff’ we know includes way more than just the facts as provided by science…that reality is way more than just what the scientific evidence says?

This is why the March for Science failed. It argued for a sort of reasoning that is simply not how human reasoning works. And worse, by ignoring what we know about the subjective nature of all perception, the March for Science was arrogant, smug, condescending, which is precisely lots of cognitive science teaches us NOT to do if we want to encourage people with different views to open their minds. This sort of message…

is a giant intellectual middle finger at the people who, because of their values and experiences and personalities and tribal identities, hold views about climate change or vaccine safety or GMOs or evolution that conflict with what the evidence clearly says.

The Dean of the Harvard Medical School, speaking at the Boston March for Science, hinted at the real root of the challenge;

The attack on science is the result of a schism in our society that is more fundamental and far deeper than any political divide. The attack on science is a rift that signifies a dangerously widening chasm between critical thinking and rigid ideology.

But even that begrudging recognition drips with “We’re are smart, intelligent critical thinkers. They are dumb ideologues. We’re right, and they are wrongcondescension. As does the appealing but smug statement of another March for Science hero, Bill Nye;

Somewhere along the way, there has developed this idea that if you believe something hard enough, it’s as true as things discovered through the process of science. And I will say that’s objectively wrong.

Time to brush up on your social science, Science Guy. You too, Astrophysicist Dr. DeGrasse Tyson. You too, all ye faithful March for Science marchers, all ye believers in Truth, Science, and the Objective Way. Beware your own version of science denial. The idea has not developed “somehow”, “along the way”, that belief is informed by more than just what science says. Modern humans have always interpreted the facts based on deep values and meanings, affective filters imbuing the facts with an emotional valence that plays a huge part in determining what ultimately arises as our view of THE TRUTH.

Rich evidence from a wide range of research has made clear that the facts are just one input into a cognitive process whose job is far more profound than just objectively figuring things out. From the moment we wake up, the brain’s main job is to get us safely back to bed. It is not a machine dedicated to dispassionate thinking. The brain is principally a survival machine, and as social animals we survive best when our views match those in the tribe(s) with which we most closely identify, tribes of common underlying values, tribes that empower and protect loyal members and do battle against other tribes with different values and beliefs.

Which is why the March for Science failed in one of its goals — perhaps its main underlying goal — to make the case that that there is a TRUTH we should all believe in because we should all see the facts that describe that supposed truth the same way. Ultimately, the March for Science was no more than a tribal celebration of that belief, waged not really to persuade but to rally the Enlightenment tribe in a demonstration of unity and strength, and help tribe members feel safer against a world that doesn’t seem to be operating the way the science tribe would prefer.

Sadly, the March for Science was a march for this naïve objectivist view of the world…

which denies the actual reality of the world in which human cognition operates. In the end, with its rejection of what a huge amount of scientific evidence tell us about how the mind actually works, the March for Science only demonstrated precisely the sort of science denial that it was marching against.