Opinion: Sometimes, Scientists Must March

Lessons learned from the “Death of Evidence” demonstration in Canada

By , , and | February 13, 2017

“Death of Evidence” march, Ottawa 2012

“Death of Evidence” march, Ottawa 2012

RICHARD WEBSTER

Opinion: Sometimes, Scientists Must March Image Gallery

Only days after inauguration, the Trump administration provoked anxiety among scientists in the U.S. and around the world. And scientists’ continuing concerns are well founded: media blackouts were reportedly installed at several federal agencies; grants were frozen at the Environmental Protection Agency; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cancelled a climate and health conference. The administration has already shown a disregard for evidence, choosing “alternative facts” instead. 

The response from the global scientific community was swift. Within days, word of a March for Science in Washington, DC, began to spread. The idea gained momentum quickly, garnering international media attention and hundreds of thousands of followers on social media. The march has now been set for Earth Day—April 22—and planned satellite marches are springing up across the U.S., in many Canadian cities, and elsewhere.

Over the last several weeks, a number of opinion articles have come out against the march. These pieces retread the same arguments: critics have expressed concern that demonstrations will only politicize science, and have questioned the ability of a march to enable real change. 

See “Will a March Help Science?

See “Opinion: Should Scientists Engage in Activism?

From the outset, it’s impossible to know for sure what the long-term outcomes of the March for Science will be. But as scientists, we can look to the data and past experiences for clues. Although there is only one recent data point for marching on science, it is a very pertinent one: the 2012 Death of Evidence rally in Canada, which drew some 2,000 researchers to demonstrate for transparent, evidence-based policy. It quickly became clear that Canada’s scientific community had an appetite for advocacy.

Scientists in Canada faced our own dark age of anti-science politics under the Harper government. For a decade, scientists were muzzled, funding and research capacity was cut, and policy decisions were made in clear opposition of evidence. In response, scientists organized and spoke out. The first large, visible action of resistance came in the summer of 2012. We donned our lab coats and marched through our capital city in a mock funeral procession, commemorating the “Death of Evidence.” It was one of the largest science demonstrations in Canadian history. The unofficial coalition of academics and citizens who decided to take on this work went on to found Evidence for Democracy—a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization supporting evidence-based policy, with which we are affiliated.

In the run-up to the rally, we heard many of the same concerns from some in the scientific community regarding credibility and practicality. Their concerns proved to be unfounded. The rally didn’t hurt the credibility of those who participated, and it didn’t lead to more polarization. Rather, our march started a movement that we believe led to concrete, positive changes for science in Canada: including increased engagement of scientists in the public sphere, and improvements in science policy. This highly visible movement—and the educational events, training sessions, debates, campaigns, and additional marches that followed—helped put science front and center in the 2015 Canadian election. Now, Canada has a government that supports science. Our government scientists have been unmuzzled, our census reinstated, and—very shortly—we will a new national science advisor. Although correlation does not imply causation, it is quite reasonable to conclude that these changes would not have happened if scientists had kept quiet and stayed home.

Among those criticizing the impending US march, many have called instead for increased communication. Absolutely, more communication is needed. Combating misinformation means training scientists to share their research—and explain its relevance—with the media, citizens, and politicians alike. For the next four years and beyond, we need to improve how we tell stories of why research matters, how science has made all of our lives better.

Yet, communicating the importance of science isn’t enough. When faced with governments that muzzle scientists, disseminate misinformation, and deny the facts, we must get out of our comfort zones. We must march. If we don’t stand up for science, who will? 

Katie Gibbs, Alana Westwood, and Kathleen Walsh all work with Evidence for Democracy, which is headquartered in Ottawa. “Evidence for Democracy (E4D) is the leading fact-driven, non-partisan, not-for-profit organization promoting the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making in Canada.” Westwood is also a conservation biologist and instructor at Dalhousie University.

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Avatar of: wctopp

wctopp

Posts: 110

February 14, 2017

The major risk is that, with all the publicity, the media will be expecting a mass turnout.  If what actually happens is several hundred graduate students and post-docs yelling slogans it will be a complete disaster and completely invalidate our concerns in the eyes of the Trumpists.  Now that we've created all this stir, we absolutely have to deliver.

Avatar of: OppressedMass

OppressedMass

Posts: 2

Replied to a comment from wctopp made on February 14, 2017

February 14, 2017

You're underestimating how revolted people are in general, and how threatened the science community is by the Trumpers. And the march is on Earth Day?

Oh, honey --  Stop with the anxiety already, and lace up your marching shoes-- this is gonna be YUUUUGE.

Avatar of: OppressedMass

OppressedMass

Posts: 2

February 14, 2017

People are revolted by Trump anyway, and now science funding is threatened. Plus the march is on Earth Day.  Lace up your protesting shoes, honey -- this is gonna be YUUUUGE.

 

Avatar of: Sci_guy

Sci_guy

Posts: 6

February 14, 2017

Joining populist movements is very unwise. 

First, over 40 Million people support the President.  This includes people from all walks of life and income-- including scientists.  Politicizing professional science can only mean some individuals with personal views opposed to the outspoken become demonized and scorned.  Hardly democratic, or professional. 

Second, as factually based analysts Scietists should be skeptical of quick conclusions based on very little evidence.  Trump has been President for little over 3 weeks.  I have seen no attempt to burn journals or hide scientific facts.  Aside from the fact that such things are impossible in today's socially connected world, there is the issue that the Administration has not been around to know what they are doing in the area of science.

Thirdly, what kind of "call to march" is this?  Is it for climiate scientists?  Is it for cell biologists? Materials scientists?  Applied physicists? If all scientists, why?  I have not seen anaything affecting all the areas of science done by the Administration. 

We are talking about the public perception of science and scientists in an already factionalized society.  I would think that a body of learned and careful thinkers would stop to accumulate more data and consider consequences.

Something to think about.

 

Avatar of: True Scientist

True Scientist

Posts: 59

February 14, 2017

Canadian ladies are tough on language: " The administration has already shown a disregard for evidence...Dark age of anti-science politics... Governments that muzzle scientists, disseminate misinformation, and deny the facts"

Just calling some statements "an evidence" does not make them any closer to a real evidence. If they were involved with Science not with with Evidence for Democracy they would know it better. Loud voices do not replace scientific methods.

Now they are concerned that the event will fizzle into nothingness, which may entertain those "Trumpists and Trumpers". They have to deliver. If not them, who will?

 

Avatar of: Paul Stein

Paul Stein

Posts: 237

February 14, 2017

There will always be scientist naysayers to activism.  Many, stuck in their ivory towers, who only associate with people like themselves, feel "The science should speak for itself."  Well, unfortunately, the science never speaks for itself.  It's silent words on paper.  People speak.  People use the science, if ever at all, how they wish, no way, one way, or the other.  One's lifework needs to be guided.

Having the science speak for itself is how PeTA got to be so powerful.  Scientists stuck their heads in the sand in the 1980's, hoping logic would take over, and look what happened.  It has always been that once scientists declare they need to have their voices heard, others finally listen.  Silence is not deafening, it's unrecordable. 

Avatar of: tjfergus5

tjfergus5

Posts: 4

February 15, 2017

This march is heavy on politics and light on science.

Avatar of: RalphB

RalphB

Posts: 3

February 16, 2017

What most scientists fail to understand, political scientists above all, is that the only proper function of a government is the protection of the rights of its citizens to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This principle formed the basis for the Constitution of the United States, which I invite you to examine for any evidence that its framers intended to authorize Congress to extract wealth from its creators in order to support the cultural and scientific aspirations of those who could not attract uncoerced support for their work.

Traditionally, the only scientists supported by the government were those whose research contributed to the national defense, public safety, and other constitutionally authorized functions of government. That changed through the unremitting efforts of the lovers of state power and a consequent shameful trail of court decisions that transformed the constitution from a legal framework forbidding the exercise of any state power not explicitly authorized to a document supposedly authorizing any state power not explicitly forbidden. To confirm my reading of the situation take a look at the debate over the adoption of the Bill of Rights. Do you suppose its opponents were opposed to the enumerated rights? No. Its opponents maintained the Bill of Rights was simply unnecessary because all it did was spell out what the government could not do, but none of the actions spelled out were authorized and therefore permissible to the government in the first place.  Alexander Hamilton asked, "Why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?" But its opponents agreed to the compromise that added the Ninth Amendment. That amendment has been virtually ignored, naturally, since there is nothing in it for anyone who receives a taxpayer-funded paycheck.

Large numbers of scientists are not taxpayer-funded, of course, including those in non-public universities who do not accept government grants, those working under grants from private foundations, those working for private businesses and other non-state-funded organizations, and some who are self-employed consultants. Those are the net tax-paying scientists whom I encourage to march on Washington to express their outrage at the billions of dollars extracted by force from American working men and women to enrich an elite that lives by plunder.

For those scientists who must work for the government but hate that aspect of their job, I encourage you to march with the net taxpaying scientists and be a good citizen as well as a good scientist. If you don't stand up for liberty, who will?

For those scientists whose entire world-view is premised on the belief that the less-accomplished, less-intelligent, and less enlightened masses are obligated by unquestionable moral principles to support their work, I recommend that you forget this argument as quickly as possible lest you be struck dumb by cognitive dissonance. Then resolve to re-read the article above -- or ones like it -- daily, after which, for exactly two minutes, you shall express your intense hatred of President Trump.

Avatar of: Sci_guy

Sci_guy

Posts: 6

Replied to a comment from Paul Stein made on February 14, 2017

February 20, 2017

Classifying educated people as "Ivory Tower" is an old, worn out cliche. Ad hominem attacks are the refuge of people who have nothing to say. 

You do not perceive the difference between "Science" which is a defined intellectual persuit of truths about nature and "activism" which is intense political interaction meant to convince other or bring about some social change. 

I am neutral about activism but I am not neutral Science does not equal Activism.  Science convinces others about its truth claims by using experimental facts, data.  Not by political / social activities. 

Very different realms. 

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