When Science Becomes Political

By, Juliet Isselbacher

Trump has waged a war on science—and, in response, Boston is preparing to launch a full-scale offensive in aid of the spurned discipline. This offensive will take the form of a “March for Science,” hosted on Earth Day (April 22nd) and already boasting 17 thousand pledged participants. According to its leaders, “The March for Science champions publicly-funded and publicly-communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, non-partisan group to call for…policy makers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest.” Key in this mission statement is the word “non-partisan,” which functions to distance the march from implicit liberal affiliations. In fact, rally leader and BC student Kimberly Hokanson has emphasized that few politicians will be invited to speak.

Distancing the march from the Democratic Party is a smart move. The recent knighting of the Democrats as the “Party of Science”—as well as the portrayal of partisan squabbles as noble clashes between reason and lunacy—have proved disastrous. By assigning science to a party, we’ve reduced it to a political platform—one akin to abortion rights or tighter gun laws—founded solely on opinion or visceral convictions. Science has effectively been robbed of its objective truth or credibility. In the eyes of much of the public, it is simply a particular perspective, one favored by liberals and the intellectual elite. Indeed, science polls 30 points higher among wealthy, college-educated Americans than their poorer, less educated counterparts.

Following the trend in wider society, it seems that science may soon lose its standing in public school classrooms. Trump’s Secretary of Education appointee Betsy DeVos has expressed an intention to introduce the theory of Intelligent Design to the public science curriculum. It is not necessarily the teaching of Intelligent Design itself but rather the teaching of the theory alongside evolution that strikes me as problematic. The pairing of the theories would suggest to students that empiricism, or systematic observation, is no more legitimate than faith as a means for drawing conclusions about our world.

So what is the consequence of science’s politicization and resultant disparagement? Reality is now malleable. There is room for “alternative facts.” Trump can sell unsubstantiated, fear-mongering narratives to Americans, like, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” or “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes—AUTISM.”

Now, back to the March for Science. Declaring the event apolitical is clearly a tactful and deliberate choice on the part of its organizers­—one intended to spare science’s remaining objective credibility. Rally leader Kimberly Hokanson has even gone further to assure the public that the march is not a protest, since a “protest” carries an inherently political connotation. “We’re not protesting anyone,” she insisted. “We’re speaking up for science and science education and science funding.” Yet, the march is not occurring in a vacuum, without any sort of context—it is undeniably an unfavorable response to Trump’s policy. And is that not the very definition of a protest? Especially given its parallel to the Women’s March, I would consider the March for Science by nature very much a partisan event. Attempts to distance the March from liberal affiliations are, in my opinion, noble but ultimately futile.

Winsor students, instructed in the elegance of the scientific method from an early age, have a deep respect for science. So it pains me to agree with coastal geologist Robert S. Young, who wrote in the New York Times that “scientists marching in opposition to a newly elected Republican president will only cement the divide.” He defends himself, saying, “Believe me, I understand the desire to impart to everyone how important science is to every sector of our economy, the health of our planet and the future of our families. But I don’t see how a march accomplishes any of that. If tens of thousands of us show up, it will simply increase the size of the echo chamber.” The best thing we can do for science is to convince the American public that it exists independently of any party platform or agenda. And to do that, I’m afraid that we should stay home on April 22nd.

Simran K. ’18 is not entirely convinced. She acknowledges that politicizing science is a problem but disagrees that “not attending the march is an effective solution to this dilemma.” She opines, “Given the efficacy of rallies and protests in catalyzing change, I believe that not attending the march is analogous to remaining silent.” Since Winsor girls have a deep aversion to complicity, the question of whether to attend the March certainly proves to be a tough conundrum. Fortunately, prom (scheduled for Earth Day) will spare many of us from arriving at a decision.