A belated [feminist] note on the “Science March”

On Saturday, April 22, I attended the “Science March” in Washington D.C., accompanied by a rainy overcast that met my mood while walking past the white house, residence of resident evil.

I marched for scientific fervor, for continued funding that supports scientific explorations — explorations that I find necessary to combat relevant issues like climate change. I walked with my mother — a type 1 diabetic whose body, without continued medical persistence, would deteriorate. I walked for my late aunt, Joi, whose body became a constant site of scientific exploration, including being the recipient of the first live pancreatic transplant in the world (with my grandmother as the live donor). I have known, from a young age, that many of my family members relied on science to live. I have learned, from a young age, that the scientific method leads to potential earth-saving discoveries.

Attending the Science March with sign that reads, “science: we all depend on it.” Photo by Mike Selck

On April 22, I could feel the energy of the hundreds of thousands in the crowd, sporting signs and t-shirts that outlined their support and connection with “science.” My favorite display of witty protest was written on the back of a poncho, reading: “weather: there’s a science for that.” Passion, motivation and dismay held protestors together in the cool 50 degree weather, rain falling to our feet.

I get it, I do. That day, I got it. I’ve felt lost, misdirected or without direction for months on end, searching for any relevant hint of clarity post-Trump. Science has an already apparent appeal at filling in the blanks and answering questions that may otherwise go unexplored. Under these current cultural conditions — conditions that undermine the very notion of a ‘fact’ — the desire to lean into science further is appealing.

Perhaps, though, it’s not that simple.

Prior to the march, many publicized their decision to attend or to pass on participation. Criticisms of the march ranged in focus, from “science isn’t and shouldn’t be political” to “we shouldn’t create an us/them distinction” to “why is Bill Nye the a white guy the event co-chair?”

But here’s the thing: science IS political, and it should be. I invite you for a moment to expand your understand of “politics” to encompass more than elephants and donkeys, more than angry orange memes and blue and red. Science has powerful authority over cultural value(s). What and how projects are funding, for example, is political; it has political significance.

Arguing that science shouldn’t be political frames science as the beacon of natural and neutral objectivity — somehow above and beyond politics — a line of thought that is damaging and, unsurprisingly, such damage doesn’t fall on bodies equally. Attempts to define the scientific method as neutral and objective pretend that science exists in a vacuum, a vacuum that is absent bodies with identities and privileges, bodies that are invited into the process, that are invited to select what questions to ask and to peer review articles in journals that get published. It eliminates science as continuously applicable, ignoring the consequences of [unintended] applications.

This “but” is a thing for supports and dissenters alike because, in my read, the Science March participants AND the scientific dissenters seem quick to whitewash the histories of scientific discovery.

Because here’s a snapshot:

  • Studies have found clear gender discrimination in peer-review processes for publishing scientific findings.
  • Racial discrimination was justified under the umbrella of “scientific findings.”
  • Psychologists have created transphobic diagnoses, and Australian scientists published a controversial study arguing they’ve found a “transsexual gene.”
  • Science has largely justified the “medical model” of disability, whereby persons with disabilities are rendered less, sustaining narratives that disabilities are “things to be fixed” by science to create more normalized populations.

And these results are political, because, oftentimes, results of scientific findings that locate a supposed natural “difference” in identities are used to argue that that very difference lowers the status of a group’s humanity.

So, what? Three things.

It’s imperative that, culturally, we

1) question the processes that lead to scientific discovery, including reproducibility, the peer review process, publishing, participant selection and the selection of research questions — to name a few;

2) question how science is rationalized or utilized to justify policy decisions;

3) educate students on critical thinking and foreground critical interrogation of findings labeled as “science”- even the most prestigious findings by researchers or publishing outlets.

March for Science promotional poster, available through creative commons

To echo my earlier sentiments, science is important, and teaching science can create lasting and necessary critical thinking skills. Particularly in a time of “fake news” when studies imply that students have an alarming inability to differentiate between real and fake information, supporting student-based scientific inquiries are paramount. However, we must also ask students to consider the systemic and institutional basis of the results AND the process — who was left out? Who is absent? Who controlled the process?

Science is not a savior. It’s a human-controlled process that has potential to expand human life and reduce the consequences of human irresponsibility. Humans are political, and it’s time that science continues marching toward critical inquiry, not whitewashing away the scientific potential.