Why I’m Marching for Science

I am organizing a March for Science in Trenton, this April 22. I hope that you’ll join me there, or join one of the many other marches happening that day, around the world. As someone organizing a march, I feel it necessary to explain why I am marching: why I feel it necessary to stand up and defend science.

A March for Science is sort of unprecedented. Science, as it is practiced in the modern world, doesn’t really go in big for public displays. Science is seen — at least in what we are told is the popular consensus — as something other, something outside what most people care about, something that does not affect the day-to-day life of Americans, and something that does not and should not impinge on the political decisions about how the country is run. The mere thought of a popular groundswell of support for a March for Science seems crazy: science is something done by other people, and should stay in it’s corner, right?

Of course, the idea that science is divorced from the rest of society is nonsense. Modern life, modern technology, and the modern viewpoint depends on scientific advances. From the Green Revolution that saved a billion people from starvation, to modern medicine that has reduced some of the greatest microbial mass murderers in human history to barely remembered footnotes, to the transformation of communications made possible by the internet and world wide web (developed in part by particle physicists at CERN), none of us can say we live and work untouched by the results of modern scientific research. Our economies run on machines invented by scientists. American military might and industrial power (and thus its hegemonic status) are predicated at least partially on the technological edge decades of investment in basic research have provided.

Moreover, our worldview as a people has been changed by scientific understanding. From relativity to evolutionary theory to the Big Bang, the way that we now understand the world to work has suffused our philosophy, our art, our movies, our literature, and our popular culture. Even those who reject modern science’s evidence still must engage with it, and in struggling against it have themselves evolved and changed.

At the same time, science and scientists are not divorced from the political and social world around us. How can we be? We live here, we are from here, and we work here. No matter how much we might want to pretend we are cool, emotionless, Vulcan-like rational beings, we contend with all the same biases and irrationalities that everyone else does. Sometimes this is good: you cannot do research unless you are passionate about it — unless you care what the answer is. Often though, this is very, very bad: the immense squandering of human potential caused by unexamined racial, gender, and socioeconomic bias by the primarily white, primarily male, academic world is an example of this.

So if science is no better than any other field of human endeavor, if we scientists are just as flawed as anyone else, why do I feel it is worth defending? 

It is worth defending because scientists are just like everyone else. We scientists don’t know more about how things work because we’re inherently smarter or more rational or less emotional than other people. We know what we know because we submit our biased selves to a system that is designed to let us find out how things work, independent of our preconceptions.

Science is a process. It is a way of attempting to discern what is likely to be true in our objective reality, a way to correct your mistakes and to convince yourself and others that you have not made new mistakes. Despite the fact that scientists are just as flawed and error-prone and passionate and silly and serious as everyone else, the process of science — when done as carefully as mere humans can do it — helps us overcome our limitations, and helps us sift through our own biases and blinkered worldview and leave us with something that is true, or at least, as likely to be true as we can be sure of. It is not perfect, but it is the best thing we’ve got. And the great thing about it is that it can be done by anybody.

Science is a way of fighting your way through your own mistakes to find a solution to a problem. And we need that. Science, both the set of facts it has taught us about how the world works and the scientific method by which we weigh evidence, must be part of how we as a society make decisions.

The world has problems. America has problems. Some of these problems are of our own devising. Some of them are due, in no small part, to the technologies that science has given us. We must decide, together, as a nation, how we will face those problems. Or if we will face those problems. 

Science — the process of weighing the evidence and correcting your mistakes and finding a result that other people can check and improve — can give us the data we need to decide what action we must take. Science cannot tell us what we should do. Science cannot tell us how to decide how much money to spend on clean energy versus gas or oil or coal. But it can tell us what the likely costs (both upfront and hidden) and benefits (both short and long term) of each path will be. It cannot tell us how to balance the needs of the population for healthcare with the economic reality that hospitals and doctors and nurses to be paid for their work. But it can tell us the likely economic and human costs of our different ideas. From there, it is up to us to take that evidence and apply our moral and ethical codes to decide what action we think is best.

Science cannot make our decisions for us. It should not make our decisions for us. But it is the best way to gather the facts we need so that we can make a decision that both reflects what we wish to see happen and what is likely to happen.

I believe that we Americans have lost this critical piece of how we make decisions. I believe that we are no longer making decisions based both on what we wish to see happen and what the evidence tells us will happen, but only on what we want to be true. We are turning away from facing the inescapable reality of climate change for example, not because we have carefully weighed the options and decided that inaction is preferable, but because too many people wish that inaction will give the preferable result.

Scientific evidence must be part of how we make decisions as a society, because scientific evidence is our best way of determining the likely results of our actions.

I do not march for science to demand technocratic decision-making where some scientific elite decides what is best for everyone else. I do not want to see a world in which we discount moral arguments in our political decisions in favor of some cold-hearted machine-like “logic.” I march for science so that science can be put in service to our politics, in service to our ethics, in service to our morality. We need to make decisions based on what we believe is the right thing to do but also what we believe will actually achieve our goals. Science can help us with the latter, so we can actually achieve the former.

Right now, we are not balancing these interests. We are not asking both what we would like to see happen and what the evidence tells us is the best way to achieve that. This will have unimaginably terrible consequences for all of us. Science measures the things that are, regardless of whether you believe in them or not. No matter how much some may wish it, ignoring climate change will not cool the Earth, ignoring pollution will not make it go away, pursuing disproven economic models will not bring prosperity, and refusing to study the societal causes of violence will not make us more peaceful. History provides many examples of governments which chose wishful thinking over a careful consideration of the best available science, and those examples did not end will for the governments, or their people.

Further, I believe that the evidence that science offers is not only being ignored, but it is being destroyed. I see government scientists being silenced, I see research areas being deprived of funding, and I see the free flow of intellectuals into and out of the United States being threatened. All of these actions will harm not only the ability of scientists and researchers to provide the best evidence and counsel today, but for decades to come. Science takes time: time for students to learn, time for experiments to be performed, time for data to be collected uninterrupted, time for mistakes to be made, found, and corrected. It has taken over a century of incredibly hard work to build up American science to the preeminent place it now holds in the world, and it will take a shocking short time to tear that down. Should that happen, I do not know if we will have time to rebuild American science to the place it needs to be to provide the tools that will be needed to help solve our problems.

So, I March for Science. I march because I think science can give us the tools to solve our problems, if we chose to. I want to see that happen. I want to see America prosperous and strong and its citizens healthy and happy. I believe listening to what scientists have to say is a necessary step to make that happen, though not the only step. 

I also march for more personal reasons. Science is incredibly important to me: studying how the Universe works is literally all I wanted to be able to do when I was a child, and I am so grateful that I have had the skill and the luck and the opportunity to be able to make that dream a reality. Too many other people with the same dreams and skills as me did not get those opportunities, and that thought is deeply painful to me. 

I am a scientist because I am good at math, and good at physics, and earned my place through hard work over years. But I am also a scientist because I had unearned advantages: I am white, male, and born to middle-class parents. That made my journey easier (though by no means trivial). I want everyone who wants to be a scientist to have the opportunity to make the same difficult journey I did, but not be forced to make the journey facing extra hurdles.

Right now, women and minorities in science are facing unfair barriers, as too are people from poor backgrounds. Science as a culture has not been as welcoming and supportive as we need to be. That needs to change, that needs to improve. More people need to have a clear path to study science, if that is what they wish to do. Not only because their talents will make American science stronger, but because it is the right thing to do.

Part of me hopes that, by walking out into the world, by marching to bring science back to the political sphere, we will make bothpolitics and science better than they are before. Good decisions and good leadership requires both evidence and ethics. I believe that science can bring some much needed evidence to how we as a society make decisions. I hope that, by marching alongside so many dedicated people from so many different paths in life who have spent so much time and thought so much about how to make the world better, that in the end science will absorb some of those lessons, and in time become a more open, more welcoming place.

As I said, the idea of a March for Science is unprecedented. I would never thought that so many people who aren’t scientists would feel so strongly about what we do that they would be willing to stand up next to us and say that what we do is important. It is both humbling and encouraging, and I’m so happy to be part of it.

I’ll end with one last thing. 

I have loved science since I was little because science (and for me, physics in particular) did something incredible. Science showed me that the Universe was beautiful in ways I could not have imagined. Science is not the only beautiful thing — all aspects of human endeavor show us beauty in their own ways. But there is something so elegant and amazing about how the Universe fits together. It is hard to describe, and I would never have seen it were it not for science. The Universe is unbelievably complicated and yet so simple, and we don’t even understand most of it. There are so many puzzles out there waiting to be solved, and each of their solutions is a little beautiful gem of science. I want to keep exploring this, and I want other people to be able to explore this too. The thought that someday there might not be people studying this beautiful Universe, that there might not be nerds like me running around getting really excited about some complicated and weird little hint of something new? That is one of the worst thing I can imagine. 

I don’t know really why so many people are willing to stand with me and other scientists, but part of me hopes that they are doing this in part because they see how science can reveal the Universe’s beauty, and they don’t want to see that stop either. 

Whatever your reasons are for standing up for science, thank you for your support. Thank you for coming out on April 22, in Trenton, in DC, or anywhere else in the world. I am hopeful that we together can make a statement in defense of science as a necessary part of politics, for open and free exchange of ideas around the world, and for the continued exploration of the beauty of the Universe, for all of us. The task ahead of us is long. We did not arrive at this point overnight, and we will not solve our problems in a day. But as every good scientist knows, when you face a difficult problem, the only way you solve it is by working at it, bit by bit and piece by piece, until you solve it.

It will take time, it will be hard, but I think we can solve this problem, together.

-Matthew R Buckley (originally posted at http://www.physicsmatt.com/2017/3/4/why-im-marching-for-science)