Science joined the #resistance over the weekend, or so the organizers of the March for Science would have us believe. Thousands of demonstrators marched in Washington, D.C., and in cities around the country under the banner of science and in the spirit of the Women’s March opposing President Donald Trump back in January.
The march had its share of harmless and charmingly nerdy science enthusiasts holding signs like “I was told there would be pi” and “I was told to bring a sine” (get it?). Who can possibly object to people, who may have waited a lifetime for the opportunity, finally getting a chance to make trigonometry puns in public?
The problem with the march was its larger ambition to enlist science in the anti-Trump movement. Not only does this represent a jaw-dropping misunderstanding of science — the Large Hadron Collider has no position on whether Trump is violating the emoluments clause — but if taken seriously, it will damage the reputation of science.
The left loves to argue that Republicans are anti-science, usually by accusing them of being budding theocrats who value only faith and not science. Since Donald Trump is no one’s idea of a theocrat, the latest argument is that his “alternative facts” administration is an implicit assault on the basis of science. It is certainly the case that Trump says things that aren’t true, although science has survived other fast-and-loose presidents. No one thought that Bill Clinton, during the course of his various falsehoods, was somehow calling into doubt the second law of thermodynamics.
Trump has pronounced on all sorts of things over the decades, but so far the scientific method has escaped his wrath on Twitter. Indeed, putting up glass-encased 98-story buildings implies a certain acceptance of the laws of physics and a respect for engineering.
This is why it’s absurd for any claque to claim ownership of science, which belongs to all of us. No one disputes that the modern world rests on an edifice of scientific advance, and that we owe much of our material well-being to it. No one wants to argue with Francis Bacon, one of the philosophic founders of modern science, about the importance of empiricism. No one wants to dispute the work of Newton, Bohr, or Curie.
This doesn’t mean that science should be apotheosized. It is value-neutral. The same science that gave us penicillin gave us the hydrogen bomb. As Francis Bacon himself put it, “The mechanical arts are of ambiguous use, serving as well for hurt as for remedy.”
For the marchers, though, science stands for all that is good and true, and it just happens to bless their preferred policy positions, especially on climate change. The passion and certitude they bring to the climate debate doesn’t exactly speak to a rigorously scientific disposition. The advocates on climate change often use “science” as a weapon, even as they spin out apocalyptic scenarios that go well beyond the current scientific consensus.
At its worst, the March for Science was tinged with the spirit of three scientists who wrote an anti-Trump essay calling on scientists at universities to consider work slowdowns and strikes. How else to respond “when one party is committed to ignoring science at best, and leveraging it for systemic oppression at worst?” In this view, scientists are simply social-justice warriors in lab coats, political activists who are good at math.
All of this is a mistake, no matter how much Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” might have delighted at the turnout for the March for Science. Since the country currently lacks for institutions that exist outside the nation’s poisonous partisan divide, besides the military and perhaps big-league sports, it is a disservice to try to enlist science for an ideology.
It is the marchers who are the ones trying, literally, to politicize science. It deserves better defenders.