Thoughts on the March For Science

Brian went to the March For Science in Washington, DC. I attended the satellite event in Hartford, CT (well, the first half; I couldn’t stay for the whole thing). Here are our thoughts. Meghan spoke at DC March, look for her standalone post later this week.

Jeremy’s thoughts:

This was the first political rally I’ve ever attended in my life. I suspect I’m far from alone in that.

One thing I was struck by is how everybody had their own reasons for marching, and those reasons weren’t merely different but sometimes at odds. For instance, this:


vs. this:


I also saw a sign that said something like “Be like a proton: be positive”, vs. another that said something like “The universe is made of protons, neutrons, electrons, and morons”. More broadly, there were three main categories of signs: science related (the most common category), anti-Trump, and Earth Day. And like the main March For Science in DC, the CT March For Science organizers also released a statement that the march was “nonpartisan”. But unlike the DC event, the CT event also included several elected state and federal officeholders from CT–all of whom were Democrats. The speakers (who were an admirably diverse group aside from their political party affiliations) also had different foci, which for one of the speakers I saw included political issues not tightly connected to science (e.g., an argument that government should fund early childhood education instead of sports stadiums). Without wanting to get into semantic debates about what “nonpartisan” or “political” might mean, and granting that they might plausibly mean various things, I’d say that anyone who thought the CT March For Science was partisan and/or political would be partially correct.

I also shared Brian’s impression of the DC march (below) that it wasn’t an angry or otherwise passionate crowd. The first speaker’s remarks comprised a series of what I think were supposed to be applause lines, which were met with awkward silence by the crowd of a few hundred-ish. And the organizer’s occasional attempts to get Earth Day protest chants going kind of fell flat. But people weren’t disengaged either. CT State Senator Beth Bye got the crowd going a bit. She clearly has lots of experience speaking to rallies. Getting cerebral, not-especially-political people excited about politics or about being part of a cause is no easy task!

None of which is to criticize any of the march organizers, or anyone who brought signs that I personally wouldn’t have brought. A lot of politics and activism is coalition building, i.e. finding a way to motivate/persuade/work with/work in parallel with/ok, at least not openly fight with people with whom you disagree in some ways. That’s really hard, obviously. I don’t pretend to any particular wisdom on how to do this, besides banalities like “it helps to have leaders who are as good at oratory as Barack Obama”. I’m not sure even experienced politicians and activists, or academics who study political protests and social change for a living, really know all that much, given that they’re giving seemingly contradictory advice (e.g., “protests with a specific, actionable goal are more likely to succeed” vs. “unite overlapping concerns under one banner”). I think the national March For Science organizers left a lot to be desired in their ability to articulate and stick with a message that everyone could agree on and rally around. But in fairness that’s not easy. And in any case, it’s not just up to them now. What matters going forward is what each of us do, and that can be lots of things besides marching. Whether the March ends up fading away (or worse, backfiring), or becomes the start of something big and important, or something else, is up to us.

For what little it’s worth, for me one effect of the March (and of talking to wonderful colleagues like Meghan) has been to push me to say yes to some things I’ve never said yes to before. Start doing some things besides voting to try to ensure that politics goes back to working better, and that it leads to political outcomes that include more, better public science. Thank you to the March organizers, and to my colleagues, for that push.

p.s. Sadly, it was too cold in Hartford for me to wear my My Little Pony “Time For Science!” t-shirt. (yes, I really do own that shirt.)

Brian’s thoughts:

I attended the March for Science in Washington DC. Because of a visit from an old friend who lived faraway I got there after the start but was there for many speeches and the actual march and felt like I got the overall vibe.  Some stream of consciousness impressions:

  • Compared to other marches, this was convivial, almost a party element, where as the more typical protest is rather focused and with a hint of anger (usually well justified). I’ve read several reporters who noted this too. There were definitely some “protest pros” in the crowd and they kept trying to get people to start chanting slogans but it wasn’t that successful. Overall I think the gestalt was just right.
  • I think much of the audience for this march was scientists. Certainly at least half of the signs were witty and full of puns but of the nerdy and insider flavor. I had a lot of fun figuring out the signs and explaining them to my sons. But if I was busy doing that and I had to explain them to my intelligent 16 year old son, that tells you something. I think general messages of “science improves our health” and “save our earth” were worded to reach the general public. But I’m not sure I saw any signs that made a clear economic case for science. And communicating the power of the scientific method in a more than “take my word for it way” or “look at what we did accomplished way” appeared surprisingly hard.  And other than funding there were no real concrete or specific asks.
  • The participants were diverse in many ways. I think gender representation was in the vicinity of  50-50. People from all over the US travelled  to DC (I saw people from Missouri, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, Washington state, etc and several people from other countries). I saw several people in wheelchairs and I was marching with a severely visually impaired person. Every race and religion was represented but there is no doubt this was overall a more white event than the nation as a whole, or even I would speculate than the scientific community as a whole.
  • Scientifically, all disciplines were represented – I saw physicists, engineers, chemists, psychotherapists, social scientists, geologists, medical doctors, cell biologists, ecologists, etc. But my overall impression is that the biological sciences were fairly overrepresented relative to the other sciences.
  • I have had very little luck finding actual numbers of attendees in DC. This is a weird little meta story. The rally occurred on the mall which is US Park Service land. Historically the Park Service has provided official estimates of the number of attendees at marches on the mall. After the contretemps in January where their  estimate of the number of attendees at the women’s march was much larger than the inauguration, the park service stopped doing estimates. So an important piece of information about a march on the disrespect of science and data was unavailable because of a disrespect for the validity of data. The one number I found (which I don’t consider an unbiased source) said 40,000 people, the same as Chicago. That sounds in the ball park to me. And I have to say given how bad the weather was (55 F/10 C and steady rain), 40,000 people showing up in DC was impressive. I had a couple of friends who lived in DC who just stayed home because of the weather. In all though it seems a couple of hundred thousand people marched at locations covering all seven continents and hundreds of sites and even scientists at the north pole and south pole got in on the action. Given there has never been a science march before, that is pretty impressive. But it t is very disappointing that many news reports hedged their bets in the absence of data and just said “thousands of scientists marched”. It was way more than that suggests.
  • While grateful that the march occurred, I was underwhelmed by the organization. For example, the speakers list for DC was not posted even by the night before. But in the end, this march was about the attendees, and for all the various forms of criticism heaped on the organizers, they did the world a great service in organizing a platform (its not as easy or as cheap as you think to get a permit for a protest on the mall in Washington DC). And then the participants made it what it was.
  • Whatever the official line was, there were a lot of different agendas of the participants. Ones I saw at least half a dozen signs on include:
    1. Science is real and works and is not just another opinion or alternative fact. Many of these were generic, but some of these were specifically in the context of the Trump administration.
    2. Science funding – don’t cut it, increase funding
    3. Science diversity – there were plenty of signs making the point that scientists come from diverse races, genders, orientations, abledness, etc.I didn’t see many specifically calling out science needing to get better in this area though.
    4. Environmentalism – climate change and saving our Earth (this was organized on Earth day after all)
    5. Flat out anti-Trump without any clear science angle. Especially in DC there is clearly a crowd of people who just go to protests with an agenda. Some of them showed up. One guy was dressed in a jump-suit (hood to toe) covered in pictures of Bernie Sanders. It was clever and got photographed a lot but not much of a science message.

And a few opinions:

  • The official line of the organizers is that the march was political but non-partisan (i.e. not attacking any one group). I personally did not feel like this was realistic – this march started because of dismay about specific acts by specific people in government about the treatment of data and science. We (at least in the US) were not thinking about a march for science a year ago. So while, the purely political anti-Trump unrelated signs were clearly a mismatch (but not that common and kind of unavoidable in a protest context), I personally had no problem with signs that took on specific officials around climate denialism, limits on scientists speaking and the whole belief in alternative facts on a par with science. Just my opinion though.
  • Conversely, I suspect many scientists were OK with signs (and chants) about more funding. But I thought these were awkward in this context. There are many in politics and the media who wanted to paint this as just a special interest group protecting their own interests, not as a group motivated by a higher societal good. And while I agreed with the goal of more funding, I thought these signs and chants played right into this portrayal. Again just my opinion.
  • I know there was a lot of unhappiness with how the organizers handled the issue of diversity in science and the prioritization of agendas. But having been to half a dozen protests, I could have told you it would ultimately be a bottom up, self-organizing thing that would override the top-down agenda. The agendas of the participants would come forth regardless. And the agendas would be diverse and even conflicting. And that was true here. Protests are the essence of democracy, muddled, individualistic, chaotic, sometimes incoherent, and yet an incredibly powerful medium and voice when that many people are working in the same general direction. That is what I saw.
  • I think the overall gestalt of a bit of a party for/celebration of science and what it has accomplished without real anger or drive was probably just about right. I think a bunch of mostly relatively  privileged mostly white scientists getting angry wouldn’t have played that well. And I think the key message the world needed is there are a heck of a lot of scientists doing a heck of a lot of things and they are regular people. And that got communicated. In some ways I think this was a coming out party for science and that was the spirit of the event. And I think it was both a coming out party to the political world, but also to each other (hence the nerdy signs). I think it was important for scientists to get out of our disciplinary silos and look around and realize just how many of us there are and claim our power.

In general, I was glad I went. I was very glad the march occurred. It was imperfect for sure. But in its own way it was perfect. And exactly what scientists needed to do. Over the next couple of weeks I will be posting a 3-part series on how science ended up in a post-fact world and what I think scientists should do about it. And I think this march was a good example of one of the things they should do about it.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on the March For Science

  1. These observations are similar to what I saw also.

    I was on board with this thing initially, given that it was a response to the outrageous proposed budgets for science-based agencies, e.g. NOAA GLRI & EPA & etc. But that deteriorated fast when I read that the organizers wanted to shoe-horn “diversity” issues into the agenda, even to the point of changing their official statements. I don’t have any major problem with *legitimate* issues in discrimination, but I do have a pretty major problem with people who try to co-opt original purposes to suit their own. Near-term, drastic science funding cuts (proposed), in *some* science fields, is the immediate issue that sparked this response; diversity in science is a separate matter. One problem at a time.

    But at the last second I said, “what the hell, I’m here on campus anyway, I’ll at least watch some speeches and read some signs”. The speeches ranged from not very good to inaudible (due to the sound system), but the last (and only?) was by a faculty member: it was very good, not least because he pointedly said that scientists can readily come off as elitist, arrogant jackasses when communicating via jargon with the proletariat of the rest of the world, which we should really probably not do. You have to say uncomfortable things sometimes.

    I liked that there were a number of signs that were quite on-point, dealing specifically with Great Lakes issues, like potential (now actual) asian carp introductions and toxic algal blooms relative to the axing of the GLRI. But one guy just ripped out an 8.5 x 11 sheet from his notebook and wrote “Go Science” and pinned it to his back. I think he had a sense of humor.

    When the march itself started, organizers and marchers tried to get people to chant slogans, even using bullhorns in cases, and at that point I said, OK, that’s not for me, I’m out of here.

    • I very much agree with your points, Jim. Yes- there certainly was a lack of focal issues surrounding this event. I too very much agree that “diversity” is a topic for another day, especially if the point of the event was to oppose proposed funding cuts. I believe the far left has beaten the diversity horse to death anyway, and it’s time to move on to more important issues. Although I would say if the left were to redefine what they mean by “diversity” then I might change my opinion- but that is not likely to happen. Suffice it to say, the means by which they define diversity now is very deeply flawed, and I think should be rejected by everyone in its current format.

      I also did not perceive this event as a “science march,” but rather a “sort of sciencey parade”. I say “sort of sciencey,” because I did not get the sense that science was the focal point of the event. Also, to me anyway, “march” means that you will at least encounter a little resistance somewhere along the way. Civil rights marches, anti-Vietnam war marches, anti-abortion marches, and the despicable KKK marches are examples of where counter-protests defined what the “march” was all about. I have yet to read of there being any resistance of any kind to any science “march,” in the US or abroad. Thus, without any kind of counter-protest, I would say at best it was a parade, and in many cases just a “walk in the park”. “March” is a bit overly dramatic in this case, I think.

      But, if for nothing else, I think the “sort of sciencey parade” was a great way to facilitate inter-disciplinary interaction. We can never have enough of that, even if the event fell short of being a march and simply amounted to a parade.

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