Sunday, March 19, 2017

Why I won't be participating in the March for Science

The Freedom of Speech painting by Norman Rockwell. Via wikimedia commons.

Let me start off by saying that as a scientist, I firmly believe that scientists should speak more to the public and let our voices be heard. However, I have to join the growing number of scientists who won't be participating in the march. Part of my problem with the group and the movement stems from the fact that it is disorganized and has become co-opted by those advocating for pseudoscience. Others have expressed different concerns about the political fallout from speaking out, to the march becoming a liberal movement rather than sticking to what is important which is science funding being cut, to the march being too political, to the march being a potential trap due to the low levels of support for scientists among those in the lowest tax brackets. Others have weighed the pros and cons of the march and discussed some of the issues surrounding it.

Awhile ago, I commented on a post about the importance of values in science and how morality plays into the scientific method. Ethics in science is incredibly important. I trust that my fellow scientists are being truthful in what they report to the community. People who commit fraud eventually are caught and removed from the profession. There are numerous examples of this, from Andy Wakefield to Olivier Voinnet being caught and disciplined. Retraction Watch chronicles this self-policing and although the system can always be improved, it still works and frauds are eventually outed.

Imagine my surprise when I saw a comment in the group about science in the US being bought and paid for. This type of conspiracy theory had been cropping up more and more in the group as well as other pseudoscience in general. So I commented that I found the idea of scientists being bought and paid for offensive and I felt that type of attitude had no place in a group that was meant to organize scientists to let our voices be heard. I often see the idea that scientists are bought and paid for coming from people that have no connection to science or scientists and this case was no different. I may have been a little curt in my reply where I pointed out that the idea of science being bought and paid for is offensive, but I never would have guessed what the response from other members would have been. I was told that I was being an elitist and snobbish in my tone and that I was being divisive for pointing out that the idea that science as a whole is bought and paid for is offensive. When I pointed out that pseudoscience had no place in a movement for science, I was told that all thoughts and opinions should be given equal footing. This was the point that I left the group.

I've told my concerns about how the march could be co-opted by antiscience groups and weaken the message that was trying to be shared to a few friends of mine. Sadly, this seems to be what is happening to the march as they've recently partnered with the Center for Biological Diversity. On the surface, this seems to be okay; however, this group is rabidly anti-GMO and often repeats bad science when it comes to discussing GE crops. 
Stephan Neidenbach addresses some of these misconceptions here and was the first to point out that this antiscience group is taking part in the march. But this isn't the only questionable group to partner with march. They've also partnered with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that is anti-GMO and anti-nuclear power. Another problematic partner is the Center for Science in Public Interest which has problematic positions on artificial sweeteners and food dyes. No, aspartame does not cause cancer and the link of artificial food dyes to hyperactivity is tenuous at best. Earth Day Network is another troublesome partner as they have posted antiGMO stories on their facebook page
There are many other partners that are fantastic scientific organizations, but my fear here is that the event is going to be tainted by the organizations that do not hold science in the same regard. Much like my experience in the main FB group, I wonder if these pseudoscience organizations are being included for "diversity of opinion." If so, it hurts the message that the march is trying to send. Scientific facts are not based on opinion, but rather careful analysis of data that has been collected. Just because someone has a differing opinion, it does not rise to the same level of evidence that a scientific fact does. So trying to be "inclusive" of other opinions is not helpful when trying to advocate for science. After all, some might try and state that human involvement in climate change is a matter of opinion and not scientific fact. Or they might state that differences in opinion mean that vaccines can be dangerous too.

Science is not a buffet where people can pick and choose the parts that they like and disregard the rest. It is a method for examining the natural world and answering how and why things happen. Climate change denial, young earth creationism, anti-vaccine and anti-genetic engineering arguments are not equal to the science on those topics. It's incredibly sad to see a group that purports to be standing up for all science to willingly partner with groups that are antiscience or hold antiscience positions. Although there are many other partners that actively promote all science and I do believe that it's important for scientists to speak, I don't want to add credibility to antiscience rhetoric because let's face it, they are going to use partnering with the march to amplify their own antiscience messages. I just can't be a party to that. 


  1. Well said. Quiet voices speaking the truth will always carry more weight than loud ones parroting a party line. It isn't a popular opinion, but it is one that I share.

  2. Absolutely agreed. This is why you can't give The People nice things (or complex things or nuanced things). The Wooistas (including anti-GMO, anti-vaxx, anti-science conspiracy-theorists etc etc etc) seem ALWAYS to co-opt - and hold hostage - arguments/discussions/marches. There's a generalised debasement of thought which (at the risk of sounding patrician about it) I find completely exasperating.

  3. This piece is depressing in a number of ways. But most disappointing is that you suggest you have just decided to stay on your sofa as some kind of protest.

    No sofa-based protest has ever made change. Anywhere. Ever. Remember the gay activists who sat on their sofas during the AIDS crisis? Oh, no, wait--you don't. But you do know that ACTup showed up and made noise. They drove discussion. And then they drove change.

    Also, it suggests that if you can't stand the heat in a comment section somewhere, the chances of you being a decent ally when we have to face assholes that have been planning to take science funding and agencies away since they were at the keg parties, where we were standing around talking about using science to make the world better in many ways, you aren't that useful anyway.

    I've been protesting on DC since the 80s. Sure, it doesn't always end up in the change we want. In fact, the first one I went to was reproductive rights for women. Yes, we were back out working on that just a few weeks ago. But that's because the people we are battling play a very long game. On all of these things.

    They. Keep. Showing. Up. It's irritating as all f*ck, but you know very well that they do. But they are guaranteed a win if you can't be arsed to show up at all.

    And scientists not showing up has gotten us to exactly the point where we are now. People don't know that they know scientists. We aren't making the case for why the work matters. We haven't been out supporting public health scientists at vaccine meetings. Well, I was, but I know the rest of you weren't because I was the only one.

    And yes, there are people who show up at rallies who are not people I'd choose to be there. I'd love to punch anarchists to screw things up, but that would be what they want.

    You know what's sure to make it look like only pseudoscience is showing up? By actual scientists not showing up.

    I'm not a fan of the anti-GMO cranks, and I spend a lot of time jousting with them. But I'm not willing to clear the field for them. That only helps them. And I'm gonna make damn sure that's not the only signage that people see on facebook later.

    But I also see this as a chance to bring them into the fold. Go ahead--show up, tell us how much you agree with the march's mission: "We 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." And I'm gonna hold them publicly to evidence-based policies the next time they try to peddle nonsense instead.

    [hit character limit, continued next]

  4. [comment continued]

    I understand why messy political movements are a turn off. But that's what the forces against us want, to make you dislike this. And they've been winning. That's why we are where we are.

    The science march folks were tasked with impossible competing demands right away. Enthusiastic young scientists wanted to do something. Right out of the gate people demanded that they be non-partisan. After that, people demanded that they be partisan. They were new at this, and given hardly any time and space to pull this off. And all they want is to help us to align for the battles we are about to face, that are real and imminent. If you wanted professional organizing instead of real grass roots, good luck waiting for that. It's not coming, because there is nobody else standing for us. We don't have strong street-fighter allies on our side because we've always pooh-poohed it. And now it's biting us in the ass.

    But fine. Put up your feet. I'll still fight for evidence-based policy as your air conditioning keeps you and the Senators comfortable in a world where our corals are bleaching and coal streams blacken. Maybe if the coal blackens enough water we won't see the bleached corals anymore. And you look back over your life and wonder what you could have done.

    Ask yourself this: who benefits if you don't show? Cranks and people taking away the funding. That is an own goal.

    1. It would appear that you don’t know much about The Mad Virologist. You’ve gone out of your way to malign both his point and his character. Sofa, put your feet up, really? You won’t find a more tenacious fighter against pseudoscience across the web. To suggest he can’t stand the heat of a comment section is a most disingenuous way of making your point. Tearing others down in order to make yourself seem superior is a losing strategy.

      I will be participating in the March. I think the overall goal of sending a message en masse that we want evidence based policy making is worth letting some pseudoscience groups gain a small patina of respectability though partnering with the March. But that is my cost benefit analysis. For the Mad Virologist who has been fighting this kind of misinformation for years it was a different calculation.

      Climate change is big with the March. How would you feel if the March had some partners who deny climate science? It might still be enough of an abstract notion for you to March for a larger message, but perhaps it would give a climate scientist pause. Would you blame them? Giving organizations that promote the pseudoscience you’ve been battling for years even a hint of legitimacy might be too much of a stretch for some.

      In lieu of marching the Mad Virologist will be continuing to the fight the good fight against pseudoscience, and I say more power to him! We can use everyone in the battle to stem the anti-science tide. It is not a binary choice. There are many ways to act other than marching.

      I’ll miss The Mad Virologist at the march, but while disagreeing with his choice I can still respect his reasons.

  5. Further, protest is not a buffet where you can pick and choose the people that show up. Some people are gonna be people you don't like. But if you want purity in your protesting, there are models for that. They aren't pretty.

    But I went to my congresscritters town hall meeting the other day. He scolded us for unreasonable demands for purity. We cannot achieve that. But what we might be able to do is align with some allies who can help us to drive some of our shared goals forward.

    Will we win? Maybe not. Not every experiment succeeeds either. But we will stand up. We will be visible on people's facebook pages and twitter feeds. We will (and already are) driving discussion just by talking about science march.

    There have been some days where in my cynical moments I think: fine, let them have the world they want. It'll suck, and that will show them. But the collateral damage is just too high. This song isn't about you. It's much bigger. Try to keep that in mind.

  6. Well put. If the only science they and the groups involved accept is climate change, it is not pro-science, it is just the science accepted by people who shop at Whole Foods.

  7. This is why we need more actual scientists joining the movement, not leaving it.

  8. Well you are quite the perfectionist aren't you?! Where better to counter the pseudoscience of anti-GMO ideologues,anti-vaxxers, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, politically motivated organizations using cherry-picked science to push an agenda . . . thanks in an open forum like a massive march? Let's not be afraid to confront our own heretics loudly and publicly.

  9. Your post seems to demonstrate all of the reasons why real scientists and advocates for science need to be at the March. If we stay behind, who will be speaking for us?

  10. Excellent post! I hope more of the March for Science folks read and understand it. I happened to mention genetic engineering and nuclear power in a comment, and you would have thought i was suggesting that we should be practicing human sacrifice! It is amazing how many people are pro-science on some topics, anti-science on other topics, and don't see the problem of that.

  11. When even the March For Science is full of post modernist PC bullshit you know we are screwed.

  12. These are all the reasons you should go in groups with appropriate signs supporting science.

  13. My two cents: The march needs more real scientists and supporters of real science to outweigh the crackpots and conspiracy theorists. By not participating, you are exacerbating the very problem we face with the undereducated mob.

  14. I'd like to thank everyone for their respectful comments. To clear up a couple of things, I never said that I was going to stay home and do nothing. I'm working on several other ways that could help my fellow scientists (and science lovers) get their voices heard. Also, my concern isn't so much about people participating in the march that might hold antiscience views, but with the march publicly partnering with an organization that is antiscience. For me, this is where I draw a line. Would people still support the march if they publicly partnered with a more blatantly antiscience group like march against monsanto? I won't tell others what they should do here as it's a decision that everyone has to make on their own. But this isn't a binary choice between marching and not speaking out. I'll be speaking out, but it'll be in my own way.

  15. First, I need to let the teacher in me speak out and point out that the sentence reading " I was told that I was being an elitist and snobbish in my tone and that I was being divisive for pointing out that the idea that science as a whole is bought and paid for. " is missing the tail end of the closing clause (i.e. "that the idea that science as a whole is bought and paid for [is...]"

    Having gotten that off my chest, I have to say that my experience with the MfS movement through its Facebook site since I signed up (I think I was one of the first 100) has raised similar concerns for me.

    It needed significant help getting organized at the outset and I volunteered to help, and never got a response. It's somewhat better organized as far as selling MfS merchandise is concerned, but is essentially unorganized in terms of coordinating logistics. (I volunteered to help with that too and never got a reply.)

    I've tried posting important, relevant data (those of you who know me know how strict I am about relevant data!) on the site over a dozen times and none of my posts have made it past admin review and onto the page. I have contacted three separate admins asking for clarification of this over the past 3 weeks and, you guessed it, not received a reply.

    I concur with themadvirologist's observation that the site features too much political ranting, pseudo-science and technophobia and too little open-minded, data-based, serious discussion and ORGANIZATION. At the risk of sounding like the grumpy old man that I am, I'm also bothered by the number of posts with all the depth of a cute kitten video.

    Having complained about all of that, I am still impressed at how a grass roots initiative started by a small number of people with no experience organizing has given voice to a people that had previously remained rather quiet when they should have been more vocal. I'm trying to separate the importance of the mission from the imperfect group of people who have had a much larger than anticipated responsibility thrust upon them. I desperately want to support this group because I think its mission is urgent and very important. But I am starting to think that this group's disorganization and mission creep make it more of a hinderance than a benefit to the mission. Will I march? I'm still thinking... and waiting to a reply for my offers to help...

    1. Thank you for your input. I've updated the post now to fix that.

  16. My sister march here in long island, ny agreen with you about pure science being important. If you are anywhere in this area we would love to have you come speak. Ours has become more of a rally than march as there will be science experiments going on during the day, as well as earth day and science experiments for the children.

    The march for science li located in Rockville centre, ny is being held at the cstl or center for science teaching and learning, which is one of only 2 on long island. We have the director of the facility speaking as well as other scientific speakers she has chosen.

    I hope you will reconsider your stand on staying out of the march and coming to join us. We need scientists like you to remind us why science is so important. Ours is non partisan even though we have partnered with some local activist groups. It is a family friendly event and we have partnered with them to get the word out.

    Please contact me at which we have set up to use for the events instead of our private email addresses.