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Exactly what are scientists marching ‘for’?

By Judith Curry | Climate Etc. | March 5, 2017

The smartest people on the planet want to oppose Trump & the best they can come up with is a march in support of themselves? – Roger Pielke Jr

A mega March for Science has been planned for Earth Day (April 22) in Washington DC. The web site states:

The March for Science demonstrates our passion for science and sounds a call to support and safeguard the scientific community. Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists.

The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter. It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.

Of course, the poster child for partisan ‘mischaracterization of facts’ is statements by members of the Trump administration regarding uncertainty surrounding the causes of climate change.  President Obama and his Call Out the Climate Deniers campaign apparently elicited no concerns about partisan mischaracterization of facts from the science establishment.

Scientists fear  what ‘might’ happen under the Trump administration — they are working from rumors, leaks and a few public statements by individuals connected with Trump’s transition teams.  These are the same scientists pushing for ‘evidence based’ policies  — go figure.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) – which is joining the March – had a blog post describing the positions on climate change and science of important individuals in the Trump administration: Mick Mulvaney, Rick Perry, Wilbur Ross, Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke. Read the blog post. To me, Trump’s team looks like it has a healthier attitude to science than did Obama’s team, who sought to scientize policy debates and politicize science debates.

The scientists’ big concern is ‘silencing of facts’. This concern apparently derives from their desire to have their negotiated ‘facts’ — such as  the ‘consensus’ on climate change — dictate public  policy. The scientists who are marching seem not very interested in science as a process based on continually evaluating evidence and reassessing conclusions through reasoning and impartial habits of mind.

The scientists are not just out to defend ‘facts’ — they fear funding cuts and limits to immigration. They also seem very attached to safeguarding the academic scientific community and the elite institutions that support it.

Some sentiments from scientists supporting the March:

Caroline Weinberg: “[I]t is not possible to ignore policy when it affects not just your jobs but the future of your field.” [link]

Dr Jacquelyn Gill: “A lot of scientists are realizing that the institutions that fund and support and science in this country . . .are under direct attack.” Trump, she said, “not only doesn’t value our institutions, he doesn’t seem to value evidence-based decision making at all. That is alarming to us.” [link]

Other scientists are very concerned about the March:

Professor Jim Gates,  former adviser to Barack Obama, told journalists that the march appeared to lack an end goal – a prerequisite for political action – and would simply be perceived as “science against Trump”. “At least as far as I can detect, there is no theory of action behind this,” he said. “This bothers me tremendously. “To have science represented as this political force I think is just extraordinarily dangerous.” [link]

Robert Young wrote that the march would be perceived as a protest of President Trump and “trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about.” “Trying to recreate the pointedly political Women’s March will serve only to reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research and findings for their own ends.” [link]

Tactics in want of a strategy

So, exactly what do scientists expect to accomplish with this March, and how do they plan to go about it? Well, I am still at a loss to understand what they expect to accomplish, but there have been some interesting suggestions on how they might go about it.

Jonathan Foley in the Scientific American on how to defeat those who are waging war on science: portray an inclusive vision; get political; don’t fall into the culture war trap; balance facts with meaningful stories; be forceful.

Roger Pielke Jr in the Guardian To counter Trump’s administration, scientists need counter-propaganda, evidence-based alternative policies and political representation. The scientific community needs to eschew old habits that have manifested themselves in the march: calling for more funding and waging political battles through science.  

Kristy Henschel in Science : hold webinar viewing parties; host science policy seminars; design a science advocacy workshop; organize a State Hill day; invite your government representatives for a lab tour; host a science cafe; share your voice on twitter.

The most provocative suggestion comes from an editorial in Nature :  Researchers should reach beyond the science bubble. Excerpt: Scientists in the United States and elsewhere ought to address the needs and employment prospects of taxpayers who have seen little benefit from scientific advances. As they ponder their next move in response to the election of Trump, science organizations — universities, funders, supporters and the rest — should look harder at social problems and opportunities, and seek ways for science to help.

JC reflections

So far, the March for Science seems to be shaping up as a self-serving navel gazing exercise for scientists — sort of a ‘we don’t like Trump’ tantrum. The impression that this will have on policy makers and the public will be to cement scientists as a politicized special interest group, just like any other lobbying group. In short, I very much fear that this March will do more harm than good.

It’s not too late to turn this around. We need to rethink the contract between scientists and government, and develop a new model for the the 21st century. Here are some recommendations:

  • Embrace science as a process, not a collection of ‘facts’; invite the public to engage in the process of science.
  • The institutions of science need to reform themselves, and scientists need to get out of the ivory tower and engage with the real world [link]
  • Universities need a new business model and incentive structure for faculty members that doesn’t rely on massive federal research grants but rewards faculty for educating students at all levels and serving the needs of society.
  • Scientists need a much better understanding of the policy process, the role that science plays, and how complexity, pluralism and uncertainty in science is accommodated in the policy process. Evidence-based policy making is a good political slogan, but not a good description of the policy process. [link]
  • Scientists need to stop using science to support desired political outcomes.
  • Scientists need to do more than push back against flawed arguments and bad policy. We need to engage the public, and, even more, invite the public, across the political spectrum, to engage with science. [link]

March 6, 2017 - Posted by | Corruption, Science and Pseudo-Science |

2 Comments »

  1. Science is being corrupted by corporate control. Massive federal funding doesn’t always protect against that since these corporations also own congress and participate in regulatory capture. Big Pharma is a dangerous case study in corporate control of science. Not only do they bankroll legislators and use the revolving door to insure regulatory capture, they also fund the scientific journals and mainstream media through advertising dollars and influence scientific departments through endowments. If Trump follows through on his panel to examine vaccine safety, he will be doing a service to science and to us all.

    Comment by 4justice | March 7, 2017 | Reply

  2. It seems that in much of the political and policy discussion, the majority of people are dealing only with the perceived products of science process (“the facts”), without reference to the process itself or the degree to which it follows reliable rules of engagement. Most people probably don’t feel qualified to judge the scientific process itself and rely on the expressed conclusions of those whom they feel most trustworthy, especially if the stated conclusions align with the individuals views and goals (exactly how most financial fraud is allowed to proceed successfully).

    I heartily agree we need a focus now on the processes of science, the ways that it can err or discover new truth and the uncertainties that abound and which Judith Curry has so eloquently discussed in previous posts. I doubt the sponsors of the science march are interested in going in this direction as there is too much to lose by Opening up the ‘black box’, but I don’t believe the average voter, politician or policy maker is incapable of understanding the subtleties of scientific process if properly explained and demonstrated.

    Those of us in science careers need to lead a march toward shared understanding and cooperative dialogue. Whenever our voices are raised only in self interest they well be heard for what they are, and given the appropriate credence – which is very little. I would strongly advise those who are preaching policy from a scientific podium to consider carefully the harm they do to science in general if and when the evidentiary foundations of their advice are found significantly wanting. There will be no retracing steps once credibility is lost.

    Comment by andrewpattullo | March 7, 2017 | Reply


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