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Imagine Copernicus, Newton, Pasteur “Marching for Science”

March for Science

Saturday’s March for Science, like last year’s original, promises to be an exercise in self-congratulation and virtue signaling. That, and a loud and sustained demand for conformity. Our colleague and Heretic co-author Jonathan Witt observes over at The Stream:

Study the Facebook and Twitter feeds on the event. What you’ll see is a grab bag of public policy issues. Some of those issues are ones reasonable people, including scientists, disagree on. But in the M4S subculture, dissent is a thought crime.

You see, the march isn’t mainly about science. It’s about marching — row upon row of obedient soldiers keeping lock-step time.

This is why the march’s social media feeds are marked by an atmosphere of smug insularity. “There is No Alternative to Scientific Facts,” a protestor’s sign reads in one photo there. But who beyond a tiny fraction of people wants to throw overboard all or even most scientific facts?

No, the debate is about what is and what isn’t an established scientific fact. It’s over what to make of those facts. It’s over which facts point to problems that merit public resources. It’s over which policy proposals best address those problems.

And notice, those policy questions aren’t themselves questions of natural science. They’re questions of public policy and economics. Alas, the M4S drumbeaters routinely conflate these questions with science — which isn’t very scientific of them.

The word “abuse” gets tossed around a bit too freely today, but what this is, really, is an abuse of science’s good name toward other purposes.

Dr. Witt poses a great question. Imagine any of the great scientists of the past “Marching for Science.”

Think about it. Thank goodness Copernicus had the courage not to stay in line and march. Thank goodness Newton didn’t scurry back into line when critics said his theory of gravity was “spooky action at a distance.” Thank goodness Louis Pasteur didn’t stay in line and support the mainstream scientific view that life could spontaneously generate from non-life. And thank goodness Alfred Wegner broke ranks and insisted the continents were not fixed but drift.

Each of these scientists was ridiculed but later vindicated. Their willingness to break ranks and question the “scientific consensus” was key to scientific progress…

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions highlighted what is today a truism among historians of science: Reigning scientific paradigms, challenged by new and contrary evidence, do not go gently. Most scientists who invest their careers in a paradigm find it hard to admit the mistake. So scientific revolutions often happen very slowly, and only after brave scientists break ranks and wage a long campaign, risking the ire of their colleagues. (See the film Expelled for examples of the ire.)

Right. Go ahead and picture Copernicus, Newton, Pasteur out there on the Mall in Washington, DC, or at numerous worldwide satellite locations, this weekend. For that matter, visualize bioengineer Matti Leisola, a super-productive scientist himself who co-wrote Heretic with Jonathan Witt and whose story the book tells, hefting a protest sign that reads “SCIENCE ROCKS” or something similar.

Can’t do it? Neither can I. Maybe that’s because the March is about many things, but not so much about Science. Real scientists would have better things to do.

Update: I just checked — sadly, there is no satellite March for Science planned in Finland. Dr. Leisola, in the unlikely event he had the free time to go and march, would have to make his way from Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn, Estonia, in order to participate.

Photo: March for Science, 2017, Brisbane, by interestedbystandr, via Flickr.