The March For Science Is The Problem, Not The Solution

  • Date: 25/04/17
  • Lucas Bergkamp, Areo Magazine

Once the norms of science have eroded under political pressure, science loses its ability to produce objective knowledge, and thus its social justification.

Screenshot 2017-04-25 09.53.31

On the 47th Earth Day, scientists and other concerned citizens marched for science. This march was “the first step of a global movement to defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments.” Although it is not evident that scientists should become activists, most of us, scientists and laymen, would agree that science and technology have helped to improve our lives. Electricity, antibiotics, nuclear energy, genetically modified organisms, and information technology, which all have a basis in science, are useful to large numbers of people. Showing public support for this kind of science would appear to be unobjectionable. Nevertheless, the March for Science is controversial, since it celebrates a different kind of “policy-relevant” science that does not have the same track record.

Public support for science

Science is broadly supported in the Western world. Governments spend large sums of money on science, and use it extensively in their policy-making. The general public has confidence in science as an institution, but the level of support should not be exaggerated.[3] In the US General Social Survey, responding to the question “as far as the people running [the scientific community] is concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them,” 40% say they have a “great deal” of confidence,[4] with 50% having “only some” confidence.[5] Those with a college degree, who have learned about the scientific method, have more confidence in science than those with less than high school: 50% v. 29%.[6]

Interestingly, Republicans have less confidence in science than Democrats (35% v. 42% reporting a great deal of confidence[7]). This may reflect the fact that Republicans include more religious people, who may tend to be more critical of science. It may also reflect the fact, however, that the scientific community tends to include proportionally more progressives than conservatives.[8] The lack of intellectual and ideological diversity is a problem in all fields of science, but more so in social, biological and environmental sciences, i.e. those areas that produce policy-relevant science. So, maybe, Republicans distrust science more than Democrats simply because there are less scientists that endorse their political viewpoint. This assumes, of course, that a scientist’s political viewpoint influences the science that he or she produces.


Indeed, the March for Science has become controversial precisely because it takes a political stand. In the initial planning, the March for Science was directed directly against the Trump administration’s “science denial,” “war on science,” and “war on facts.”[9] In response to criticism about the non-scientific, defensive attack on President Trump’s policies, the organizers have restated the objective in more positive terms: it would be “a celebration of science.” More specifically, “it’s not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.” But science provides only selective and limited insights into the complex policy issues governments face.

Even the restated objective is not a plea for the unbiased search for objective truth, with the retreat of science to where objective truth can be found. It is not even clear that the organizers believe in objectivity and truth. Rather, they advocate a particular vision of society and public policy-making. According to the organizers, science is “a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.” Uniting “a diverse, nonpartisan group,” the March for Science therefore calls “for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest.” The organizers draw attention to “an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery.” Faced with these trends, we are invited to ask “can we afford not to speak out in science’s defense”? This question, of course, is rhetorical, and the organizers thus tell us: “There is no Planet B. Join the #MarchForScience.”[10] Scientists should therefore involve themselves in politics. But if they do, what will this mean for science?

Despite the attempt to deflect the political stance inherent in the March for Science, this short statement reveals that the organizers have implicitly made a set of assumptions about science that are not scientific in nature. Five such assumptions require close scrutiny: science is true, scientific discovery may not be restricted, science promotes freedom and prosperity, scientific consensus must be respected, and public policy must be based on science. Each of these assumptions reflects unspoken (and, maybe, unspeakable) opinions and positions with respect to the philosophy of science, the sociology of science, and the proper role of science in society.

Science Is True

The idea of science is that it can help us find truth. But the point should not exaggerated. According to the astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”[11] This is a bit of an overstatement; science is not true by definition, unless the definition of science presupposes its truthfulness. “Science isn’t true, nor is it false,” statistician William M Briggs, an independent consultant and past professor at the Cornell Medical School, explains, “it is a collection of facts and predictions, some of which are true or good, and some false or bad.”[12] In the tradition of “scholasticism,” we knew something was true because scientists said so [13] – the modern, Enlightenment version of scientific truth, however, eschews authority as a source of knowledge, and replaced it with evidence: truth can be found through a (never-ending) quest for evidence and falsification. If scientists rigorously follow proper methodology, their observations are likely to be the best approximation of observable, objective truth currently available, but that does not mean that science is true by definition.

Assuming that science is true is assuming the problem away. Science, as a product of the scientific method, may be true, and may be more likely to be true if it is produced in accordance with sound methodological standards. If science is merely a method for developing knowledge, its truthfulness requires a separate enquiry. Such an enquiry may show that a scientific finding is doubtful. False scientific theories and findings are unavoidable, but, ideally, the scientific community addresses these issues and, over time, corrects the erroneous findings. Science, as a human activity, is not self-correcting by nature. To the contrary, the fear has been expressed that science “isn’t self-correcting, it’s self-destructing.”[14] Even if science does not destroy itself, however, it cannot be equated with truth. At best, science can be a useful way of developing knowledge about reality.

Not all supporters of the March for Science agree that science is either true or objective. Shay Akil McLean, a Ph.D. student University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has rejected this notion. “[T]o think there are universal truths,” he argues, “perpetuates a particular kind of able bodied white cisgender male logic, a world where everything is measured in comparison to them as the ideal type of human that everyone else aberrates from.”[15] Shay studies the intersection between science and social justice, and has little need for objectivity or truth. These scholars believe that “science without a strong social-justice bedrock — that is, without politics — is a myth, and that embracing this myth will only led to hardship and oppression.”[16] To avoid the tricky issues associated with this stance, the March for Science has tried to steer away from the notion of science as politics. […]

The March for Science Is the Problem

Science has always been vulnerable to abuse and distortion for political ends. Because science provides powerful ammunition in political debate, it is valued by politicians. Thus, science is at risk of becoming a political tool. The main risk may not be that policy makers “deny the science” or wage “war on science,” but that they cause the production of politically convenient science and hide behind scientific evidence to avoid accountability for political choice. In climate science, this dynamic is at play. Once the norms of science have eroded under political pressure, science loses its ability to produce objective knowledge, and thus its social justification.

It has been argued that the March for Science misunderstands politics – it assumes, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, that the application of science to politics will create “an unbroken chain of inquiry, knowledge, and public benefit for all.”[26] The slogan “evidence-based science for evidence-based legislation,” endorsed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science,[27] reflects this incredibly naïve conception of the science-policy interface. Relatedly, the March for Science misunderstands science itself, and exposes “other issues that are not solely external to science.”[28] It misunderstands science’s rationale, legitimation, and role in society and policy making in particular. In modern technocracies, science is not a certain recipe for human betterment and progress.[29]

Not only will the March for Science fail to address the real issues that plague science, it might also hurt science by portraying it as a progressive political project. A research director for the Union of Concerned Scientists has labelled the march “a huge moment and huge opportunity to expand the scientific community’s influence on policy.” In her view, the march is the start of “a big, diverse, inclusive movement that puts science to work for people.”[30]

Unfortunately, the March for Science, rather than put science to work for the people, will “simply increase the size of the echo chamber.”[31] In all likelihood, it will be viewed as celebrating the science-based technocracy controlled by educated elites that some people frown upon.

The March for Science is a symptom of the underlying problem of politicization. In many areas that are policy-relevant, science has been overextended and charged with a mission impossible: finding scientific evidence to support government policies. It pretends to provide objective analysis of complex, value-laden problems that cannot be approached without subjective choices. The study of problems such as climate change and immigration requires that the scientist adopt a vision of the desirable society, since, without such a vision, it will not be possible to make a selection from the wide range of questions that can be studied and facts that can be developed.

Science has become a victim of its own success. The March for Science ignores the real problems — pretending that science today is non-partisan and apolitical. It is part of a strategy adopted by activist scientists and politicians to scientize politics and politicize science. This is the issue that is at the heart of the perceived “war on science.”[32]

Politicization of science has already reduced science’s value for society. Rather than embracing politicization and a particular world view, scientists should restore the conditions under which policy-relevant science can produce objective knowledge. Only if they succeed in doing so will this kind of science have a bright future.

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