The March for Science — moment or movement?

Comments (2) Activism, Politics

40,000 marched for science in Chicago April 22 . Photo: (CC BY 2.0)

The March for Science (MfS) was a peculiar demonstration — there had never been a mobilization quite like this before. This activism is not over individual issues, such as evolution or reproductive rights. It’s the culture wars raised to a new level — it’s about the place of science and evidence-based policy in society. The marchers frame their activism as reason and knowledge against prejudice and ignorance, evidence against fiction and lies. Now the organizers want to build on its success — hundreds of thousands of people marched worldwide — to turn it into a movement. What kind of march, and what kind of a movement?

We all knew one subtext of the “bipartisan” march was a protest against the Trump administration. Photo: (CC BY 2.0).

Some scientists criticized the march before it began for “politicizing science,” and some activists criticized the march organizers for a lack of diversity. Those criticisms can be revealing in many ways, but first here are some observations about the march from a social movement perspective.

Looks matter: Serious issues, joyful participation
The masses of people who turned out could hardly have been less worried about the criticisms. This was one of those marches with serious issues but joyful participation. Marchers made their own signs — creative, colorful, nerdy, witty or just fun to look at. My scientific measure of enthusiasm (patent pending),  the  σ/π ratio (σ = signs, π = people), was as high as I’ve seen in any demonstration. There were marching dinosaurs, knitted brain-kippahs, readable t-shirts, one guy with a microscope on his head. Marchers were taking photos of each others’ signs, and the look of the march was justly one of the main themes of the news coverage, with websites featuring photo slide shows.

The big institutions did PR for Science in general, abstract like allegorical figures in art. Victor Peter, “Science progresses, despite ignorance”  (1902). Photo by couscouschocolat, Wikipedia. (CC BY 2.0).

The MfS was like the Women’s March; it was organized through social media with self-starting activist groups and leadership, individuals drawn in by word of mouth and word of web, and no clear slogans or meaning imposed from above (rather, probably few of the marchers cared about or read the organizers’ website statement). The march, like the Women’s March and many demonstrations, was something of an empty signifier — people invested it with their own meanings, which were similar enough to have an impact.

Nerdy signs designed for peer review. Photo: (CC BY 2.0)

Instrumental and expressive politics
Institutions were doing PR for “science” in general. The Field Museum was the most visible in Chicago; it organized a contingent and handed out t-shirts, buttons and signs with the theme “Everything [fill in the blank] brought to you by Science.” Judging by the home-made signs, this theme did resonate with the marchers — a celebration of the centrality of science, a claim for recognition and value. Very abstract, like those allegorical figures in art — Scientia as a monumental but scantily clothed lady, possibly on horseback.  Of course, we knew the Field Museum was also making a claim for more people to become involved in science institutions and activities — and a claim for funding from your tax dollars. And this “instrumental politics” was OK with the marchers, but they also came for something else.

My sense is that for most people there, the march was expressive politics, more than it was instrumental politics. The people who came were scientists, tech workers, non-professionals who worked with them, teachers, parents with children, and enthusiasts — the Neil deGrasse Tyson fans or people like my electrician friend who builds telescopes and takes his grandchildren to astronomy camps.

The march may have started as a demonstration protesting the Trump regime, protesting the right-wing culture war on climate science, environmentalism, and even the role of evidence-based research in public policy. But the look and spirit of the march was also an assertion of identity.

This is identity politics also. Photo: Susan Melkisethian, MfS DC. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

People proudly identified as a part of a science and science-loving community, defining themselves, as any identitarians, in opposition — against the forces that threaten their values. Many of the signs showed they could draw partly on a long-established social identity — Green/environmental consciousness. (Recommended reading: Manuel Castells, “The Greening of the Self: The Environmental Movement,” in The Power of Identity.)

Moment or movement?
The spirits were high and positive, people were celebrating their numbers and having fun. And the vast numbers make you wonder — enjoying themselves now, but what happens when they get really angry? What happens if they get organized? If this moment becomes a movement?

The organizers want a movement to come out of this enthusiasm.  The March for Science website gives an idea of what the organizers and the many partner organizations think the next steps should be. Most of what you see there is a platform for science organizations to publicize their events. The explicitly political part falls within the limits of traditional citizen action: Call, email, write your legislators to support or oppose legislation, to demand funding and oppose cutbacks. This is more lobbying and pressure politics than movement mobilization. There is an odd disconnect between this conventional, institutional politics and the activist tone of some of the core principles, with calls for diversity that were opposed by some scientists as “PC/identity politics.”

Should the MfS call for diversity?
Could there be a transformative political potential in the march’s challenge to scientists? First, the goals for diversity are a demand for structural changes in organized STEM — for action against exclusion and marginalization of women and people of color. In this language, we hear the voice of the younger scientists, the post-docs, the grad students, the emerging researchers and tech workers, many whose values were shaped in the diversity cultures influential in many universities. They are  pointing to bias throughout STEM — in educationhiring, salaries and funding.

“The common thread in everything we do is highlighting the role of science in society and the need for science to be more inclusive and diverse, to make sure  all communities are represented. This is necessary in order to have the kind of science that allows politicians to craft policies that will benefit everyone, instead of just certain communities.”
—March co-chair Caroline Weinberg

“Centering diversity” can bring the energy of these young and more activist STEM workers into the broader political struggle you need in a movement. But in a familiar institutional dialectic, they will meet opposition, especially from many older and many more established scientists.

“Politicization”: Should scientists become advocates and activists?
A second challenge is more widely accepted, even by the march’s big organizational partners. The MfS organizers want scientists to leave the labs and break down the “barriers between scientists and their communities,” says Weinberg. Scientists should “like all Americans… [advocate] for things that protect us and are in our best interest.” Many scientists are uncomfortable with the activism and leftism of movements — which you can see in two of the better-known criticisms of the march (Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne).  Most scientists have separated their political values from their work, and while this may change for many as the movement grows, there will always be pressure for the separation coming from the intermeshing of corporate and defense industry interests in much scientific research.

Here are some of the clearer “politicization” criticisms: The “downside” of the march is “science making itself appear as just another interest group” defending their budgets, said John Holdren, senior science advisor to Obama. In a widely quoted op-ed, coastal geologist Robert S. Young wrote in the Times that  the march would “politicize science” and “turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.” Scientific research would be delegitimized, perceived as politically partisan, biased and not objective. (However,Young does advocate a different activism, going into “local civic groups, churches, schools, county fairs and, privately, into the offices of elected officials” to “put a face on the debate.”)

You can find some truth in much of this and still support the activism. But the march doesn’t so much politicize science, as show how politicized science already is. Will it fire up the culture wars? Young thinks so. He seems to blame Al Gore for politicizing climate science with “An Inconvenient Truth,” because conservative Southerners he speaks to bring it up to show how partisan climate change is. Does he think the opposition to climate science originates with ordinary people and not with powerful economic and institutional interests? Would silence help? (Sometimes I would like Democrats to shut the fuck up, but not on climate change.)

Fighting even for ideals and illusions
The worries about “politicization” reflect a wish and not a reality, a wish that idealizes science institutions and processes as ideologically and politically neutral. This is like the classic liberal ideal of the university as a protected place for the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and the free exchange of ideas.

I like the ideals; if only wishing made it so. But government funding comes from politically determined budgets, responsive to public pressures or shaped by corporate power and military interests; corporations fund research mostly when it serves their bottom line; universities pressure researchers to come up with funding from WCW (Who Cares Where); and researchers are too often corrupted by corporate sponsorship and perks. The lucky scientists can set their own agendas, but they work in institutions embedded in a corporate world that is politicized by profit and funding as well as ideology.

Photo: (CC BY 2.0)

Exaggerated, maybe, yet too true a picture. Yet it doesn’t follow that it is not worth fighting for that ideal, fighting to keep science and its institutions free of commercial and political constraint. I think of it like the problem of free speech and academic freedom in the university. The liberal ideal of academic freedom, tolerance for competing ideas, and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake may seem like illusions, when you consider the role of the corporate university in society, and the way power is exercised over it and within it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t defend faculty and students under attack when they make their critiques and struggle to change curriculum, hiring, admissions.

Will the cultural battles become more bitter and destructive, and will they come with excesses and mistakes on both sides?  Probably. But do you think mobilization of the science community only creates another target, or do you see it also as both defense and offense? “Keep quiet or the enemies will attack you” has a long and depressing history; silence may be the resort of the defenseless, but it’s bad advice for social movements. In any case, people who are under attack will take action and resist whether you lecture them or not.

“Keep quiet or the enemies will attack you” has a long and depressing history; silence may be the resort of the defenseless, but it’s bad advice for social movements.

Unity or fragmentation?
The seeming unity of the huge MfS may have had one big impact, but we can expect diverging groups, interests, levels of political consciousness and commitment, not all equally lovable. There are many different constituencies, many different interests; establishment institutions will not behave like neighborhood environmental activists, and the institutions may even come under attack by activists. Like most internet-age movements, beside the large organizations, masses of people are taking individual initiative, communicating to each other, without any central leadership or organization. The most effective movements — look back to the thirties and the sixties —have been powered both by institutional forces and by vast complexes of local struggles, small group and individual actions, uncoordinated disruption at many pressure points, with rebellion spreading seemingly everywhere. The combination of both and their constant interaction is formidable. People will tell us about the need for charismatic leaders, for one big organization, one focus or  set of demands. We very likely won’t have them, and we shouldn’t feel bad about that.

This was the only antiwar sign I saw in the Chicago march. Photo: (CC BY 2.0)

Being poorly educated is not a virtue here. Photo: (CC BY 2.0).



2 Responses to The March for Science — moment or movement?

  1. What Jacques Ellul said about technology is also true of science more generally: “it is neither good nor bad, Nor is it neutral.” A pro-science movement needs to be for a “peaceful use of science promoting social justice.” Yes this is political but makes this movement part of a battle for the “soul of science.

  2. Al Fenske says:

    It should never be forgotten that every idea expresses the interests of class or classes. There are no apolitical ideas. Consider the notions of causation in Newtonian physics vs Quantum physics Copenhagen formality. One eliminates free will through inevitability and the other through randomness but both speak to the interests of established elites.

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