I have been out of the loop for a few weeks — man, my workload spiked recently — but now that I’m catching up, I feel nothing but dismay at the ridiculous complaints from scientists about the March for Science. I could hardly believe that some oppose the idea of scientists expressing vigorous dissent.
Al Gore, bless his heart (as we say in the South), was well intentioned when he made “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006. But he did us no favors. So many of the conservative Southerners whom I speak to about climate change see it as a partisan issue largely because of that high-profile salvo fired by the former vice president.
Scientists marching in opposition to a newly elected Republican president will only cement the divide. The solution here is not mass spectacle, but an increased effort to communicate directly with those who do not understand the degree to which the changing climate is already affecting their lives. We need storytellers, not marchers.
I’ve heard that so often: don’t rock the boat. We’ve got ours, if you make waves you’re imperiling the precious position we are clinging to by our fingernails. It’s absurd, selfish, and futile. The situation for science has become increasingly dire, and instead of shaking up the situation, putting your position at risk, you want to make sure that scientists are more harmless/helpless, more innocuous, more inoff-fucking-ensive because conservatives who despise science already might use the support of a political movement they hate as more ammo against us?
We have a common word for that. It’s called cowardice.
Then he dares to lecture us on what would be effective science communication? I’ve been through that for years, too. There’s always someone who will lecture at others who are doing the work that they’re doing it wrong. And that someone doing the hectoring is usually terribly ineffective at communicating science, so they are reduced to pontificating about the proper way to do it to the science communicators.
When they tell people “we need storytellers” without recognizing that we already know that, and are doing it, it’s remarkably clueless. We just see the need for something more, that when we reach yet another period of peak crisis, it’s time to add another approach to the toolkit.
And hey, you want to tell stories? Go ahead. No one is stopping you. The only ones trying to suppress diverse methods of outreach to diverse communities are the ones saying there can be only one acceptable way of explaining science.
By the way, I know people who found “An Inconvenient Truth” useful and powerful. That it antagonized the assholes who have been subverting science for decades is a point in its favor.
I thought that op-ed was bad, but here’s a dude complaining that the March is too political…or worse, that it’s the wrong politics. Those damn SJWs! Ruining everything!
What does make me worry is the increasing politicization of the March, which is fast changing from a pro-science march to a pro-social justice march. Now there’s nothing wrong with marching in favor of minority rights and against oppression, but if you mix that stuff up with science, as the March organization seems to be doing, well, that is a recipe for ineffectiveness. What would be the point of a march if it’s about every social injustice, particularly when, as the organizers did, they indict science itself for its racism and support of discrimination? The statement of aims below from the March’s organizers has now disappeared, but the tweet below that is still there. (You can find the full statement archived here.)
We’ve seen this same crap recently from Steven Pinker. The March for Science declares that they are “committed to centralizing, highlighting, standing in solidarity with, and acting as accomplices with black, Latinx, API, indigenous, Muslim, Jewish, women, people with disabilities, poor, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans, non-binary, agender, and intersex scientists and science advocates,” and boom, the conservative science wing reacts in horror. I don’t get it. Encouraging diversity and new ideas and approaches is exactly what scientists should support — but I guess if you’re part of the establishment now, you’d rather not see the implicit policies that helped you get where you are change. It’s almost as if they’re willing to help others climb the ladder of scientific achievement, but only if they look like the people that are already there. Can’t clutter up the old boys’ club with disabled lesbians and transgender brown people and all that, because they wouldn’t be as committed to doing good science as…privileged white people?
But that would be racist/sexist.
There’s another distractor there, too: fighting oppression is a “recipe for ineffectiveness”. We must focus laser-like on ONE THING, even if we are a massive organization of hundreds of thousands or even millions of members — everyone must be in lockstep on the ONE THING or we won’t get the ONE THING, even if the one thing is so abstract and huge that it’s effectively indefensible. So Movement Atheism must focus on the ONE THING of ATHEISM, which is fiercely defended as the sole principle that there is no god, never mind all the complex cultural baggage associated with that. Scientists must focus on the ONE THING of SCIENCE, a concept so complex that we have a name for the problem of trying to define its boundaries, the demarcation problem.
I have no idea how (or why) this dude plans to narrow the focus of the March. Is the March for Science to consist only of white men looking distracted as they concentrate on the scientific method? Wait — that would look just like a bunch of philosophers, and we can’t have that. A bunch of white men fiddling with telescopes and dissecting cats and punching numbers into their handheld computers as they march? That sounds like a recipe for effectiveness.
There’s another complaint. The organizers for the March for Science have criticized science. How dare they! Clearly, they don’t understand the True Purpose of Science, which is Good and Above Criticism. All Hail Science!
If a March has any chance of being effective, it can’t consist of a bunch of penitentes who flagellate themselves loudly and publicly for bad behavior. After all, stuff like “immigration policy”, “native rights”, and many other issues of social justice are not, as the organizers maintain, “scientific issues.” They are moral issues, which means they reflect worldviews and preferences that are not objective. Of course once you set your goals on immigration, pipeline locations and who should not be near them, and so on, then science can inform your actions. But to claim that all issues of social justice are “scientific issues” is palpably wrong.
This is just weird to the point of incomprehensibility to me. Science must have an objective purpose? But most of it doesn’t! Science is about curiosity and wonder and exploration. What objective purpose was Thomas Hunt Morgan pursuing when he was searching for sports in his fly colony? What was the objective purpose of Santiago Ramón y Cajal spending long nights drawing the beautiful filigree of Golgi-stained neurons, or writing lovely prose about the growth cone?
Please, do tell me how to define this criterion of “objectivity”. It seems to me that this arbitrary distinction would make postage stamp collecting, which has discrete, specific, measurable criteria, more scientific than launching a space probe to Pluto, where we had little idea what we’d find.
It is clearly not so much that some issues lack objectivity — once you recognize that native Americans are human beings, “native rights” becomes a rather clearly defined concern with measurable goals — but, as defined, that adding a moral component taints a subject, polluting the purity of Science, making it non-objective.
I’ve got news for him: everything has a moral component. Everything has a political component. If it’s a human activity, it is contaminated with moral and political ramifications, because that’s what humans do. Deciding that we have the economic surplus and the privilege of leisure to be able to support people who study fruit flies full time is a moral, social, and political act, for instance.
It becomes even more profoundly moral, social, and political when we make arbitrary decisions about which people will be permitted to have the privilege of spending their days studying fruit flies, or even which people will be granted the education that will allow them to appreciate the study of fruit flies. Until the day comes that AIs are doing all the science, discussing the science only among the other AIs, and doing all the work to benefit or harm only AIs, you cannot divorce the moral from the scientific. And even then I hope the AIs are smart enough to consider the impact of their pursuits on AI morality, because we feeble apes sure don’t seem to be able to comprehend that concept.
Just the idea that science ought not to criticize itself in public gives me the heebie-jeebies. Damn. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study? I guess that was scientifically objective, let’s not criticize it. Eugenics? All sciencey and shit. Bioethics is not a field that actually exists, or if it does, it’s not objective and Truly Scientific because it recognizes the impact of science on society.
It’s easy to find fun and exciting examples. How about this: An Adorable Swedish Tradition Has Its Roots in Human Experimentation. They fed institutionalized, mentally-ill people with massive doses of candy until their teeth rotted, to determine if sugar actually caused tooth decay. It was objectively done, of course. All Praise Science!
Or how about the whole issue of evolutionary psychology, which mainly seems to exist to rationalize traditional Western values as objective and scientific, perpetuating a whole vast collection of oppressive ideas.
Victorian social attitudes and science were closely intertwined. The common belief was that males and females were radically different. Moreover, attitudes about Victorian women influenced beliefs about nonhuman females. Males were considered to be active, combative, more variable, and more evolved and complex. Females were deemed to be passive, nurturing; less variable, with arrested development equivalent to that of a child. “True women” were expected to be pure, submissive to men, sexually restrained and uninterested in sex – and this representation was also seamlessly applied to female animals.
That sure sounds like Science with a capital “S” to me! Let’s get some grant money to prove the status quo and get it published in Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, Cosmpolitan, and The Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management! A three-fer, win-win, here comes tenure…and none of that has involved those damned “moral issues”, as long as you realize that white, conservative, capitalist, male biases are the gold standard of Truth, and it’s only those deviants who question the status quo who are bringing in that dirty word, “morality”, and making everything messily unscientific.
Oh, god, this thing gets even worse.
If we are to march, we should march in unity for truth, and against those who reject empirical truth. What unites all science—and makes it unique—is that it is a universal toolkit, used in the same way by members of all groups, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or religion. That is what holds us together. If we start dragging in issues of social justice—and I’m not of course saying they should be ignored in other venues—then we divide not only ourselves, but separate ourselves from much of the electorate, who, as we’ve seen above, generally trust us.
Declaring that you’ll only be marching under the banner of TRUTH sounds awfully religious to me. Declaring that science always works the same way in everyone’s hands sounds awfully ahistorical to me. Declaring that what holds us together is a disregard of gender, ethnicity, or religion sounds awfully privileged to me — I have the luxury of being unaffected by my sex and race, but damn, if you listen with half an ear to everyone who isn’t a white man you can’t help but notice that that isn’t true for everyone.
Social justice isn’t something that we “drag in” when social injustice is the muck that hinders the participation of more than half the citizenry in science, when toxic nonsense about sex and race poison the whole discourse about science in our culture.
This whole argument that social justice must be actively excluded from the March for Science reminds me of another march: the suffrage parade of 1913, in which black women were asked to segregate themselves from the white women and march at the back of the parade, because the white ladies did not want their goals marred by that other issue of equality. If you’re worried that your cause might be tainted, that’s the example you should examine, because it was Ida Wells who emerges the hero and white feminists who damage their own reputation (and who still, all too often, kick their own butts when they ignore intersectionality).
And sweet jesus, the hypocrisy. Science is all about Truth and Objectivity, which is why we should bow to the biases of the electorate, who will be divided from us if we
start dragging in issues of social justice, since they, after all, are assumed to not like it (and oh, the implicit bias in which part of the electorate we must listen to…I cringe). So much for the objectivity of science — it should say what the people desire, or it might erode their trust in us.
I presume Dr Coyne will now respect the wishes of all those faith-heads who want him to shut up about atheism. Might separate ourselves from much of the electorate, don’t you know.
CaitieCat, Harridan of Social Justice says
Rantalicious, PZ! They want us divided. I saw a lot of pro-science signs at the Women’s March, about climate change and supporting science and evidenced reasoning. We need to recognise that if they divide us, we can be defeated in detail.
Stand together, or fall apart.
The push-back must be coming from the few scientists who are also Republicans not wanting to offend their Supreme Leader more than necessary to maintain status quo (conservative values).
People the placards!!!
I continue to find it amazing that even in an academic environment I still hear people belittle the contributions of women and non-white, non-European descended men. Has anyone else ever heard “Well, all the pieces were in place already, s/he just put them together, and someone else would have come along and figured it out anyway.”
Really!?!? European men had the technology to do the experiments necessary to confirm germ theory for about 350 years or so before two people “came along and figured it out.”
The next big breakthrough can come from anyone, from anywhere, anywhere there is opportunity to live and to receive a good education. From Devos to the immigrant/refugee ban President Bannon is a disaster for science and human progress.
Cathy F says
My march for science will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit!
As Robert S. Young in the New York Times says:
What I learned was that most of those attacking our sea-level-rise projections had never met me, nor my co-authors. Not only that, most of the public had never met anyone they considered a scientist..
Why the devil were not he and his staff out making presentations and giving talks to community and religious groups, high schools and so on?
It looks to me like he is abdicating his responsibility to recruit new scientists and popularize science let alone being politically totally naive.
I think the initial objection here was to criticisms of science being brought up and placed prominently in the mission statement for an activist march. We wouldn’t expect a March for Women’s Rights to have a mission statement admitting that feminism has had and still has a lot of problems, explaining what they are, and apologizing for them. If the message is JOIN US FOR WE ARE A RIGHTEOUS FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH, then self-criticism sounds like adding “…not that we’re really worthy, we know that, sorry.”
There were also objections to the implication that “science” was and is responsible for racism and sexism. BAD science, perhaps, not the field of science which needs defending. Might as well blame science for supporting the view that global warming is a hoax, or vaccines cause autism, and say scientists need to do better. That’s a misdirection in this case. The march was for science proper.
If scientists only had one day in the year to go out and make themselves visible to the population, Young might, maybe, have a point that the one annual day is better spent in-person than in a large and visible series of marches.
But according to my best scientific information, there are on average about 365.25 days in the year.
Politicians are pounding scientists with a baseball bat and these dissenters think the abuser just hasn’t read his bat instructions correctly and needs help.
The argument is just plain ass-backward. All of those Southerners/Conservatives ALREADY bought into the Exxon/Fox noise machine gibberish that global warming was a hoax, and Al Gore was responding to the existing doubt, by providing truths. I would like to meet a single person who claims “I always believed that the Earth was getting warmer until I heard Al Gore say it.” That’s as asinine as a liberal saying “I always believed that we should preserve our national parks until I heard Dick Cheney say it too.” Also, earth to op-ed dickwad, Al Gore IS a politician. Not a scientist.
And yeah, science is inherently political, because the money has to come from somewhere. And yeah, the harder the science, the more likely the scientist to be liberal….engineering and medicine and computer programming run about 55-45, biology is 85-15, chemistry around 90-10, and physics something like 97-3. Because facts have a liberal bias. And also the hard scientists don’t make as much money as doctors, so they’re less worked up about the estate tax, ha ha.
So who the fuck cares if Stephen Hawking says “yeah, black lives DO matter”? If you’re a racist, you can stop believing in black holes, bully for you. It’s NOT Stephen Hawking who made you a racist!
PZ Myers says
Sastra, on your first point: feminists have been and are constantly criticizing each other. One of the big points of dissent with the Women’s March was that many felt it was more like the White Women’s March. We don’t make ourselves stronger by pretending weaknesses don’t exist.
There is no such thing as an inhuman flawless science, so yes, science is responsible for sexism and racism. It’s been pushing racist and sexist ideas for as long as anything close to our modern conception of science has existed. It still is! Coyne doesn’t see anything substantially wrong with the EvoPsych research paradigm, for instance, and you won’t find a more blatant example of scientific abuse of ideology than that. Well, except maybe the so-called “race realists” who plague my in-box with arguments that I can’t be a true Darwinist if I don’t understand that black people are inferior.
Self-criticism is supposed to be our strength. It’s how we get better. I’m not willing to compromise that in the name of expediency, to avoid making deep rifts within ourselves or with a bunch of yahoos who voted for Trump. But then you know I’m all about the rifts.
I’ll ask again: Why isn’t this a STEM march?
“Robert S. Young is a professor of coastal geology and the director of the program for the study of developed shorelines at Western Carolina University.”
From his New York Times op-ed we see that Young is in what is one of the most political sciences at present. No matter what his findings, they are presently highly charged political statements. Yet he seems unaware of it, unless he’s simply a massive hypocrite.
the constant criticism of any thing that “rocks the boat” that is the least bit confrontational in this highly polarized time we are in is may be motivated by cowardice on the part of those objecting so vehemently. They are at heart quislings all, they are part of or identify with the status quo. any criticism threatens their positions of power and influence or thwarts their their ambitions for power and influence.
1. We already have just by being scientists!!! It’s a moot point.
Science, scientists, and the reality based community are bad words in some subcultures.
2. Just be yourself. The truth matters and it should.
Don’t be afraid to say it.
PS A few decades ago roughly half of all scientists identified GOP. It’s now 6%.
What technology of the early 1500’s would have permitted the discovery of germs? The microsocope didn’t come along until a century later.
PZ #10 wrote:
Well, yes, but not in the Mission statement for a march, which was my point. I read the one for the Woman’s March here and there aren’t any bits in there about how women have been to blame for many of the things they are now marching against or that feminism is responsible for the following errors. Not the place for self-criticism or bringing up weaknesses, it would look odd (not to mention not very empowering and not likely to improve anything.)
There’s no such thing as an inhuman, flawless science acting as an agent, either, so Science hasn’t been pushing anything, people have. If their discoveries went in the direction of supporting racism and sexism, then they’ve been doing sloppy science, which isn’t an indictment against science, but against being sloppy.
Science, like human rights, strives for an ideal. The Women’s March talked about their “Mission and Vision.” Confusing an ideal vision with the less-than-perfect execution of it and then damning both equally is a tactic of an enemy, not a critic.
RE: “What unites all science—and makes it unique—is that it is a universal toolkit, used in the same way by members of all groups, …”
Nope. Science is a
universal toolkitSET OF DIFFERENT TOOLKITS, used in the same wayDIFFERENT WAYS by different groups.
There is no such thing as THE scientific method. “THE scientific method” is a myth, created by non-scientists who have never actually done any science. In fact, each scientific field has a different scientific method. Different standard experimental techniques, different demands for reproducibility, and for experimental controls, different levels of reliance on numerical/quantitative analysis vs. qualitative description, different modes of debate, different objectives and goals, different standards for confirming or rejecting hypotheses. Many scientists don’t try to confirm hypotheses at all, they focus on accomplishing particular scientific tasks–making a new molecule or a brighter laser or an emptier vacuum, or measuring a higher-resolution spectrum, or getting a compound to form a large single crystal suitable for structural analysis by x-ray diffraction.
PZ Myers says
The Women’s March has received some pushback, especially among black communities, so maybe if they’d bothered to acknowledge the failings of the past as part of the promise to do better, it wouldn’t have had that problem.
Yes, you are quite correct that humans do science, and that therefore we should acknowledge human concerns. I don’t think an inhuman, flawless science is going to participate in a march, either.
I’m still waiting for the answer to one question – what the flying fuck is wrong with social justice anyway?
I agree with much of your post, but I think it’s a mistake for the march to exclude, for instance, AGW skeptics. One can be skeptical about SOME aspects of SOME variants of AGW theory, without denying science per se, (especially, one can be skeptical about some of the proposed anti-AGW programs, such as small taxes on fossil fuels in a few countries, which are VERY UNLIKELY to produce any measurable benefit), and there are some skeptics who share the concern about the Trump administration’s general propensity for science-denial and science-abuse, and I think we should be making common cause with at least some of them.
Sure, the march should be political, but it should not be too NARROWLY political.
Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says
Ah, the old science of AGW is dictating solutions, rather than warning AGW is happening, which is the science. Refutation of the science is lacking.
The solutions must come from politicians, and are therefore politico/economic decisions. Scientists can inform the politicians if their ideas would work, based on their models. Skepticism based solely on potential politico/economic decisions is not scientific, but rather political, despite what the right tries to say.
You’d actually find more in what it omits–sex workers. Janet Mock was pretty salty about being invited to speak at an event that didn’t acknowledge her own history. So even a speech that isn’t negative will still have political connotations.
The original responsibility for gender and racial inequality rests with societies long before there were scientists. Those scientists who reinforced those ideas only reflected those biases, so it’s more of a failure of omission than commission. Scientists failed to adequately shut out what society told them and ethically design studies and question assumptions.
And I’m skeptical about where you seem to put a threshold for benefits. The price of gas has a marked effect on consumer choices
The March for Science should emphasize the primacy of empirical physical evidence and protest that the use of voting machines that do not provide physical evidence of a vote should not be allowed. Trump was elected because some people said he had votes where they had no physical evidence that he actually had those votes. Don’t let that happen again.
Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says
Because if scientists didn’t have engineers to kick they might have to do some serious self-examination.
Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says
Provided one defines undergraduate thermodynamics as “not science per se” of course.
One of the most endearing things about intersectional/feminist activism and protest events has for me always been the harsh and even brutal internal criticism. As an external observer I saw that with the Women’s March, with women and other people from many backgrounds vocally criticising what they saw as mainstreaming of white, cis, hetero feminist issues, while many of them still showed up in force. Being able to talk about internal problems is a strength. Ignoring/ downplaying injustice is what fractures any community.
RE: 26. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y
The atmosphere is more complicated than undergraduate thermodynamics.
No-one’s actually stopping them from showing up as individuals. They are free to decide that their AGW “skepticism” is less important to them than their belief in science in general.
entirely, 100%, this.
do you know how to statistically deal with outliers?
use that on yourself.
Brony, Social Justice Cenobite says
The thing about outliers is that you can’t assume thier influence on the whole based on numbers alone. I’ve met many people whose arguments related to trans people amounted to “there’s more of us than there are of you”.
I represent 0.5%-1.0% of the human population due to Tourette’s Syndrome and in that context I know some shit about aggression, violence, social boundary violations, insults and some of the structure of impulsive social communication in general. Do you really think that the fact it’s 1/200 to 1/100 humans for me prevents me from having an impact if I want one?
If nothing else trans people (and other sex/gender minorities) are uniquely sensitive to how sex and gender are connected in communication. I think the bigots are fucked.