Why We Marched for Science

An S&T editor, and his biologist partner, decide where to make a stand, and why.

“OBJECTIVE REALITY EXISTS.” It was a protest sign that I never imagined I would carry on a crowded all-night bus to Washington, DC.

Alan MacRobert and flag-bedraped wife Abby Hafer, the closest they'll ever get to being on the cover of Science magazine.

Alan MacRobert and flag-bedraped wife Abby Hafer, in the closest they'll ever get to being on the cover of Science magazine.

But there I was holding it high with my wife Abby Hafer, an evolutionary biologist and book author, amid a vast, rain-drenched, enthusiastic crowd by the Washington Monument. We listened to speaker after speaker boomingly declare, in many different ways, essentially the message on my sign.

“The very idea of evidence, and logic, and reason, is being threatened by individuals and interests with the power to do real harm,” declared Cara Santa Maria, host of the Talk Nerdy science podcast. Bill Nye, television’s “Science Guy” and head of The Planetary Society, roused the crowd probably more than anyone. “Today we have a great many lawmakers — not just here, but around the world — who are deliberately ignoring and actively suppressing science. Their inclination is misguided.” Policy makers, he continued, “must know and accept that science serves every one of us. Science must shape policy. Science brings out the best in us. With an informed, optimistic view of the future, together, we can — dare I say it — save the world.”

The message behind this unprecedented event, and its 610 sister marches that were planned around the globe, seemed surreal in its obviousness. An actual, real physical world, which scientists investigate in all their careful ways, exists and works by physical laws untouched by human wishes, demands, opinions, politics, doctrines, or beliefs. This real physical world is unswayed by wishful thinking, pleas from the distressed, bafflegab from deniers, decrees and threats from the powerful, or anything else having to do with humanity’s say-so. It humbles humanity. Yet because of the natural world’s very consistency, we can investigate and understand it reliably, in ever widening breadth and detail and marvelousness — and deduce its deep, undergirding principles. And then put them to practical use.

Science Makes America Great signOr as I said on the other side of my sign, “ ‘Facts are stubborn things.’ –John Adams, 1770.” *

But all the wonderfulness of science comes with a big catch, a nasty sting in the tail. If you “follow the evidence wherever it leads,” it may lead to things you really didn't want to see.

So it demands the intellectual integrity to face reality — no matter how personally upsetting it may be, or how humiliating it may be to admit “Well, I guess I was wrong about that.” Even to yourself.

Valuing reality more than self-confirmation goes against human nature. This makes it a fragile thing. The scientific way of thought has appeared and died out (or been stamped out) in past times and places. And in a newly internet-based world that breeds echo chambers and ideological doubling-down even more than before, fewer people may become interested in accepting the hard bargain that the scientific outlook offers.

As protest crowds go, the people we talked to all day and into the night (exchanging life stories and business cards) were remarkably interesting, thoughtful, and just plain nice. What a crowd. Many attendees were researchers, teachers or students. Many more were fans of science news and of such public intellectuals as E. O. Wilson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Steven Jay Gould, Richard Feynman, Brian Greene, and Carl Sagan. All we talked to were intelligent and thoughtful. When I told people where I worked, a surprising number knew of Sky & Telescope.

Many people were there for a specific reason: because they see, all too clearly, a severely climate-changed future if Earth-science denial is not reversed among the powerful and greenhouse gas emissions are not cut back. It's now pretty firmly established, but terribly hard to face, that barring great worldwide effort, the next 50 to 150 years will see natural systems disrupted to the point of driving a large fraction of humanity's billions out of a largely uninhabitable Tropical Zone into refugee status or death, and battering the remainder of civilization toward the point of collapse.

The march was officially non-partisan, and in the course of four hours the name “Trump” almost never came from the stage. But it was on many of the signs people carried. President Trump’s declaration that climate change is a "hoax," the administration’s order banning “global warming” or related terms from federal communications, the idea it floated of forbidding NASA from using its satellites to study Earth, the proposed 42% cut to the Environmental Protection Agency’s scientific research budget, and the threat to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, were major motivators for the event happening at all.

Abby Hafer "Evolution is Real"

Abby and a very distant cousin.

As our part of the crowd crept past the Environmental Protection Agency offices, people chanted “E-P-A!” A girl who looked about 13 climbed a pedestal there and shouted, “Tell me what democracy looks like!”, and the crowd chanted back, “This is what democracy looks like!”

An often-heard, wry chant of the day: “What do we want? Evidence-based policy! When do we want it? After peer review!”

Abby and I came to a resolution. America, the world’s quintessential scientific nation for most of the last century — and the quintessential practical nation since its founding — will not be driven into ignorance and disgrace without a whole lot of us putting up one hell of a fight. Just down the street from where the Declaration of Independence is displayed, we decided that to this we can “pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

It has begun.

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* The full quote, from Adams’s defense summation in the Boston Massacre trials: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”