Is #ScienceMarch Really Against Science?

Some scientists on Reddit have called for scientists and science advocates to organize a march on Washington (#ScienceMarch), with satellite marches elsewhere. The Web site objects to the Trump administration’s policies of slashing funding for scientific research and restricting scientists from communicating the results of taxpayer-funded research. Yet because the organizers have also spoken out against racism and sexism, they have been accused of being against science. But if you care about science, you must also care about scientists, even the black and female ones. And if you are a human being with a conscience, you must also think about how scientific work is being done, and how the results are being used.

The Web site notes that in the past, scientists have often been complicit in racial and gender-based oppression. It also notes that the matters that are of pressing scientific concern today will have a disproportionate impact on less-privileged people throughout the world. For this reason, the #ScienceMarch organizers want the leadership of the #ScienceMarch movement to be as inclusive as possible, in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. The hope is that a large and diverse movement of scientists and science advocates will then work to ensure that scientific research will be done honestly and ethically and that the results will be used to serve all of humanity, rather than just serving the needs of rich white men.

This policy strikes me as perfectly reasonable. Others see it differently. For example, Harvard Professor Steven Pinker tweeted that “Scientists’ March on Washington plan compromises its goals with anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric.” I think that he has missed the point. “Bad” science really has often been used for bad purposes, such as when the Nazis used bogus racial theories to justify war and genocide. Even “good” science can be used for bad purposes, such as when scientifically valid theories about nuclear physics were used to build bombs that could destroy all of humanity. Science, bad or good, is less likely to be used for bad purposes when the people who would be harmed by some misuse of science or technology understand the scientific issues and take part in making policy decisions.

As John Adams, who later became the second President of the United States, explained, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Thus, it would be foolish to accept conclusions that are “politically correct” but that violate basic principles of logic or fly in the face of evidence. Yet it often takes political pressure for scientists to take some kinds of scientific evidence seriously, especially in the social sciences, such as psychology.

In 1957, an astronomer named Frank Kameny was fired from the U.S. Army’s Army Map Service because he had been arrested for having sex with another man. Kameny saw nothing wrong with homosexuality, and he thought that his sex life had no bearing on the quality of his work as an astronomer. Kameny was so disgusted by his firing that he took his case to the Supreme Court. He also played a prominent role in the movement that persuaded the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental illness.

There were never any valid scientific reasons for classifying homosexuality as a mental illness. Instead, a female psychologist named Evelyn Hooker found through extensive psychological testing that there were no important differences in mental adjustment between gay and straight men. Yet it took political pressure from the gay rights movement before the leadership of the APA found her evidence to be compelling.

Frank Kameny had a PhD in astronomy from Harvard. It was stupid for the government to fire such a highly qualified astronomer, simply for being gay. Likewise, it is stupid to discriminate against women or gays or black people. This kind of discrimination is not only unfair to the individuals involved, it represents inefficient allocation of society’s resources. It means that some resources are flowing to less-qualified candidates, simply because they are white, straight, and male. In the social sciences and even in biology, race and sex discrimination can also lead to a collective narrow-mindedness, as questionable assumptions go unquestioned. If no women had been allowed to do psychology research, how long would it have taken for someone to do the landmark research that Evelyn Hooker did?

The Trump administration’s attempts to stifle scientists at federal agencies is a serious threat to democracy. A scientist’s work is twofold: discovery and communication. Scientists discover new facts and truths, and they communicate them to other scientists and to the public. Scientists make up only a tiny portion of the electorate. Yet in their role as educators, they can help to drum up political support for policies that would serve the public, as opposed to serving only a privileged few.

The #ScienceMarch is protesting an administration led by someone who is not only hostile to science but is unashamedly sexist and racist. Sexism and racism have long been supported by bad science. Thus, it makes perfect sense for the #ScienceMarch to take a stand for good science and against sexism and racism.

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