There’s a reason the Tower is made of Ivory

I saw the problems emerging from the day the March for Science was announced — only it wasn’t weird outsiders who were dissenting, it was a small group of prominent white male scientists who immediately started griping about “identity politics”. There was also a tendency for people who had embraced certain myths about science to try to find shelter behind the idea that science, and the science march, would be “apolitical”. How naive can you be? You’re organizing a march on Washington, DC, in the long tradition of other marches for civil rights, and it was motived by the need to protest the destructive policies of a recently-elected politician? Give me a break. This is a political action, and what muddles it isn’t the multiplicity of causes that drive it, but the foolish people who try to pretend they can organize such an event without it being political.

Zuleyka Zevallos carries out a thorough analysis of the politics of the March for Science. It’s a mess.

Since the march was announced in January 2017, the organisers in the central committee of Washington DC have struggled to respond to issues of diversity. From inadequately addressing inclusion and accessibility, to reproducing discourses of inequality, March for Science has problematically promoted the idea that the march is not a political protest. (It has only been in recent days that the organisers have attempted to address this; but it had not happened at the time of the events with the Los Angeles march.)

The discourse that a march is “not political” is, in fact, very much the outcome of political dynamics. Only people from dominant groups, especially White people, can claim that science is free from politics. It isn’t – as I show with research, further below.

This narrative that science is not political has impacted dialogue about the march: what it stands for (interests of White, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied people); who it doesn’t stand for (everyone else, especially people of colour and disabled scientists); and who is erased from the conversation altogether (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual LGBTQIA people).

This should not have been allowed to build to this level of chaos and concern. There should have been a forthright declaration from the very beginning that this was a march by scientists to protest the anti-scientific bullshit coming out of the current administration, to show that scientists have a strong commitment to the truth. It should be about a great many causes driving us to speak out: the destruction of the environment, the need for better support to combat emerging diseases, the maintenance of safety standards for food and drugs, changes in energy to reduce CO2 emissions, keeping our oceans healthy, etc., etc., etc., a thousand factors that our government wants to ignore or oppose. But it must also include improving diversity in science, providing good education to all people, not just the wealthy ones, and breaking down barriers to women and minorities entering science…all those things that certain people call “identity politics” because it makes them uncomfortable.

The “alt-right” have had a presence in the American science establishment for a long, long time. Remember, the Nazis were inspired by American eugenics, which was not just grassroots racism, but endorsed at the highest levels of academe.

Eugenics was the racist pseudoscience determined to wipe away all human beings deemed “unfit,” preserving only those who conformed to a Nordic stereotype. Elements of the philosophy were enshrined as national policy by forced sterilization and segregation laws, as well as marriage restrictions, enacted in twenty-seven states. In 1909, California became the third state to adopt such laws. Ultimately, eugenics practitioners coercively sterilized some 60,000 Americans, barred the marriage of thousands, forcibly segregated thousands in “colonies,” and persecuted untold numbers in ways we are just learning. Before World War II, nearly half of coercive sterilizations were done in California, and even after the war, the state accounted for a third of all such surgeries.

California was considered an epicenter of the American eugenics movement. During the Twentieth Century’s first decades, California’s eugenicists included potent but little known race scientists, such as Army venereal disease specialist Dr. Paul Popenoe, citrus magnate and Polytechnic benefactor Paul Gosney, Sacramento banker Charles M. Goethe, as well as members of the California State Board of Charities and Corrections and the University of California Board of Regents.

Eugenics would have been so much bizarre parlor talk had it not been for extensive financing by corporate philanthropies, specifically the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune. They were all in league with some of America’s most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Stanford, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. These academicians espoused race theory and race science, and then faked and twisted data to serve eugenics’ racist aims.

Yet now some want to declare science “apolitical”, and it’s because they dislike the idea that the values of non-white people might taint the purity of their theories about race.

I’m planning to join in the march, but it sure as hell isn’t because I have deluded myself into thinking science is non-political.


  1. blf says

    The march should be the STEM march. Despite being educated as a scientist (mathematician), and employed as an engineer, I perceive myself as mostly-excluded.

  2. says

    Whether or not one believes in politics, politics believes in you. Those who want to imagine they are apolitical are naifs who seek to inactively maintain the position they have already chosen.

  3. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    [blowing my own horn]:
    I’ll be attending the Boston March for Science on Earth Day 4/22. Even sketching my posterboard of support for EPA, advocating [Save the EPA], presenting opposition to 45’s mandate to abolish it.

  4. says

    Eugenics would have been so much bizarre parlor talk had it not been for extensive financing by corporate philanthropies,

    Americans seem to be exceptionally good at sliding right by these sort of actions by corporations, and now we’re in more danger than ever, and still, ‘merican eyes just slide off the reality. Today, I posted a bit of an in-depth article about how the combination of billionaires and corporations is looking to gut and rewrite the constitution, and I can’t help but wonder just how many people will shrug their shoulders over it.

    Reading things like that scare me, and make me wonder what the fuck can be done about it, but so many people in this country are now actively choosing to be ignorant, they just don’t want to know.

  5. Ed Seedhouse says

    When the President denies obvious facts and trumpets blatant lies, truth and falsehood themselves become politicized. Therefore of course anyone who stands up for science is being political, because science is about discovering truth and falsehood.

    And since the scientific endeavor is done by human beings it is ipso facto political, because human beings are political. Anyone who claims not to have political beliefs is lying. The claim “I am apolitical” is itself a political position.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    They should march and go on strike.

    blf @1: Well, mathematicians are no more scientists than engineers, but they should all unite in solidarity.

  7. numerobis says

    The MFS Facebook feed that I get to see is quite strongly pro-diversity. Have I been placed into a bubble?

  8. Holms says

    Science *should* be apolitical, being that it is the study of the physical world and the processes that shape it, but there is nothing stopping politics spilling in and tangling with it. Hey presto, science is now political. And this is nowhere near a new development; see: Copernicus delaying his magnum opus On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres due to the climate of adherence to the Ptolemaic model.

  9. zoniedude says

    I think the fundamental basis of science rests on empirical evidence, yet Trump claimed victory on the basis of voting machines that left no paper trail and thus no empirical evidence of the vote. I suggest the March for Science focus on the lack of legitimate election results due to hacked voting machines and thus be “apolitical” while at the same time undermining the legitimacy of Trump. This is not concocted: there really exists a concern over the legitimacy of election results either from hacking, from lack of a paper trail, from secret “proprietary” software that does the actual counting, and from whether scanners actually detect certain votes due to systematic misadjustment. The March for Science would have a very beneficial effect if it influence the body politic to build a wall against election fraud that cannot be detected by empirical means.

  10. unclefrogy says

    if by apolitical it is meant not about power, as politics is about using and gaining political power and the control of the decision making by those who would be controllers and decision makers of society then I would agree in the abstract to not be concerned with struggle for political power would make science apolitical. We are however way past that point where that kind of question is even relevant anymore.
    We have reached a point where some who have political power and lust after more have in their pursuit divorced themselves from reality itself and to maintain power must repress all who stand in their way. They are doing this by denying science, using all the tricks of argument (mostly lying) to keep doubt in view.
    It is a short step judging by the code words used already to declaring science the enemy of the people just as has been said of journalists.
    We are way past the point where we can argue is or should science be apolitical.
    it is a question of accepting reality or accepting the made up reality of political expediency.
    uncle frogy

  11. colinday says

    as well as members of the California State Board of Charities and Corrections

    Interesting combination

  12. Czech American says

    This is indeed disappointing. My family and I intend to go, and this cinches a social justice themed sign for me.

  13. chrislawson says

    Science is only apolitical in the sense that the mass of an electron doesn’t depend on anyone’s political beliefs. But science is conducted by humans, and politics comes into play whenever two or more humans interact with each other. QED science is political.

  14. says


    The MFS Facebook feed that I get to see is quite strongly pro-diversity. Have I been placed into a bubble?

    Could you link to that feed? Is it the same one that the person PZ quotes looked at? Note that they said “inadequately addressing inclusion and accessibility”. This means there could be pro-diversity stuff, but it’s just concluded to be inadequate by Zuleyka Zevallos (and others).

    I’m having trouble getting a grasp of the criticism too, it’s not quite storify pages “all the way down”, but it feels like it. Maybe I’m just not accustomed to the medium. Looks like it would be a ton of work to figure out the facts and reasoning they used to reach their conclusion.

    One of their hyperlinks says “ongoing equity and access issues”, so I’d expect that’s precisely where to learn about how they came to that conclusion, but the page it links to, “March For Diversity Diversity Statements“, is full of evidence that (to me) appears that they are doing pretty good!

    Also, therein, Zuleyka Zevallos says:

    Twitter also provides an easier way to track conversations [than facebook does], as retweets, mentions, quotes and the spread of ideas are easier to track in one easy glance at the dashboard.

    I’m not sure I can trust anyone who says that! :P

  15. batflipenthusiast says

    Carroll hasn’t been very vocal about the science march as far as i know, but i did see he tweeted a link their homepage and back patted them for making diversity a focus. So, from his public persona at least, a minor endorsement.

  16. Ed Seedhouse says

    “Science *should* be apolitical, being that it is the study of the physical world and the processes that shape it”

    The very idea that we best learn about our world by studying it with the tools of science as opposed to consulting a tome of ancient “wisdom” is intensely political and pretty well always has been. Remember what happened to Galileo?

  17. chrislawson says

    Ed Seedhouse@19:

    Yes indeed, and not just Galileo. Also Sakharov, Darwin, opponents of Lysenko, David Nutt, Turing, Michael Servetus, Domagk, Einstein, and many, many others.

  18. martin50 says

    I’d feel better about a March for Science (–or in agreement with blf, a March for STEM) if more scientists had any instincts whatsoever for politics!

    Let’s march, but let’s march reminding people that science is the WAY to truth–that our conclusions can be wrong but that the Scientific Method is the only way to know that something is wrong.

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    Maybe if the white-coat guys could (temporarily!) tolerate a long-established extension of “their” term and talk to some people in their universities’ {ahem!} Political Science departments…