The March for Science brought historic numbers of scientists to the streets to stand up for evidence-based reasoning, but whether it actually helped heal the partisan divide on issues like climate change is far less certain. A cursory look at the post-March media coverage suggests we’re as trapped as ever in our partisan echo chambers. It’s unlikely things will be different with today’s People’s Climate March, which isn’t even purporting to be apolitical. But as interviews with scientists across the political spectrum reveal, there may yet be a way to find common ground on the most politicized scientific issues of our time. It starts with admitting that we can all be antiscientific, illogical fuck-ups, when facts oppose our sense of self.
The March for Science was a gamble. It brought scientists in contact with the public, and visibly embodied the scientific consensus on issues from climate change to the safety of GMOs that so many doubt—thanks to, as conservative climate scientist Kerry Emanuel reminded me, the ceaseless onslaught of punditry presenting an alternative reality in which the “scientific community is split on the crucial questions.”
Was this exercise in civic engagement worth it? There is some evidence that “low information individuals,” people with little understanding of, or particularly strong feelings one way or another about, a scientific issue, could be willing to defer to a slew of scientific experts.
However, in an ideal world, those individuals wouldn’t just be exposed to images of scientists marching and subsequent media criticism, but a comprehensive, methodical breakdown of the issues at hand. If you were masochistic enough to forgo the March in favor of studying news coverage on it (as I was), you would’ve instead just heard a remastered compendium of the antiscientific pundits’ greatest hits.
On Fox, former Harvard physics professor Michael Guillen—whose newest book argues how science supports the Bible’s model of absolute right and wrong—vaguely argued that, in asserting the validity of climate science, the March contradicted the falsifiability of science, and was, therefore, an affront to it. In the wake of the march, Bret Stephens, the New York Times’ newest columnist, made a similar argument about climate change activism. Atomic physicist William Happer, meanwhile, asserted in an interview last week that “most of [the marchers] don’t know any science. [Climate change is] sort of a religious belief for them.” Sparring later with Bill Nye on CNN, he compared the Paris Accords to Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler.
Sometimes, sufficiently advanced logic is indistinguishable from syphilitic insanity.
On the more liberal end of the spectrum, anti-GMO sentiment garnered less attention than climate change denialism at the March, but as UC Davis genomics researcher Alison Van Eenennaam experienced, there were anti-corporation GMO protesters. Several scientific organizations that have adopted consensus-denying stances on GMOs, namely the Union for Concerned Scientists and Center for Biological Diversity, were involved in hosting events and speeches during the march. This is despite the fact that, after over 20 years of research and more than 2,000 studies on GMOs, the scientific community has endorsed their safety, and moved on to studying the best ways to employ them.
Altogether, there was a consistent theme in antiscientific sentiments expressed at the March and in the subsequent media coverage: Seizing on an image or an argument that made a political statement, skeptics then conflated scientific consensus with political ideology, or anathematic “corporate masters.” It’s an old technique, but a goodie—and it will likely rear its head again in wake of today’s People’s Climate March, which tackles the most partisan science issue.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As to Derek Muller, science communicator from Veritasium, told me earlier this week, “it’s okay for people to view [the Marches for Science and Climate] as political. It’s not okay for people to view the marches as partisan.”
Science protests are their best when they inform people about scientific issues, invoke everyone’s inner passion for science, and speak empirical evidence to inadequate policies—not when they caricaturize and insult the minority political party. Put another way, by Bill Foster, Congress’ only physicist, “when a child misbehaves, you criticize the behavior, not the child.”
As Richard Alley, another Republican climate scientist says, “science does not pick political parties.”
Granted, conservative politicians strike the decidedly more antiscientific stance on big-ticket issues like climate change, but as Foster told Gizmodo, behind closed doors, they acknowledge that it’s a matter of acquiescing to their constituency. That “constituency” doesn’t always mean the voters, whose knowledge about climate change and approval of actions to address it continues to rise. As Harold Wanless, a conservative Miami University climate scientist noted to Gizmodo, even Marco Rubio, once the GOP’s rising star, was enthusiastic about addressing climate change, until his campaign “needed the help of the Tea Party and the Koch brothers,[and] he had to... unlearn his understanding of climate change.”
It doesn’t help the perception that science has picked a political party that organizations like 314Action, which is grooming scientists to run for public office, has committed itself to only supporting Democratic candidates. As 314Action founder Shaughnessy Naughton explained to Gizmodo last week, “The obvious reason is if you look at the two parties’ platforms, where the Republican party is on climate change is just unacceptable.”
Party politics aside, the pathetic fact is, we’re all antiscientific when it’s convenient to our identity. Over the years, psychologists have confirmed that when confronted with qualified scientific experts, we implicitly devalue their qualifications if their findings oppose our beliefs. Rather than objectively analyzing evidence and arguments, we judge their validity within milliseconds, then rationalize our conclusions—and we get better at doing this as time goes on. We rate evidence that agrees with us as being more persuasive.
Geneticist Karl Haro von Mogel recently told me that “trying to win an argument of who’s the biggest denier of science... means that we’ve already lost.” Still, he and other scientists have found that by prefacing talks about, say, GMOs, with a disclaimer that folks on both sides of the political spectrum get it wrong on some issues, he’s found a way to open people’s ears.
And therein lies what could be a path forward if we want to make science seem less partisan: by admitting that none of us, or our parties, are infallible. By going out to public events—yes, even ones like today’s climate march—you can extend an invitation to people across the divide. (Keep in mind that every climate scientist interviewed for this piece is a conservative). And when you do march, keeping in mind all those illogical, self-fellating cognitive loopholes that make it hard for all of us to accept our antiscientific tendencies, you can make a better case for evidence-based policy, with a few tricks:
If someone’s apprehension about a scientific issue isn’t deeply tied to a sense of partisan identity, leave it that way. Instead, ask questions that challenge skeptics to work through their misguided beliefs and admit what they don’t know. (Here’s Veritasium’s Derek Muller to show you how.) If someone is apprehensive of mercury in vaccines, ask them to explain the difference between the ethyl mercury in the shot, and the methyl mercury that, well, kills you. A mild fear of GMOs? Ask them to define how manipulating genes more precisely is different than selective breeding, “organic” crops irradiated to cause beneficial mutations, or plants modified to express genes they already have in a different way.
Make a cheap moral appeal instead. Conservative values emphasize the protection of the status quo; addressing immediate, external threats; economic protection; upholding meritocracy; and the ability to justify one group dominating another. Translation: “Dear climate change-denier, do you have rental property in Florida? Maybe not for long.”
Liberal values, meanwhile, tend to emphasize social justice, fairness, and doing no harm. Hit with a kilo of pathos: Between a quarter- and a half-a-million children go blind from Vitamin A deficiencies that we’re capable of addressing with GE crops—you know, like those also being engineered to manufacture compounds for infectious disease vaccines more efficiently.
For a brief and shining moment earlier this year that received little press attention, liberal environmentalists and conservative outdoorsmen and women worked together: It turns out that proposing to transfer a massive tract of land from federal protection to state management really pisses both off.
Both liberals and conservatives were also upset about recent proposed cuts to the NIH’s budget. Issues like protecting air, water, and land are pretty bipartisan too, and health spending is well-approved by even the most ardent fiscal conservatives because, as Rep. Foster notes, “Republicans get cancer too.”
Wanless points out that if a group of individuals are skeptical of and disenfranchised about an issue, say disadvantaged minorities communities and climate change, encouraging the group to study how that issue could affect their community has been demonstrated to increase knowledge and political initiative surrounding it. Case in point: Besides exactly this kind of community approach galvanizing the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, as Wanless tells Gizmodo, the last few years have seen a slew of Republican representatives of districts south of Orlando publicly accept climate change.
As Representative Foster puts it “Everyone who’s younger even than I am can remember those pictures of our cities where you could not see across the block—or can see those pictures from China today. Ask people...if they want our cities to look like those in China”—the same China that’s poised to overtake our proud tradition of leadership on climate issues.
Intel analyst-cum-analytical writer, Ian—when not fiending for coffee or “developing a story” (running)—waxes poetic about science, policy, race, religion and historical narratives where they all intersect.