by Dana Boebinger
figures by Tito Adhikary
I’ve had many conversations over the past several weeks – with scientists and non-scientists alike – about the possible outcomes of this weekend’s March for Science. Some people are excited about this opportunity to make a strong show of support for scientific research and evidence-based policymaking. Others don’t think a march is necessary. But in the days leading up to the march, I am feeling another emotion altogether: worry.
I worry that the March for Science might backfire.
I believe that the march has the potential to marginalize scientists as just another special interest group, and possibly diminish our impact if our numbers aren’t as large as January’s Women’s March. I’m concerned that any enthusiasm churned up this April may result in complacency or apathy next November if participants become numb to constant engagement. And I dread the inevitable headlines criticizing the march regardless of how “well behaved” and respectful it is. But my biggest worry about the March for Science is that it could potentially send the wrong message, and further solidify public distrust of scientists rather than increasing public support for science.
The March for Science is a reaction to the increasingly hostile sentiment towards science and a call for scientists to stand up and fight back. Of course, as a scientist and an activist, I am outraged by the proposed cuts to scientific research budgets, and by the current administration’s devaluation of objective facts. And as a passionate science communicator, I am frustrated by the public distrust of scientists and skepticism surrounding topics like climate change and vaccinations. However, science isn’t an “us” vs. “them” issue. Instead of fighting back against science skeptics, science supporters should be trying to find common ground with those who disagree with them, and helping them see the benefits of scientific research.
Research on the “science of science communication” can provide insight as to how to achieve these goals. For example, cultural cognition describes the fact that people tend to process information and make decisions that align with their self-perceived identity and group membership. It’s been shown again and again that throwing more facts at people or making vague pro-science statements isn’t effective – it simply causes people to become defensive and dismiss evidence that doesn’t align with the beliefs of their group. To truly reach out to those entrenched in their ideals, one must find the values that drive them and seek to understand why they feel the way they do. If the march is populated by people who instead choose to make political jabs or scientific puns, not only does the movement risk failing to make any significant progress, it also risks reinforcing stereotypes about the liberal scientist elite.
For these reasons, the March for Science must strive to remain nonpartisan – as difficult as that may seem. If the march simply appears to be one in a long line of left-leaning, anti-Trump marches, it risks losing the support of a large portion of the American electorate. Despite the official position of the march as explicitly pro-science and non-partisan, it only takes a handful of unnecessarily ugly anti-Trump chants or nasty anti-religion signs to undermine this mission. These types of messages play into the narrative of scientists as liberal crusaders, and these anti-conservative images risk becoming the only coverage of the March for Science that makes it to the front page of certain media outlets. It won’t matter whether that viewpoint was an outlier at the march – once the photo is shared, the mental image will be difficult to break. And if scientists become a “them,” this will widen the divide rather than bridge the gap.
So, what can we do? First of all, as science supporters, we need to make it clear there is no “other side.” The goal of the march should be to portray science as a force for public good, and highlight the ways that science benefits all Americans – not just scientists. So instead of waving cleverly nerdy signs saying “You’re out of your element, Donald!” with a picture of the periodic table, make a sign about the lives that have been saved by new medical treatments. Don’t chant potentially antagonizing messages like “Climate change is real!” – instead chant “Science saves lives!” While it is nearly inevitable that there will be marchers espousing these sorts of negative messages, we can do our part to avoid ad hominem attacks against political opponents, and instead advocate for more balanced dialogue and focus on the contributions scientists have made to society.
Even more important than avoiding confrontational signs and slogans is making it clear that the march, and science in general, is diverse and inclusive. Scientists are often seen as elitists, and if the marchers are made up entirely of academic researchers, we only reinforce this belief. One way to combat this is to make sure that a significant portion of the marchers are non-scientists. For the scientists reading this out there, that means not only convincing your lab-mates to come out, but reaching out to your non-scientist friends, relatives, neighbors, etc. If you’re not a scientist – great! Bring several more non-scientist friends. To truly send a message of inclusivity, we all need to make an effort to reach beyond the usual circles of friends and colleagues we associate with daily. After all, scientists can’t do this alone – the continued progress of science requires the cooperation and support of non-scientists as well.
No matter what happens on April 22nd, we need to remember that this march is not an endpoint. A march by itself is not going to make politicians who undervalue science change their mind, and begin to funnel money away from the military and towards the NIH. What this march can do, however, is get people talking – initially about the march itself and (hopefully) how successful it was, but also over the next week and month and year about the value of science in general. It can motivate scientists and science-lovers to show how science makes real impacts on the lives of normal people.
Changing the narrative on science in this country is the ultimate goal. Legislative changes and funding for research will fall into place if the vast majority of Americans value science. But just as easily as science supporters can accomplish these goals, we can also set ourselves back if we are not careful. If this march reinforces the beliefs of many Americans that science is not beneficial to them, or worse – that science is at odds with something rooted in their self-identity – this will set us back. And when I say “us”, I mean Americans inside and outside the world of professional science. This march can do a lot to influence the public opinion of science one way or the other, and by failing to send the right message, we would be playing into the hands of those who seek to discredit science.
Despite any personal reservations I may have, the march is happening and we need to do our part to make it effective. To accomplish this, we need to work to bring together a diverse group of scientists and non-scientists, and to remember that the march itself is not the goal. I am encouraged by the mission statement on the official March for Science webpage, which states that the march “[is] not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.” As marchers, let’s keep this momentum going and do our best to spread this message not just on April 22nd, but every day. Because the stakes are high, not just this Saturday, but every day.
On one hand, the March for Science could just be another in a long series of post-election marches and might do little more than further reinforce the image of scientists as an elitist special interest group. But on the other hand, it could be the catalyst that starts discussions among scientists and non-scientists about the value of science for our society. It could steer us towards a future in which we have an informed citizenry and a government that governs based on scientific evidence. Though I am nervous about the consequences of failure, I am even more confident in our ability to come together and reignite our nation’s passion for and appreciation of science.
Dana Boebinger is a PhD student in the Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology program at Harvard University and co-director of Science in the News. You can follow her on Twitter @dlboebinger.