March for Science: Wrong Direction and Speed

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

I'm late to this party, but there remains something to be said, so I'll say it here. (The first I'd heard of this was a question from my wife about it on the day.) I am one of many scientists who did not "march for science" last weekend. An editorial from STAT (HT: Derek Lowe) features the beginning of a good case for why people who care about science would boycott or counter-protest the event, but it does not go far enough:

And there's no denying this march is political. It is a mistake to position the scientific method against the Trump administration or any other one, for that matter. That would serve only to undermine a central premise of the march: that scientific knowledge is apolitical. Organizers argue that the march is "nonpartisan." While this may be the official line, I'm skeptical of whether anything approaching it can actually be achieved, especially on the heels of a divisive election. For example, I recently spoke with a colleague who was organizing a poster-making session for the march. She proudly described her design as an "I'm With Her" arrow pointing toward planet Earth.
I wasn't "with" anyone in the last presidential election. Furthermore, I am of a very small minority of scientists who go so far as to oppose even the current model of scientific funding that writer Arthur Lambert correctly notes (1) isn't even remotely under threat, and (2) is inherently political:
Ultimately, the problem with the March for Science is its scope. To be sure, it can be reasonable and helpful to rally for scientific funding, which is appropriated by Congress and therefore inherently political. A bright spot is that there is fairly strong bipartisan backing for funding the National Institutes of Health and other organizations that support science. Like many of those who will march, I believe in the power of objective, evidence-based scientific knowledge -- knowledge that I would like to see inform public policy. But a march for the very idea of science is counterproductive, unnecessarily pushing scientific research directly into one of the most tense and polarized political climates in recent years. Rather than forcing politicians to accept science, it is entirely possible that the march will do nothing more than provide them with an escape hatch, a justification for the idea that science is in some way biased. [bold added]
Government funding of scientific research, because it is inherently political, has and is endangering the independence of science, which is at the root of its ability to search for and reach unbiased conclusions. For this reason, those of us who care about science must consider how we can sunset government funding of science, while counteracting government influence on science as much as possible in the meantime. Science needs to run away from the control of government purse-strings, and not march any further into that morass.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

Several things strike me about this march (which, like you, I did not participate in).

First, I find it baffling that scientists--ostensibly objective thinkers--can fail to see that if you allow politicians to decide on funding, they will make funding political. It's almost a given in science that if you receive funding from a source that source will bias your results (either by influencing your findings, influencing your interpretations, or influencing the types of studies you can do, among other things), yet for some reason even questioning whether government funding produces the same biases gets you labeled a heretic and anti-science. This is flagrant special pleading, a fallacy we are all trained to identify.

Second, I noted a long time ago that this isn't just about money. It's about prestige and influence. A lot of the complaints I've heard from my peers is that people aren't listening to scientists in terms of policy. To which I respond "What did you expect?" People like Bill Nye, N. D. Tyson, Richard Dawkins, and others have attempted to turn science as such into a pressure group for the Left. When they did that--when scientists began posing as political commentators--they inherently made science political. When the Right regained power it was inevitable that they would treat scientists as another pressure group pushing a Leftist agenda, because that's what scientists said they were. Far too many scientists have pandered to the socialist/collectivist Left, and as such gave up the mantel of objectivity. Every time a scientist says "Reality has a liberal bias" or "Morality is subjective" or "We don't try to find truth" they dig the hole deeper.

Third, what did people expect when big-name scientists (Tyson, Dawkins, Hawkins, etc) started blathering on about areas far outside their areas of expertise? Hawkins is now posing as an expert on what will happen to humanity in the future--something he has no more expertise in than I do. Dawkins and Tyson are openly political, which is something far outside the proper area of expertise for a biologist and an astrophysicist respectively. There are numerous other examples as well. The point is, these people are violating a basic, bedrock tenant of science: Experts are only experts in their area of study. Outside that, their opinions aren't worth any more than those of anyone else. And as long as we don't play by our own rules there's no reason for anyone to take us seriously.

If science wants to regain the appearance of objectivity we need to 1) at least ask if there are biases arising from government funding; 2) stick to our areas of expertise, instead of attempting to become a political movement; and 3) acknowledge that we are operating in a marketplace of ideas, and that some people cannot be won over.

Gus Van Horn said...


Part of your comment (as well as this march) reminds me of a policy I've seen in scientific journals of marking research funded by private parties as an "advertisement," as if government funding is inherently unbiased. While I don't agree that any given source will necessarily push for results they like (vs. the truth -- "Please find a cure for X." leaves no doubt that reality will judge the merits of the work.), that temptation is always there, especially in government, and it amazes me that there isn't a widespread call for a diversification of funding sources so as to at least not to have all funding-related bias pointing one way, giving rise to non-objective orthodoxy.


Dinwar said...

I've not encountered that police--and am glad of it! The idea that private funding renders a publication mere "advertisement" is deeply disturbing. Fortunately geology/paleontology are still sane enough that we don't care who funds the research, we just want results. I've seen Creationist institutes produce valid scientific work (modern sedimentology; obviously all their research dealing with deep time is garbage).

What I find darkly funny is that the same people who "march for science" are those who advocate for environmentalism. The folks who do environmental clean-up are private industries--and that means that the papers written regarding these clean-ups (feasibility studies, remedial designs, proposed plans, and closure reports) are all written by private entities, often those evil multi-national Corporations!! The funding comes largely from private entities--ideally the people who caused the spills in the first place. You can't eat your cake and have it too; if science can only be conducted by government funding, environmental remediation is not science.

But these people never think about things that far. And that's a very damning statement when directed towards intellectuals.

Gus Van Horn said...

You remind me of another thing a college acquaintance relayed to me long ago. A science "professor" of his claimed that research was "by definition" government-funded.

What? There was no science until its prerequisite, government looting, came into being?