April 22nd is Earth Day and, set to coincide with a day geared toward advancing climate literacy and education about the environment’s fragility and (if not too far gone) resiliency, the March for Science. The March and its affiliate events are being organized in response to hostility showed toward science by the new administration and by growing numbers of legislators. While the March for Science is very explicitly political—politics very much impact science and policymakers’ acceptance or denial of science has lasting ramifications for everyone and everything inhabiting the planet—it is not partisan: there is no “liberal” or “conservative,” no “Democrat” or “Republican” or “Libertarian;” there is only those who value and champion the importance of science and science literacy to a free, open, and healthy society. As such, the March is open to scientists, science teachers, concerned citizens… everyone, provided they value science’s role in working toward common good.
The goal of the March is, in essence, to jumpstart a movement. The immediate impact of the March will likely not be any major policy shifts in our government or the sudden reevaluation of the proposed budget that would strip billions of dollars from scientific research. Rather, the Science March is about connecting people, disseminating information, and motivating further organized efforts to champion scientific research, science literacy, and policy that is informed by accurate scientific evidence. As described by Robin Finehout, a biology teacher in Northern Virginia, the movement that is coalescing around the initial April 22nd march is one that is meant “to defend evidence-based scientific research and to draw attention to the importance of science in the health of the planet and ALL of its inhabitants.”
In his new book, Not A Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science, science journalist Dave Levitan points out ways in which our elected officials not only misunderstand scientific theories and claims, but sometimes blatantly manipulate scientific claims to support harmful policies. What with Rep. Lamar Smith’s (TX) chairing the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology alone, Levitan is by no means short of examples of politicians accidentally or intentionally getting science dead wrong. The effects of anti-science sentiments seeping into policy are wildly detrimental: from the relaxing of vaccine requirements and an attendant rise in the incidence of preventable diseases to the condoned (if not mandated) operation of hydraulic fracking sites that are likely to contaminate potable ground water and their associated wastewater disposal wells that are responsible for a large number of induced earthquakes. The trend of denying clear scientific evidence in favor of corporate profits is a chief reason Robin Finehout cites for her participation in the March for Science: “They do not seem to be making policies based on evidence and scientific research. I fear our environmental quality will be degraded for profit, and we will leave a polluted wasteland for future generations.”
Scott Strange, a doctoral student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, is planning to attend a satellite march that is taking place on the university’s campus. He, like Ms. Finehout, is motivated to march, in part, because of our government’s seeming disregard for scientific evidence for the sake of lining the pockets of a few. Research funding is another, and very understandable, concern for him: “My funding is secure for a couple more years, but the funding of others I know is in jeopardy… We are talking about cancer, HIV, and vaccine research.” While those are both important issues to be addressed, Mr. Strange’s primary reason for marching is actually science literacy. In his experience as a teaching assistant, he’s had to answer questions from college students that should have been answered in elementary and secondary school science classes. Beyond the impact of a lack of science literacy in the classroom and the lab, Scott definitely sees the inability to differentiate “a scientific theory from an educated guess or some conjecture [as] a fundamental flaw in science education.”
The dearth of science literacy is also a major concern for Tim Gordon*. A concerned citizen, a parent, a science enthusiast, and self-professed nerd, Mr. Gordon is alarmed by the complete lack of scientific understanding in people who are otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people. Despite having grown up under the wing of the same grandfather who ended up working in the aerospace industry and who eagerly followed the Mercury and Apollo programs, Mr. Gordon’s own brother—an “intelligent adult man who graduated high school with a 4.0 average and who holds a responsible and high paying job”—has been convinced that the moon landings were a hoax, that the earth is flat, and that satellites are fictions. Tim’s support for the March for Science is fueled by his concern at seeing pseudoscience and “alternative facts” being equated in importance to and as worthy of our time as provable scientific evidence.
Scientific inquiry is far from a perfect field—there are issues with diversity and inclusion, with colonialism, with bias. And, counterintuitive as it may initially seem, a whole lot about science is about being proven wrong. Nevertheless, scientifically interrogating the world around us has led us to remarkable discoveries and has provided enormous benefit to humans as a species: from the discovery of antibiotics to the application of electricity. To embrace hostility toward science is to reject human ingenuity and our collective capacity for solving problems and helping one another enjoy a greater quality of life (and also do cool things, like take us to the moon!)—and, make no mistake about it, that human ingenuity is only accessible in our collective capacity.
So, this weekend, I hope you’ll join me and thousands and thousands of others across the country and around the globe in celebrating science, defending the importance of science literacy, and fighting to sustain scientific inquiry. If you cannot attend a March, you can join in the Virtual March that you can participate in via March for Science’s website.