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March for Science or March for Reality?

Shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President, it was announced that a March for Science would be held Washington DC and in a host of other cities in the United States and around the world to protest the new Administration’s apparent anti-science agenda—from denial of climate change to dismantling the EPA, to budget priorities that will cut key science programs throughout the country—and to lobby for science-based policymaking as well as support for scientific research to address the challenges of the 21st century.

Meanwhile the Trump administration’s anti-science actions continue. Attorney General Sessions announced just this week that he was disbanding the National Commission on Forensic Science, which advises the federal government to enhance national standards in this area.

I have no idea how the Marches for Science—now over 400 in number across the globe—will play out, and how the media will interpret them. A series of worrisome tweets emanating from the March for Science twitter account over the past week, following similar early statements made on the groups website that were subsequently removed, claimed that scientific research promotes violence and inequity in society. These have been disavowed but the variety of mixed communications from leaders of the march over the past months suggests at the very least that the organization encompasses a wide diversity of agendas.

This is not surprising. After all, the scientific community has never been a one-issue community, like, say, the anti-abortion movement. And the current administration is pushing so many different buttons at the same time, with various attacks on fundamental rights, privacy, diversity, and freedom of expression, that these are bound to get caught up in any movement that promotes openness and free-inquiry, the hallmarks of the scientific enterprise.

Despite any such concerns, a host major science organizations, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to Union of Concerned Scientists, have signed on as supporters of the March, and are urging their members to join their local marches and speak out for science-based public policy on April 22.

If the event becomes a ‘March By Scientists’ rather than a March for Science—namely if it is dominated by scientists labeling themselves as such, in costumes like white lab coats, rather than by members of the general public supporting evidence-based public policy—that too could be problematic. The March for science could then appear as a self-serving political lobbying effort by the scientific community to increase its funding base.

Let’s imagine that this is not the case, and the organizers are wildly successful in attracting hundreds of thousands or million of marchers across the globe this coming Saturday. It is still reasonable to wonder what the long-term impact of the marches might be. After all, following the worldwide March for Women, in which millions of people marched around the world in support of women’s rights, the Trump administration reacted with a deaf ear. Just this past week the President signed legislation allowing states and local governments to withhold federal funding for Planned Parenthood, for example.

The situation is different in this case however, and it may have nothing directly to do with science policy, or even in those areas where science should play a key role in affecting policy.

Every week, the alternative realities invoked by the Trump administration are being demonstrated, by events, to be vacuous. The administration claimed it would immediately end, and then fix, problems with Obamacare, and failed miserably. Donald Trump campaigned against foreign military intervention, and this week alone initiated unilateral bombings in Syria and Afghanistan. Donald Trump pledged to immediately revise NAFTA, forcing Canada and Mexico to the table to make a better deal. Nothing has happened.

He promised Mexico would pay for a wall. However the first $2 billion installment for a wall was included in the budget proposal he presented to Congress, compensated by cuts in funding in key areas of science, but also in support of the arts and humanities in this country.

He promised to drain the swamp, but he removed restrictions on lobbyists entering government, and as the New York Times reported just this week, he has filled his administration with them, including individuals who are already facing conflict of interest allegations because of their former activities lobbying the organizations they now run.

He lobbied against Wall Street, but former Wall Street leaders dominate his cabinet and economic advisory groups.

He said he would release his taxes after his inauguration and has not. And he claimed he would immediate increase growth and the economy, but as the Wall Street Journal reported just this week, projections for growth of the economy have decreased sharply in recent months, as have retail sales, and the consumer price index.

These are just a few of the immediate and obvious inconsistencies. Further, as administration policies on energy and the environment take effect, citizens in communities with drinking water at risk from environmental threats will find that programs to avert further deterioration have been cut, and coal mining communities will find that the natural gas glut has much more to do with the continuing demise of coal than Obama’s efforts to improve air quality in the US by restricting coal plants, which, whatever Trump may claim, are bad for the environment. (Indeed as the New York Times reported this week, more than 200,000 tons of coal ash residue each year are produced by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and this has been making its way into groundwater, potentially affecting drinking water supplies, even as the EPA is now delaying compliance with rules enacted to enhance the safe storage and disposal of coal ash.).

The very essence of science, indeed that which is motivating the March for Science, involves skeptical inquiry and a reliance on empirical evidence and constant testing to weed out false hypotheses and unproductive or harmful technologies as we move toward a better understanding of reality: A willingness, in short, to force beliefs and policies to conform to the evidence of reality, rather than vice versa.

Unlike its perception among much of the public and its presentation in many schools today, science is not simply a body of facts, but rather a process for deriving what the facts are. This process has helped us uncover hidden secrets of the Universe that never would have been dreamed of and producing technologies that have not only been largely responsible for the standard of living enjoyed by the first world today, but have also increased lifespans around the world. With this process the very possibility of “alternative facts” disappears.

By providing such a constant and sharp explicit and observable contrast between policy and empirical reality, the Trump administration can encourage a new public skepticism about political assertions vs. reality, and a demand for evidence before endorsing policies and the politicians who espouse them—the very things that most marchers on April 22nd will be demanding. This skepticism is beginning to manifest itself in data. A Gallup poll result on April 17 indicated that only 45 percent of the public believe President Trump’s promises, a drop of 17 percent since February.

In this regard, it is worth remembering the words of the Nobel Prizewinning physicist, Richard Feynman, who said: For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled. Or, as the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick more colorfully put it: Reality is that which continues to exist even when you stop believing in it.

The Trump Administration is discovering that obfuscation, denial, and hype may work when selling real estate, but in public arena eventually reality has a way of biting you in the butt. And the public is watching. The March for Science may be lucky to capitalize upon a growing awareness that there is no Wizard behind the curtain. The number of marchers, their backgrounds, or even their myriad messages may not drive the success of the March. Rather, it may be driven by the harsh examples coming out every day that reality exists independent of the desires or claims of those in power. In this case, the greatest asset the March for Science has going for it may be Donald Trump himself.

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