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Feb 27, 17

March for Science, But Against What?

So, there is a March for Science planned for April 22nd in DC (with satellite marches around the world).

As a scientist, I was initially very excited to see scientists doing political organizing. In principle, scientists are highly trained in many skills that are critical to people’s struggles for liberation: we are skeptics, and have high standards for evidence; we think systematically, and try to resolve contradictions in our logic when they are revealed; we are empirically driven, and constantly exposing our own theories to the risk of being proven false; we are motivated by a desire to understand the world, and to share that knowledge as widely as possible.

But scientists also have some less attractive qualities. We are reductionist, and often fail to see how our assumptions are shaped by particular social, economic and historical contexts. We can be careerist and elitist, and very focused on the metrics that determine our status within the field. (This is in part a by-product of the terrible labor conditions among graduate students and post-doctoral students, especially, but also junior faculty who are forced to compete ruthlessly with one another for resources.) We tend to value innovation over maintenance, discovery over replicability. We chase fads. Scientists understand these and other problems with science very well.

Science also has a decidedly mixed record with respect to “human life and the future of the world,” which the mission statement of the March for Science papers over.

Scientific efforts that are being made to understand and reverse climate change today are necessary largely because scientific advances in previous centuries were the basis for our fossil fuel and petrochemical based economy. Even today, science is complicit in the destruction of the planet: the scale and intensity of fracking, for example, would not be possible without the cooperation of many geologists, and chemists, not to mention every kind of engineer imaginable. At this moment, scientists are helping build the Dakota Access Pipeline through indigenous land.

So: will the organizers be inviting people who develop new ways to pump poison into the soil and carbon into the atmosphere to the March for Science? on Earth Day? There is nothing in the mission statement that precludes this.

I don’t want to march with or for people who are actively working to destroy the planet.

The organizers of the march make statements about the importance of many different kinds of diversity to science, and they put these statements front and center.  True, science is doing better than it has in the past at including people who have been marginalized by colonialism and heteropatriarchy. But it is also true that science has been as often as not on the side of oppressors.

I don’t just mean this only in the sense that there have been individual scientists and engineers who worked on the development of weapons, for example, or doctors who were willing to perform forced sterilizations and abortions, or psychologists who consulted in the creation and application of torture techniques, although all of those are certainly things that have happened. Science has also been part of the intellectual justification for oppression. For example, the theory of eugenics was invented and developed by respected scientists as part of their scientific program, and drove “evidence-based decision making” for everything from racist immigration policy to forced sterilization programs to the Holocaust.

Science is naturally a site of political struggle. Without militant protests from the Gay Liberation Front, homosexuality would still be classified as a psychiatric disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Queer, trans and intersex activists today are forcing scientists to reconsider binary models of sex and gender, and revealing that previously “common sense” notions have been clouding our ability to explain or even observe meaningful variability. I think this is making science better; I recognize this as a political stance and I refuse to apologize for it.

To present “science” as an unalloyed virtue that needs to be defended from politics, as the March for Science mission statement does, is dangerous and ahistorical. Activists working for people’s liberation have often had to fight against the scientific establishment, not just for their own inclusion, but sometimes for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

The mission statement for the March for Science says that the March is about defending science, but, in a misguided effort at “non-partisanship,” it refuses to name what it is defending science against. If we can’t even name an enemy, how are we supposed to defend ourselves?

Meanwhile, the list of obvious enemies grows daily, as does their power. Steve Bannon’s media empire has been stoking a revival of discredited racist pseudoscience in the form of “Alt-Right” white supremacist propaganda. Scott Pruitt has been confirmed as head of the EPA despite his climate skepticism. What statement could we possibly make to Betsy DeVos or Jerry Falwell Jr. to convince them not to strip our education infrastructure for spare parts and sell them off to their cronies and business partners?

I am not willing to ask this regime for anything. I want them to fall. I do not want to be part of a generation of scientists that stands up for its own self interest while kleptocrats and white supremacists in power  loot the commons for their own profit, terrorize marginalized groups, and carry out foreign policy based on an admixture of their own private interests and paranoid nationalism. I don’t want to march for science unless I am also marching against fascism.


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