How a Scientist Who Studies Marches Sees the March for Science

Hahrie Han explains why some protests are effective and others aren’t.

A polar bear in front of the White House, on March 28, 2017.  (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP )

On April 22, scientists and science enthusiasts will gather in Washington, D.C. and 480 other cities to march for science. Their numbers will likely be large and their signs will undoubtedly be nerdy. Much has been written about the march—whether it’s a good idea or a terrible one, whether it will rally people or distance them, whether its goals are acceptably varied or too diffuse, whether it cares too little or too much about matters of diversity, and whether it will be a cathartic flash-in-the-pan or the seed for something more.

But these are all empirical questions, and there are indeed scientists who study political movements. Hahrie Han at the University of California, Santa Barbara is one of them. She studies the ways in which civic organizations get people involved in activism and build power for political change—and she’s written three books on the subject. I talked to her about the March for Science and what might happen afterwards.

Ed Yong: How do you see the march?

Hahrie Han: In thinking about the science of activism or social movements, there are two categories of questions that interest me. One is what does science tell us about what strategies are most effective with engaging people in different forms of activism? The second is this: Even if the organizers are able to get the people out in large numbers, how do you translate that into political power? If we can get a million scientists out to D. C., how does that actually turn into a kind of political voice?

Yong: It seems like the march is successfully attracting large numbers, so I want to focus on that second question about what happens afterwards. What do we know about that?

Han: It’s hard to provide generalized lessons because a lot of the answers are so context-dependent. It’s not like in every case where a march turns into political influence, the same things are happening. But a couple of things come to mind.

First, the research says that it’s not just about what you have but how you use what you have. A lot of times, people look at protests and movements and catalogue how much money they raised, or how many people they turned out into the street. The numbers are a proxy for political influence. But we can think of examples throughout history where you have movements with few people and that generate lots of influence, or ones with a lot of people and little influence.

This is a little controversial, but take the Arab Spring. They turned out hundreds of thousands of people into Tahrir Square and brought down Mubarak, but they couldn’t keep the military out of power in the long-term. The Occupy movement was able to get a lot of people to occupy public spaces for a long period of time, and while they did really important work in changing the conversation about inequality, we didn’t see tangible policy gains that ameliorated the inequalities that triggered those movements. And in the current moment, the Women’s March got 3.5 million people out—an amazing number. But will it translate into improvements? It might, but it’s a valid question. Having the numbers on your side doesn’t mean you’ll have political influence if there’s no clear pathway from what you have to what you want.

Yong: Is there a better proxy, besides numbers?

Han: It really depends on the ways in which organizations, and whoever is leading this coalition, can strategically translate the resources they have into relationships and political influence with people who are decision-makers. With the March for Science, given the initial resistance of the people in the movement to politicize it, and the newness of these groups in thinking about their work in political terms, it’ll be a challenge to develop those strategic capacities. It’s like a muscle. You need to practice it over time. The fact that they’re new to it could be a disadvantage in that they don’t have experience. The upside is that they are new, so they might have creativity and new ideas that can jostle up the system.

Yong: You mentioned leaders, and I’m curious about whether that’s important. It seems like several movements like the Tea Party and the new Indivisible group formed from the ground-up, and are successful despite being pretty decentralized. Does the leadership matter?

Han: When we think about leadership, that’s different to whether authority is centralized. The work that the Indivisible movement is doing is very distributed, in that you have a lot of local activists taking control of resistance activities in their own communities. But what made Indivisible take off was a very centralized strategy. The founders put together that guide book and they wrote an op-ed in The New York Times to say: Here’s what you need to do lefties. And all these people who were hungry said: Hey, that makes sense. So there is leadership.

With the March for Science, I think that, yes, it is really important to have some kind of leadership with a strategy that points all the grassroots activity in the same direction. There’s a book by Zack Exley and Becky Bond who coordinated the grassroots activity in the Sanders campaign. They say the plan has to be centralized and the work has to be distributed.

Yong: How does that leadership form?

Han: There are some people who are gifted leaders. Cesar Chavez was a very gifted strategist, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was an amazing orator. It would be great if the March for Science had someone like that. But if I was an organization, I would think: What are the conditions I can create to make it more likely that the leadership capacities you need emerge from the people I have? As a social scientist, I lean on the side that says people’s individual traits matter but that the social conditions are important.

Some organizations move too far to being too centralized, so people on the outside don’t ever fully develop their strategic capacities. Some organizations say: Everyone’s a leader! Which is great because you get to do whatever you want but also everyone’s going in a hundred different directions, and you never have the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. You need to hold that tension between centralized and decentralized strategy.

Yong: When I looked at the march’s website, I wrote down everything that could be construed as a goal and found 21 of them. I’ve spoken to people who feel that this isn’t a problem—let a thousand flowers bloom—and others who say the organizers should focus on one or two key objectives. Where do you stand?

Han: Let’s say they had one very clear thing like “We want to double NSF funding,” and they got 3.5 million people out. If I’m an elected official, I’d think: I really need to pay attention to NSF funding! The fact that the goals are really disparate makes it harder to translate whatever happens in the march to political influence. And related to my points about centralization or decentralization, one of the challenges is what happens to the coalition afterwards? If they’re too disparate or fragmented, it could be harder to coalesce around shared goals.

Yong: A lot of debate around the march has focused on matters of diversity, with the organizers being criticized for both being unwelcoming and unresponsive to marginalized groups, and catering too much to social justice issues. How do you see that discussion?

Han: Putting aside the issue of whether you think diversity is morally right, management studies and research into corporations tell us that diversity is useful because it makes you better able to sense changes in your environment. If the kind of people you work with are all very similar to each other, they only sense certain kinds of changes. If they’re diverse group, you can sense changes from a lot of different angles. A lot of this comes from research in corporations, so it has to do with things like customers changing preferences. But for political organizations, it also matters.

Having a diverse set of people at the table gives you windows into different parts of the political environment around you, and allows you to navigate tremendous uncertainty. As the March is Science is trying to figure out how they establish a post-march constituency, what is the extent that they want to associate with questions of systematic racial injustice? That might feel uncomfortable to some people right now, but it would give them windows into how the things they’re talking about resonate with the broader population.

Yong: You talked about translating resources into relationships and political influence. What does that actually mean?

Han: One of the things that is most predictive of whether any pressure group is able to achieve its political goals is the extent to which it has relationships with political elites. The higher up the elites, the better. That could be anyone from members of Congress, to the White House, to people at the NSF and NIH. Political power isn’t a thing. It’s not something I have and you don’t. It’s a relationship. So if we think about power as being relational, then those elite relationships are important.

So what kinds of organizations are able to develop those elite relationships? We find that those that are consistently able to show the capacity to move a constituency, they’re the ones who get the attention of the elected officials. That’s what made the National Rifle Association and the Tea Party so able to move Republican legislators to their side. The NRA showed again and again that if you go against them, you suffer at the ballot box. The Tea Party showed that if you go against them, they’d bring up a primary challenger.

What’s interesting to me is that we typically don’t think of scientists as a political constituency. Seniors are a constituency, or gun owners, or demographic groups. The March for Science is trying to develop scientists as a political constituency with a collective voice. Can they do that? One of the ways they can do that is to show that they have the capacity to move votes, or shape the interests of the elected officials they’re trying to influence. They can bring consistent numbers of people out who will vote against anti-science candidates. Or they can run candidates and show that scientists can challenge members of Congress who are anti-science and beat them in elections—you lose if you’re consistently anti-science.

Yong: Some groups are specifically trying to do that. I’ve written about scientists who are planning to run for office in the wake of Trump’s election, and a political action committee called 314 Action that’s supporting them. But that work seems like it’s separate from, and not dependent on, the March for Science? So, why march instead of focusing on those electoral goals?

Han: Partly, it’s about getting a sense of how resonant this issue is, both for people within the movement and without. What will the march in April look like? 50,000? 100,000? 3.5 million? The difference between 50,000 and 3.5 million will really matter. But that alone won’t be enough. It’s not just about showing a public display of power. It’s also about finding solidarity. If I’m uncomfortable with the way politicians are using science, and I show up and find all these like-minded people around me, that can be important for shaping the commitments of grassroots leaders to do all the work down the road.