In about 500 communities around the world, scientists marched for science on Earth Day, 22. of April 2017. This was not a political protest, yet, there are concerns that marching will not deliver a solution for the problem science has. Well, what actually is the problem science has? Is the march politicising science? And why are hard facts not the whole story science should tell?
Disconnected Science? Irrational Policy Makers?
Science; that’s observing, reasoning, analysing. It may be seen as nerds staring at apes or know-it-alls explaining details whose existence most people can’t possibly care less about. However, science also is the advancement of humanity and the foundation upon many public policy decisions are based. Thus, there is a public interest in what science does. People want to know about what goes on around them. It seems to be embedded into the human DNA that they crave to understand the world. The problem is, it’s in the DNA of science that it isn’t too easy to be understood.
People who want to find out about, say, the latest advancement in the field of pharmacology (in order to understand the pros and cons of vaccination), will have a hard time getting somewhere. That’s due to two issues: language and openness. Firstly, scientists communicate in their own, very advanced language. This is important because the language must be specific and precise. However, it prevents laypeople from understanding what is being said. Secondly, scientific advancements partly appear in pretty expensive journals. Especially top notch research findings, for instance, in Science or Nature are costly. This may change with funders and policy makers requiring publications to be open access (that is, free for everyone). Yet, with thousands of publications being published each week, how do you know where to find what you’re looking for (if you even know what you’re looking for)?
So, even if scientists don’t want to: many do work in an ivory tower. This is bad for a couple of interconnected reasons, starting with the one above, laypeople don’t know about what’s going on in science. You could argue, why would they? It matters that they feel the results of scientific advancement: innovations, policy, an overall better life. Yet, if the public is so disconnected from the sciences, society just has to believe – without a chance of evaluation – that what policy makers or companies have on offer for the future is good. And that is where we are at present: this believe is in decline. That’s a key reason why populism and lies could gain ground: there is no proper narrative that tells society to disbelieve thos politicians who obviously lie.
Is a March for Science Helping?
Now, what does a March for Science do to change the above described issue? Well, it may not start a narrative, but with both its physical and media attention, the March for Science can by a first step towards re-connecting science with society. This can help strengthen the belief of laypeople in supporting plausible innovation and evidence-based policy-making.
However, marching alone isn’t enough. Science must be more open. There needs to be a bridge between science and society. Many of the posters at the March for Science read something like “fact over fiction” or “facts rule over lies” (or even “the one who thinks, acts rational, and researches is the highest of all”) may be great propaganda against lies. Yet, people need narratives to understand. Pure facts are just not convincing. If the broader audience should believe in facts, these facts need to be embedded into the background of the very people who shall believe!
In addition, does it harm science to stand up for itself? There is a fear of science being politicised through all of this marching. For instance, a postdoc at the University of Chicago is quoted in Nature: “I think it could easily politicize science because, even though the march’s mission statement isn’t anti-Trump, the marchers seem anti-Trump.” Well, if that is true, not going may seem pro-Trump. If you see being a scientist as a job, the government is part of your supervisory board. For most employees with non-scientific jobs, the point is that if members of the board would cut their jobs for no apparent reason, the union would recommend them to strike. The question for scientists then is: why not publicly defend your job as well?
The initiators of the March for Science themselves state that they “unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.” That – as well as most of what I saw at the March for Science Hamburg – sounds reasonable. The initiators go on saying that “in the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery, we might ask instead: can we afford not to speak out in its defence?”
Telling a Scientific Story
Some scientists may not want to politicise science. Fair enough. With Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, we can all see that politicising science can result in mixed responses. But there is the need to stand up for science. As Robert Young writes in the New York Times about being a scientist who wants to stand up for a problem: he was only seen as a scientist “delivering bad news. We [the scientists] were easy marks for those who felt threatened by [scientific] findings.” Standing up is not said to be easy, so he goes on: “we need storytellers, not marchers.” I think a march can very well be the start of a story.