In the weeks leading up to Saturday’s nationwide March for Science, critics lambasted the protest for politicizing science, leading to a desperate effort by organizers to paint it as “non-partisan.” Maybe they should have told the actual marchers, whose protest signs ridiculing and condemning President Trump were significant.
Considering that the March only came about because of the current political climate, attempts to make it apolitical seem ridiculous.
Trump’s attempts to lease federal land to coal miners, cut funding to the EPA, hide scientific facts and take away women’s reproductive rights demonstrate how relevant and politically important science is.
Even further, understanding how science often inordinately harms marginalized people is vital.
The March itself was heavily criticized for its exclusion of people of color and the removal of protesters who attempted to point this out, a legitimate complaint that only furthers the argument that science cannot be anything but political.
Historically, science has been permeated by racism and prejudice. The pseudo-scientific movement of eugenics claimed that the population could be scientifically bred for a “superior” race to dominate. Eugenics supported the sterilization of people of color, LGBT people and those with disabilities. It made claims about the genetic inferiority of non-white races and the mentally ill to justify American Indian genocide, slavery and any other number of crimes committed against minorities. Teddy Roosevelt himself believed it to be an important field.
The cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman, have been essential to scientific research, including the creation of the polio vaccine, AIDS research and the effects of toxic substances on the human body. Yet these cells were taken without permission from her and her family, raising issues of privacy and consent.
Even further back, Galileo’s findings were so controversial to the Catholic Church that he was convicted of heresy. The Scopes Trial in 1925, which debated whether to teach evolution in schools, was an intensely political issue about religious freedom. Nazis performed horrific “scientific” experiments on disabled people’s. HIV-positive women in Kenya are suing NGOs for their forced sterilization, and only a few weeks ago did Europe outlaw the forced sterilization of trans people.
Perhaps the greatest example of the confluence of politics and science is the Manhattan Project, an enormous scientific achievement but one which has fundamentally changed our world today as we deal with the effects of nuclear power in our global politics and environment. The goals of that project were intrinsically political, tied into Allied attempts to create a weapon to end World War II. There is no reasonable way to say that the results were not political.
These are the explicit examples of how science and politics often intertwine, but more indirect examples abound.
We get things like environmental racism, where according to the NAACP, 78% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. A black child is three times more likely to get an asthma attack and go to the emergency room than a white child. Black folks and American Indians are diagnosed with diabetes at almost twice the rate of whites. There are a multitude of other health problems which excessively affect people of color. This is not the fault of science itself, but the use of science to build pipelines, create coal plants, and pollute the air often influences minorities in disproportionate ways.
We need only to look to who these scientists are to discover why science so often ends up wronging marginalized peoples. Of scientists and engineers employed in science and engineering occupations in 2015, 49% were white men. Historically science has been dominated by a boy’s club. When those running scientific experiments do not experience or witness the effects of their discoveries, they cannot work to ensure that their science is used in equitable ways. This kind of ethnocentric bias goes beyond just the science itself. Funding is a political issue dependent upon who is in office and the motivations of major sponsors. A pro-life group will fund different things than a conservationist group.
Even if the science itself seems apolitical, the funding behind it often is political.
Most people would argue that the actual science itself is not tied to politics, and it is true that specific molecules and biological processes are not in and of themselves partisan. But the results of scientific development are significant and do have political effects, for better or for worse.
To attempt to separate science and its influence is an exercise in futility. Even those critics of the March still support the importance of science and its real world applications, yet they still claim that science is somehow “not political” and should stay out of national politics. It can’t be both ways. Science must be political and historical context shows it always has been. During times such as these, when we have a president who has explicitly denied obvious scientific truths such as climate change, science is even more important.
This is not siding with a political party; it is siding against the suppression of information and unethical practices. Independence from the state and freedom from censorship are not the same as anti-political.
Last week’s March for Science was not perfect. Looking around there were few non-white people marching, a symptom of Seattle’s demographics but also of science’s demographics. That needs to change.
The organizers of Seattle’s March for Science were exclusionary towards minorities, and at best misguided in their attempts to keep the March from being political. Their removal of those protesting their restrictive organizing was a shameful blunder. These mistakes should not be forgotten, but the March outgrew them anyways. Those who marched largely ignored that message. Most were there to protest injustice in the name of science, and for them science is inherently political. A march of that magnitude in support of science is virtually unprecedented, a cultural phenomenon expressly brought about by current politics. It brought together scientists from every possible field and as well as those who choose to recognize the importance of science in their lives. All of this to reaffirm something that we would normally take for granted as part of membership in the 21st century: science is important.
Despite the varying results of scientific discovery, it still improves the world. It can protect the same people it has harmed historically by providing vaccines, creating new technologies to support those in poverty, drawing connections between race and polluted areas, giving medical attention to communities with more severe health conditions. Science can be damaging but it has also saved millions of lives and expanded our knowledge of the world. Increasingly we are seeing how people of color and LGBT people have influenced scientific discovery. Look at Katherine Johnson, a black woman who almost single handedly did the calculations to send a man to space. Science provides cures, it gathers statistics, it raises questions. Despite a mixed past, science moves forward, as political as ever.