A March for Science? More a March for Meek Conformity

The great ways to celebrate the spirit of science are legion. It’s just that marching like a military regiment isn’t one of them.

PORTLAND, ME - APRIL 22: A crowd of protesters stretches from Oak Street to City Hall during the March for Science in 2017.

By Jonathan Witt Published on April 13, 2018

The 2nd annual March for Science is Saturday in Washington D.C. And, yes, the name still needs scare quotes around it.

Study the Facebook and Twitter feeds on the event. What you’ll see is a grab bag of public policy issues. Some of those issues are ones reasonable people, including scientists, disagree on. But in the M4S subculture, dissent is a thought crime.

You see, the march isn’t mainly about science. It’s about marching — row upon row of obedient soldiers keeping lock-step time.

This is why the march’s social media feeds are marked by an atmosphere of smug insularity. “There is No Alternative to Scientific Facts,” a protestor’s sign reads in one photo there. But who beyond a tiny fraction of people wants to throw overboard all or even most scientific facts?

No, the debate is about what is and what isn’t an established scientific fact. It’s over what to make of those facts. It’s over which facts point to problems that merit public resources. It’s over which policy proposals best address those problems.

And notice, those policy questions aren’t themselves questions of natural science. They’re questions of public policy and economics. Alas, the M4S drumbeaters routinely conflate these questions with science — which isn’t very scientific of them.

Green Energy, Green Money

A stated goal of the march is more public money for science. Ostensibly the organizers want the public money for science research generally. But study the march’s social media feeds and it’s clear they mostly want it for “green energy.”

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Yes, more scare quotes. Wind farms kill hundreds of thousands of birds every year. They spoil landscapes across America. How “green” is that? Are the wind farms cost-effective once you factor in things like long-term maintenance? Are there better uses for our nature conservancy dollars? Surely these are questions worth asking.

But question green orthodoxy and you’ll soon find yourself compared to dinosaurs doubting the danger of a giant asteroid impact. Threaten the flow of easy public money to corporations eating from the government trough, and you’ll find yourself facing pitchforks. Just ask EPA head Scott Pruitt.

Can We March for Darwin-Doubting Scientists?

There are better ways to conduct public conversations about matters related to science. About last year’s march I noted that some of the activists behind the march were tarring “Darwin deniers” as enemies of science. They did so even though there are distinguished scientists who doubt modern Darwinism and offer evidence-based reasons for their doubts.

I just finished co-authoring a book with one such scientist. The book is Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design. My scientist co-author, Matti Leisola, is a Finnish bioengineer who worked successfully in the biotech industry and at major universities in Europe. He has 140 peer-reviewed science papers to his name. As he began to question the mainstream view on evolution, he did his best to follow the evidence, even when it meant getting attacked by the establishment. Whether you agree with him or not, it’s hard to dismiss the value of such courage.

Thank goodness Newton didn’t scurry back into line when his theory of gravity was viewed as “spooky action at a distance.”

Think about it. Thank goodness Copernicus had the courage not to stay in line and march. Thank goodness Newton didn’t scurry back into line when critics said his theory of gravity was “spooky action at a distance.” Thank goodness Louis Pasteur didn’t stay in line and support the mainstream scientific view that life could spontaneously generate from non-life. And thank goodness Alfred Wegner broke ranks and insisted the continents were not fixed but drift.

Each of these scientists was ridiculed but later vindicated. Their willingness to break ranks and question the “scientific consensus” was key to scientific progress.

Mavericks, Not Marches

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions highlighted what is today a truism among historians of science: Reigning scientific paradigms, challenged by new and contrary evidence, do not go gently. Most scientists who invest their careers in a paradigm find it hard to admit the mistake. So scientific revolutions often happen very slowly, and only after brave scientists break ranks and wage a long campaign, risking the ire of their colleagues. (See the film Expelled for examples of the ire.)

So this Saturday, if you want to champion science at its best, don’t go for a march along city streets, hemmed in by walls, and bossed around by some guy with a loudspeaker. Instead, maybe go for a ramble in the woods and pay better attention than usual to the many natural wonders around you. Leave the path. Double back. Consider the unconsidered. Get a little bit lost.

Or stage a scavenger hunt filled with tricky clues and the chance to go astray by making bad assumptions.

Commemorate the science mavericks who broke ranks. Celebrate the trailblazers who hazarded all to reach an unseen shore.

The great ways to celebrate the spirit of science are legion. It’s just that marching like a military regiment isn’t one of them.

 

Jonathan Witt, PhD, is a senior fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and co-author of Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design.

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  • Robert

    George Lemaitre was some kinda Catholic priest, he was was mocked for coming up with the Big Bang Theory.

    Prior to that the scientific consensus was that the universe had always just existed, but his theory stated the universe had a definite beginning (something believers have known for thousands of years from Genesis)

  • Nick Stuart

    Ignatz Semmelweiss wound up in an insane asylum for insisting his students wash their hands and change their smocks between going from dissecting cadavers to delivering babies.

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