Tomorrow, scores of scientists and supporters of science will take to the streets of Washington, D.C., and elsewhere to march for science. For one day, science will come out of the lab and into the limelight, and if the media cover this event as expected, public attention will be directed to the importance of science to society.
The March for Science sprouted from a discussion on Reddit but quickly grew into a national advocacy movement. Tomorrow’s marches are a response to cuts to critical science funding streams and the lingering threat that the current presidential administration and Republican congress will make even deeper cuts to public funding for scientific programs. According to The New York Times, marches are expected in over 500 communities around the world. (This includes the community where I live and work, Rolla, Missouri, a town of less than 20,000 but with a large science and engineering base, thanks to the university and some state and federal agencies located there. Follow along at @SciMarchRolla.)
Whether you’re planning to march in support of science tomorrow or you prefer to follow along via social media, here are five things about science that might interest you.
1. The science credibility gap: It’s the media’s fault
The news media serve as an easy scapegoat for all manner of societal problems. Consider the fake news imbroglio that lingers from the past election cycle. But when one of their own find fault with the news media, it might be worth digging into.
That’s the case with The Washington Post’s Robert Gebelhoff who, months before the March for Science seeds had been planted, wrote an op-ed titled The media is ruining science. (Gebelhoff apparently never learned that media is a plural noun, something j-school prof George Kennedy drilled into my head eons ago. The media are ruining grammar.)
Gebelhoff analyzes the way media outlets tend to focus on the most titillating and clickbaity-est of research studies. “Science and health media writers are constantly in need of new, sexy studies (preferably ones that somehow mention “sex” in the headline),” he writes. “Meanwhile, scholars and academic journals face pressure to produce work that gets attention from media outlets — doing so can elevate the stature of their research, which in turn promotes their funding.”
So this vicious cycle continues — and people like me are a part of it. We scour our campuses for the most newsworthy research stories and pitch them to reporters. In the end, it looks something like this:
2. Scientists: Their own worst enemy
Here’s Gebelhoff again, in a December 2015 op-ed titled Are scientists blocking their own progress?:
A new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that fame does play a significant role in deciding when and whether new scientific ideas can gain traction. When a prominent scientist dies, the paper’s authors found, the number of articles published by his or her collaborators tends to fall “precipitously” in the years following the death — those supporters tend not to continue advocating for a once-famous scientist’s ideas once the scientist is gone.
At the same time, the number of research articles written by other scientists — including those with opposing ideas — increases by 8 percent on average, implying that the work of these scientists had been stifled before, but that after the death of a ubiquitous figure, the field becomes more open to new ideas. The study also found that these new articles are less likely to cite previous research and are more likely to be cited by others in the field. Death signifies a changing of the guard — the study illustrates the scramble to fill an intellectual void with new ideas and scientific inquiry.
So maybe science itself shares some part of the blame (with the media).
3. How do scientists protest?
As a group, scientists aren’t the most politically active. “It takes a lot to get scientists and engineers riled up and out of their labs or away from their computer screens, writes Jeff Nesbit in a January 2017 U.S. News & World Report article. “They tend to shy away from politics or journalists or just about anything in the public square.”
But maybe the March for Science is stirring an awakening among the scientific community. It will be interesting to see if Saturday’s march turns scientists, who “generally stand clear of big, messy political fights,” into more vocal advocates.
4. After the march, then what?
The New York Times‘ Nicholas St. Fleur considers what the scientific community will be like post-march and points out that not all scientists are on board with the march for a variety of reasons. The bigger question he raises: How will the public respond to a scientific community that is more vocal and visible. Will the march help or hinder the credibility of science on such politically divisive issues as climate change?
5. Rebuilding trust in the scientific community
In our society, there’s a great mistrust of science and scientists. “People are prone to resist scientific claims when they clash with intuitive beliefs,” writes Atul Gawande, a surgeon and public-health researcher-turned-writer, in this June 2016 New Yorker article, The Mistrust of Science. “They don’t see measles or mumps around anymore. They do see children with autism. And they see a mom who says, ‘My child was perfectly fine until he got a vaccine and became autistic.'”
Now, you can tell them that correlation is not causation. You can say that children get a vaccine every two to three months for the first couple years of their life, so the onset of any illness is bound to follow vaccination for many kids. You can say that the science shows no connection. But once an idea has got embedded and become widespread, it becomes very difficult to dig it out of people’s brains — especially when they do not trust scientific authorities. And we are experiencing a significant decline in trust in scientific authorities.
Gawande notes that people don’t necessarily mistrust science so much as they mistrust the scientific community. So, what to do? Gawande offers some tips, based on science. Please go read this piece.
Bonus link: Should you stay or should you go?
Still on the fence on whether to join your local march? @PHDComics created this handy flow chart to help you decide.
Postscript: Check out this Periscope video from before the Rolla March for Science march.