Science Marches On

Science Marches On

(dedicated to William Fassbender, my high school science teacher)

    Saturday, April 22, was Earth Day (unfortunately, she’s lucky to even get one day), and in conjunction with it was the March For Science in Washington, D.C. Worldwide, up to 500 cities participated with marches of their own. It had been planned for months in response to the Trump administration’s anti-science agenda. The President’s budget plan calls for a 31% cut in the EPA, 21% to the Dept. of Agriculture, 18% to the National Institute of Health, billions in cuts to NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and cuts to funding for NASA’s weather satellites, to mention a few. We have seen by Trump’s cabinet appointments, as well as statements from the White House, that the agenda is to severely curtail regulations meant to keep all Americans healthy and safe from environmental hazards. Think of “regulations” as protections. Scientists aren’t usually political, but they can see the peril we’re in better than most of us. As Rockefeller University neurologist Erich Jarvis said, “You know something is wrong when people around the world must protest for science.” Indeed. Of all the times in history, for the world leader in climate research and innovation to embrace alternative facts and belief in Bronze Age superstition couldn’t possibly have come at a worse time.
    This wasn’t just a march for science, but for reason and sanity. America has currently backslid into a Dark Age of irrationality, and along with it distrust for pointy-headed scientists who think they know everything. That isn’t true, but it is the perception. It’s been fed by propaganda from the fossil fool industry and the billionaire class, who want to loot and plunder the only home we have, for profit. For them to succeed they need science to be ignored, if not silenced.
    Since a march for science is by “nature” replete with nerds, clever signage was to be expected. They did not disappoint.
    “Science not silence”
    “In science we trust”
    “Science >(symbol for greater than) shit you read on Twitter”
    “Got plague? Me, neither. Thanks, science!”
    “Alternative facts are (square root of -1, an imaginary number). I first heard about this in high school, and we’d go around saying, “Once upon a time there was the square root of -1.”
    [citation needed] — Another in-joke. Many criticized the smugness and superiority they felt from these arrogant know-it-alls. True or not, it has nothing to do with the science.
    “Trump’s people are like atoms. They make up everything.”
    “Grab ‘em by the data”
    “No science, no beer”
    “The oceans are rising, and so are we”
    “Alternative energy = jobs. Alternative facts = lies”
    “Think while it’s still legal”
    “Physics makes the world go round”
    I loved this one: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate”
    “Dear climate: you have changed”
    “May the forest be with you”
    Santa Claus was at the D.C. march, too, with a sign: “My workshop is MELTING. Only science can save Christmas”
    “Up and atom (with symbol of atom). It’s time to march for science”
    “Time to react” (with Erlenmeyer flask bubbling)
    “Defiance for science”
    “Trump doesn’t believe in climate change because he can’t imagine anything hotter than his daughter” Ouch.
    There were several signs with photos of Earth from space. One said “I’m with her,” another admonished us to “Listen to your Mother,” while another was “Defend not defund”
    “Trump — Peer Reviewed Imbecile”
    “Make the Barrier Reef Great Again”
    “They told me to bring a sine” (with picture of a sine wave)
    My favorite of all was, “What do we want? Evidence based science! When do we want it? After peer review!”
    I went to the march in my hometown, a little disappointed in the turnout — maybe 70 people for a city of 200,000. My sign was a parody of the Christian fish symbol. Down by the tail it also had rocket fins, and inside was the word SCIENCE. There were as many women as men, and many children, a good sign. Afterward, I was talking to several people, and a young lady in her twenties came up and asked about my sign. I explained that it represented science over belief systems, and we talked for awhile. She’s in her third year, majoring in cultural anthropology. Since there’s no area of science that I’m not passionate about, I asked if she was aware of the many recent discoveries about Neanderthals, as we talked more. Finally, I told her my name and she told me hers: Sagan. I said “No way! You mean . . .” and she said “Yes, Carl Sagan.” So I had little choice but to do my excellent Carl Sagan impersonation for her.
    I watched hours of coverage from D.C. on YouTube, while tweets appeared on the screen. One that caught my eye: “I was planning to come to the march, but my horoscope says that Mercury is in retrograde [which it is].” Again, gender numbers were pretty equal, with lots of children. This is even more important to them, after all. Did the marches accomplish anything, other than making people feel good about themselves? It’s too soon to tell, and many other scientists criticized the idea, saying that science shouldn’t get involved in politics. I disagree. Everything is political now. Eating is a political act, says Michael Pollan. If you care about GMOs or pesticide use, that’s political. That’s why last Saturday was another event — the People’s Climate March, also centered in D.C. but also worldwide.
    One sign said “Make America smart again.” I remember when the Russians sent up Sputnik in 1957, and we all freaked out. What followed — under a Republican President — was an all-out push for science, engineering, technology, and math, what we refer to today as STEM. It seemed like everyone in college was either in the sciences or engineering. Back then, believe it or not, it was really cool to be smart. Now we have a President who is one of the stupidest sons of bitches I’ve ever seen, who doesn’t read, isn’t curious, unable to form a coherent sentence, and clearly places his own self interest above the country. And we have a Vice President who is a raving Christo-fascist. Speaking truth to power is all we have left. That’s what Galileo did, and by the way, it took the Roman Catholic Church 400 years before they finally apologized.
    Science is an imperfect study, and scientists are themselves imperfect. Are they morally responsible if so many of their discoveries are weaponized? Maybe that’s for philosophers to debate. Like any other profession, science has its hierarchies and a stubborn orthodoxy. When one climate scientist’s data showed that climate change has not increased the severity and numbers of hurricanes as had been predicted, he was vilified by much of the scientific community as a climate denier. Science shouldn’t be thought of as a set of facts, but an ongoing search for truth. Don’t be fooled by criticisms that scientists won’t debate with flat-earthers. That’s called false equivalence; it’s like having a firefighter debate an arsonist. Science is grounded in reason, and reason demands questioning, whether it be of ideas or authority.
    Perhaps another sign sums up my own feelings: “Don’t trust scientists? Then return your smartphone, Wi-Fi, GPS, microwave, weather forecasts and storm warnings, TV, radio, MRI, the internet, electric lighting, antibiotics, satellites, cars, trains, and airplanes.”
    Science is basically an inoculation against charlatans. — Neil deGrasse Tyson

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