Tuesday February 14, 2017

Scientists plan march on Washington in defence of facts

Scientists are planning to march on Washington. But will it do any good?

Scientists are planning to march on Washington. But will it do any good? (Getty Images/Cultura RF)

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Frustrated scientists are planning to march on Washington, a move inspired by the mass demonstration of women following the inauguration of U.S. president Donald Trump. Thousands of people have pledged their support for the April 22 (Earth Day) march, with sister protests slated for cities around the world.

According to the March for Science website, the issue is the "mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence." 

The march aims to defend the value and role of scientific evidence, and was born from what some scientists see as an attack on empirical data and their work.

"I find an alarming trend to de-legitimize, ignore or outright reject scientific expertise and empirical evidence," says Valorie Aquino, a co-chair of the march and a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of New Mexico. Historical climate change is among her areas of specialty.

"The fact that climate data was getting scrubbed from the internet, the threat of America pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, those are all very real threats to not just my research but to everybody," she tells The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

Aquino says the march isn't just about the Trump administration. Politicians have long used and misused scientific data for partisan purposes, she says. 

Still, Aquino admits that Trump's presidency has pushed scientists to take action. 

"Traditionally, scientists were loath to stick their necks out publicly on political viewpoints ... I think now they realize we're not going to get a seat at the table, and so staying silent is no longer a luxury they can afford." 

Alex Berezow, science writer

Science writer Alex Berezow says he won't be marching with fellow scientists on Washington this spring. (Ada’s Technical Books/alexberezow.com)

But not everyone agrees. Some scientists have criticized the march, concerned that protesting the White House will only worsen the very problem it's intended to solve.

One professor wrote in a New York Times article the march will "reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data."

That's one reason Alex Berezow says he won't be taking part. 

"The tone of the march so far seems to be appealing to only one side of the political spectrum," says the science writer and senior fellow of biomedical science for the American Council on Science and Health.

"I believe you should hold your opponents and your allies to the same standard," he says.

"When you do not do that, you come across as partisan, and that's very bad for science."

Berezow asks where were the protests when the Barack Obama administration closed the nuclear disposal site at Yucca Mountain, despite calls to the contrary from experts? 

He acknowledges scientists have plenty to be upset about regarding the Trump presidency, but argues scientists need to be consistent to avoid getting political. 

Aquino disagrees with this perspective.

"Science might be apolitical in theory, but the doing of science, the application of science to policy, lies squarely in a social realm," she says.

"I feel that partisanship has injected itself into science for so long now that you can't even say certain topics without being pigeonholed immediately and not being listened to, despite having expertise in that area."

Tom Nichols is similarly frustrated by a mistrust in experts. But the professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island says the source of an anti-expert sentiment goes beyond politics.

In his new book,The Death of Expertise, Nichols argues that several factors have led much of the public to thinking they can know just as much as anyone else on a given subject — making their opinion as valid as that of any so-called expert. 

"Laypeople need to rediscover a new sense of humility about approaching complicated subjects," Nichols says. 

"There's no way that even the legislators themselves can be experts on every issue they face, and they have to rely on the advice of experts around them," he says. 

"And when people stop trusting that, when people argue that no one's view on anything is better than anyone else's, that really does open up the door for the anti-vaccers ... and the climate change denial, and all of the other things that are bedeviling our ability to make policy."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Sam Colbert.