I have heard these words too many times before #marginsci

Here we go again. The Science March is facing conflicts for familiar reasons: reasons that I’ve heard applied against science communication (“shut up, Myers, my way is the only way to explain science”) and against a better atheism (“shut up, Myers, atheism only means there is no god and including values is mission creep”). I always seem to end up on the side that is repeatedly told to shut up.

There are two paragraphs, one after the other, that very nicely encompass the problem with the march in just a few key words. Here’s the side that resents the inclusion of diversity as one of the goals:

At the heart of the disagreements are conflicting philosophies over the march’s purpose. In one corner are those who assert that the event should solely promote science itself: funding, evidence-based policies, and international partnerships.

Notice the word I emphasized. This is what’s familiar. There’s always a side that wants to limit what’s allowed and control what topics are appropriate, usually because they’re uncomfortable with new ideas and new approaches. This is the regressive side.

Now look at the characterization of the other side:

In another are those who argue that the march should also bring attention to broader challenges scientists face, including issues of racial diversity in science, women’s equality, and immigration policy.

Again, I emphasized an important word. This group agrees that “funding, evidence-based policies, and international partnerships” are appropriate and should be included, but also considers other topics are essential. They are happy to do the heavy lifting of representing their interests, and are not demanding that everyone explicitly follow their lead. One side is dictating what others are allowed to stand up for; the other side wants to stand up for their place in science, and are being told, in essence, to shut up.

Regressive authoritarians ruin everything.

I can sympathize with this comment from Stephani Page (who is now on the steering committee for the march).

“I wasn’t about to join something just to be a face or a Band-Aid,” Page said. She joined the committee in large part because she wanted to change the culture of science — “I was not going to carry the banner of an institution [of science] that continues to treat me as if I don’t belong there.”

Exactly. She is not telling others what should be excluded from the march, she is making an effort to include what is important to her. I agree. That’s a point of view that must be represented, and it does not detract from the message that we need more funding and more evidence-based decision-making, it strengthens it, because it brings the breadth of the culture of science forward, and increases the reach of science by representing more Americans.

Why would anyone oppose that?

For the answer to that question, let’s turn to that bastion of regressive orthodoxy, Reddit. They’re a reliable source, right? Especially when they’re condemning Social Justice Warriors.

In early February, an unofficial poll posted by one Reddit user in the site’s March on Science forum found that a majority of respondents said they wouldn’t participate in the march if organizers emphasized social justice issues. Several threads on the march’s Reddit community explicitly criticize the march for what they call “scope creep.”

Yes. We should trust the opinion of the users of a site where the most popular subreddit right now is r/theDonald. Has anyone polled Breitbart or /pol/ on this issue?

As for “scope creep”, I’ve always wondered who gets to define the scope. It always seems to be some loud, prominent, hostile jerk who demands that people don’t bring up subjects they don’t like. Speaking of which…

Others in the scientific community have expressed concerns about the march’s message becoming watered down. When, for instance, the diversity page was briefly removed from the march’s website in January, prominent Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker tweeted that he was “glad to see that the March for Science Web site has removed the distractions.” Pinker had previously described the march as “anti-science” for its left-wing political tone.

And yet no one ever tells Steven Pinker to shut the fuck up, even as he arrogantly decides what is a distraction and what is not.

Here’s the bottom line: some people feel that they get to silence others in the name of keeping the “mission” pure and undiluted by subjects they don’t like. Typically, these are people who are already privileged and benefit from the status quo, and are trying to exclude people to whom these subjects are vital to their involvement in science. We have people who are arguing that diversity and inclusiveness are “distractions”, and they get far too much respect and attention. They get to claim that justice and equality and diversity are “anti-science”, and damn few people point out that that is a repulsive attitude.

No one has tried to kick Pinker out of any march — he’s free to join in with a great big sign that says nothing but “$” if he’d like. But who is giving him, and the mob of alt-righties on Reddit, the right to insist that a woman or a black man or a transgender person who wants to promote their contributions to science is diluting his sign, and must stay out of his parade?

And if they’re made uncomfortable by diversity or new perspectives, they’ve lost sight of the science. Science always pushes cultural boundaries with new ideas. If you don’t have the courage to face this novel idea that non-white, non-male people have a stake in science, then you don’t have the courage to challenge the public with ideas like climate change, or evolution, or vaccination, or any of the thousand other difficult concepts science has the duty to bring to the table.


  1. screechymonkey says

    the event should solely promote science itself: funding, evidence-based policies, and international partnerships.

    As if those aren’t political?

    Arguing that science should get more funding (and, implicitly, that other things should get less funding, and/or taxes should be raised, and/or the deficit should be increased) is certainly a political argument.

    The merits of international partnerships versus nationalism is inherently political.

    I saved “evidence-based policies” for last because that’s a little more detailed. First of all, very few people argue against the idea that policies should be based on evidence. Generally speaking, everyone at least pays lip service to the notion of evidence. Climate change denialists, creationists, vaccine truthers, etc. mostly claim that the evidence supports their side, that the other side’s evidence is faked, a conspiracy, blah blah blah. But even as to those few brave souls who will admit that “no, we should base our policies on my religious beliefs rather than evidence” — is that not a political judgment, too?

    Stepping back, then, to the vast majority of disputes over “evidence-based policy,” then, what is the difference between the following three arguments:
    1) My tax plan should be adopted, because the evidence shows that it will lead to lessened economic inequality and increased economic growth.
    2) My climate change plan should be adopted, because the evidence shows that it will help lessen the physical and economic consequences of human-caused climate change.
    3) Science funding should be increased, because the evidence shows that science improves our quality of life and standard of living.

    All of these arguments make evidence-based claims. They all involve claims about what policies we as a society should adopt. Yet the “mission creep” folks claim that (3) is ok, (1) is right out, and they’re divided on (2). What distinction is there between the nature of these arguments? None that I can see. The only difference is whether people agree with those arguments or not. So why not just be honest about it? “I don’t want this march to be about X, because I don’t support X.” Stop claiming that there’s some qualitative difference between X and those subjects where you agree with the majority.

  2. unclefrogy says

    If you don’t have the courage to face this novel idea that non-white, non-male people have a stake in science, then you don’t have the courage to challenge the public with ideas like climate change, or evolution, or vaccination, or any of the thousand other difficult concepts science has the duty to bring to the table.

    absolutely. don’t rock the boat too much do not draw undo attention to your self always show respect for those who are more powerful than yourself. always maintain an air of dignified superiority to those deemed lessor.
    yes I heard all that before some where.

    uncle frogy

  3. Dunc says

    screechymonkey, @1: There’s another complication with “evidence-based policy”… While the evidence may be able to indicate which policies lead to which outcomes, it can’t tell you which outcomes should be prioritised. For example, in the realm of economics, we’re often presented with choices between policies which maximise economic growth (by some particular measure) or reduce inequalities (by some other particular measure). Even assuming that the evidence for the effect of each set of policies is robust, the choice of which outcome (or balance of outcomes) is more important is inherently and inescapably political, as is the choice of which outcomes to measure, and how to measure them.

    Suppose I came up with a veritable mountain of evidence to absolutely prove that turning the country into a full-blown fascist dictatorship would result in annual GDP growth of 9%, and that (by some miracle) everybody agreed that my evidence was valid – does that mean we should do it? It would be an “evidence-based policy”, after all…

  4. screechymonkey says

    Dunc @3, yep, priorities are inherently political. Which is why even the supposedly innocuous, core-of-the-mission stuff like “increase (or at least don’t cut) science funding” is inescapably political.

  5. anbheal says

    @4 screechymonkey — Si. I refer you to the famous Framingham Heart Study, that led to all sorts of cardiological advances, ranging from the efficacy of an aspirin a day to far more subtle and contextual issues. It is justly hailed as a landmark in public health research. It followed something like 40,000 men for two decades. White men. So, studying the heart conditions of 40,000 middle class males in a lily-white suburb sure did a lot for improving the health of white men.

  6. anbheal says

    Or The March of Dimes, on whose Boston board I proudly served for several years, and for whom I have enormous respect. They’ve saved a shit-ton of babies. And Boston gets an enormous return, in the grant dollars awarded to MGH, Brigham & Women’s, Beth-Israel Deaconess, and The Children’s Hospital.

    But hmmmm, look at those institutions. Fine Harvard teaching hospitals, that no woman or child without excellent health insurance could afford. Virtually none of the MoD funding goes to neighborhood health centers or funding pre-natal care clinics in poor urban neighborhoods, or studying the effects of poor nutrition and poverty on per-natal health. They are not a racist or ethno-centrist organization, but their benign neglect exposes how explicitly political healthcare research can be. You follow the money.