Rally ’round the (ironic with a meme of Neil DeGrasse Tyson) flag

The above title is given with apologies to Steel Pulse.

This is a little late to be completely relevant, and any number of scientists and non-scientists have already weighed in on the March for Science, but I decided to add my opinion to the mix. First, I want to express my admiration for all the people who worked so hard to organize the event and who are continuing to promote the values and goals of science.


The crowd in front of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing

Last Saturday, the wife and I headed to the satellite rally of the March for Science being held on the grounds of the State Capitol in Lansing. This was after a brief period of soul-searching on my part. I read some of the arguments (advanced by scientists) both for and against the March for Science, and I found merit in both sides. I strongly support the aims of the March for Science. That includes: maintaining the well-earned privileged status of scientists as voices of expertise to guide important decisions in government and society, making sure that researchers have adequate funds to expand human knowledge and serve applied goals, and mobilizing activists both among professional scientists and the public as a whole, in this time of urgent crisis. On the other hand, I appreciate the argument that the case might be weakened by portraying scientists as activists with a left-wing political bent, because well-paid propagandists have implanted the meme in people’s minds that science is part of a nefarious elite liberal agenda. At first, the latter argument held sway with me. I agreed with the goals of the march, but felt that the march itself would undermine those goals.

A talk I saw by Dr. Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, at Michigan State University ended up pushing me to a solid pro-march stance. Dr. McNutt has a very impressive trailblazing resume, being the first woman to head the U.S. Geological Survey and to be editor-in-chief of Science. The talk she gave, about using science to guide policy decisions, was interesting but left me a little unsatisfied. She repeatedly affirmed that scientists seeking to guide policy should not present any biases or value judgments, but rather stick to “just the facts.” This stance struck me as so extreme that it denies reality. The very act of compiling facts for policymakers is inherently value-driven: one has to decide what facts to present and what topic is even worth studying to assess benefits or harms to society. I know that she had to be diplomatic and stick to a script, but I felt that she went too far. She expressed only the most tepid support for the March for Science for similar reasons: that it would portray scientists as biased. At that point, I was decided: it is not wrong to own the values and beliefs I hold, since it is my strong conviction that scientific decision-making is absolutely critical and will produce the best outcomes for society. Talking it over with my wife and with a good friend helped us to make that decision.


The wife and I with low-budget signs

So the die was cast and we headed to the march. It was time for another critical decision: funny ironic sign or serious boring sign? My agonized vacillating over whether to even attend the march made me stick to a very simple sign, but Mary split the difference by making a funny one. I am also conflicted about the use of humor and irony to achieve serious goals (Megan Garber has written much more eloquently than me about this in The Atlantic.) While many if not most of the signs were at least a little tongue-in-cheek, I think the march struck a decent balance between relatable, down-to-earth humor and serious activism. I would like to write more about that topic, but I’ll save it for another post.


As an R nerd, I couldn’t resist snapping a photo of this sign

To sum up: the march in Lansing had a pretty impressive turnout–I think the papers put it at 2500, which is similar to my eyeballed estimate. I enjoyed seeing colleagues and friends out there, and I hope I get a chance to vote for Abdul Al-Sayed for Michigan governor before I leave this state. Down with Tricky Ricky!


The above-mentioned ironic flag, held by a marcher dressed as Ms. Frizzle