How the March for Science Misunderstands Politics

If protesters want to change policies, they need to target the values, interests, and power structures that shape how research is applied.

Yves Herman / Reuters

This Saturday, in Washington, D.C., and around the world, scientists and their supporters will hit the streets. From Ketchikan to Buenos Aires to Bhutan, marchers will demand that politicians support scientific research, publish its results widely, and base their policies on those results.

I will be marching with them. But I worry about the movement’s arguments. A few skeptics have charged that the march will politicize science, reinforcing an already widespread perception of scientists as liberal activists rather than dispassionate researchers. As march advocates note, however, science is already enmeshed in politics. It could hardly be otherwise, write Jonathan Foley and Christine Arena, in an article reposted on the official March for Science website: “After all, politics is how we are supposed to solve problems in a democratic society, and science is crucial to nearly everything we do — our economy, our health, our security, our future.”

My concern is the opposite of the usual objection. The March for Science, I believe, is not political enough. I do not mean that the marchers should campaign for Democratic or Republican candidates or take stands on contentious issues such as immigration reform. Rather, I hope that they will come to grasp much more clearly how political power works, how it intersects with social conflicts, and how policies emerge from this nexus.

The movement’s rhetoric suggests that if governments simply fund and heed scientific research, the world will march steadily toward peace and prosperity. Applying science to politics will create “an unbroken chain of inquiry, knowledge, and public benefit for all.” This is, dare I say, an unscientific conception of human action. A huge body of social-scientific literature—or just a good, hard look at the political scene—shows that conflict, uncertainty, and collective self-interest would remain central features of democratic politics even if all of the disputants took scientific findings as their starting point for policy recommendations.

In a 2004 essay, Daniel Sarewitz, a professor at Arizona State University, challenged the longstanding expectation that bringing science to bear on political questions will reduce or eliminate disputation. In fact, he noted that “scientized” political issues—most notably, the climate debate—generate particularly sharp controversies precisely because the participants can focus exclusively on questions of scientific validity while obscuring the values and interests that shape their positions. Coal producers seeking to throw off environmental regulations, for example, will tend to highlight uncertainties in the scientific understanding of carbon dioxide’s atmospheric effects, rather than making an explicit case for choosing policies that benefit their industry over policies aimed at climate remediation.

Taking Sarewitz seriously suggests that values, interests, and interpretive frames should be at the center of policy formation. Here, the march organizers offer little help. As they portray the world, there are only two kinds of people: pro-science and anti-science. Likewise, there are only two ways of acting: on the basis of science—facts, truth, data, evidence—or unscientifically, in accordance with ideology, self-interest, or mere caprice. “Political decision-making that impacts the lives of Americans and the world at large,” the march website declares, “should make use of peer-reviewed evidence and scientific consensus, not personal whims and decrees.”

Proceeding without any consideration of science’s latest findings is certainly dangerous. Yet the march organizers simplify the relation of science to action—political or otherwise—to the point where their prescriptions may become counterproductive. One source of today’s skepticism toward science as a political resource is the failure of mid-20th-century governments to deliver on the extravagant promises associated with the application of science to society. It is easy enough to laugh at postwar science boosters, with their utopian visions of virtually costless nuclear energy, flying cars, and moon colonies—not to mention a quick and painless end to poverty. But the failure of those visions to materialize had very real effects. It would be ironic indeed if the current push for science-based policy were to bear fruit and replicate the overdrawn expectations—and the resulting disappointments—of the 1950s and 1960s.

To their credit, the marchers see clearly that researchers from a variety of social and cultural backgrounds will produce a more robust science. And they recognize that scientists must reach out to the citizenry, crafting research agendas that address a wide range of public needs. Yet their political analysis could use some work. Scientific input into policymaking is a good thing, and the lack of such input is alarming. But science is not inevitably and intrinsically humanitarian in its outcomes. Politically, science is deeply multivalent, comporting with a variety of interests and perspectives.

The march organizers imagine a future world in which science promotes equality and justice, rather than simply wealth and health for the few. Evidence-based policy is important, and science should certainly play a role in politics. Yet more and better data is hardly enough to ensure equality and justice. Societies employ science in accordance with their leading values, interests, and power structures. If March for Science participants want science to advance the causes of equality and justice, they will need to help create a society in which those values predominate.

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