Why I'd Rather Not March

Feb 12, 2017

"The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer."

This motto of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers during World War II neatly sums up a particularly American way of looking at hard work.

No matter what the challenge, Americans have always had a penchant for just rolling up the sleeves and digging in. The idea goes something like this: "It's my job, no one else's. Now, let me get on with it."

I've have been thinking a lot about Americans and our jobs this week, since the announcement of the March for Science was made. If you haven't yet heard the news, what started as a suggestion on Reddit a couple of weeks ago quickly blossomed into a full-scale movement for a nationwide march in support of science. The event is scheduled to take place on April 22.

But there is a lot to unpack here. A recent Op-Ed by coastal ecologist Robert Young argued that the march was a bad idea. He cautioned: "Trying to recreate the pointedly political Women's March will serve only to reinforce the narrative ... that scientists are an interest group [who] politicize their data, research and findings for their own ends."

I worry that Young may be right. The last thing science needs right now is to let itself get pinned as supporting one political position over another. The whole point of science is that evidence should win over everything, regardless of the opinions you walked in the door with.

But as anyone reading this blog over the last seven years knows, we've been watching with alarm as a new force has emerged in the relation between science and politics: denial.

We have often discussed how, after World War II, politicians of all parties understood that science was vital to the national good. Science provided input on policy decisions — and that was as far as it should go. If you, as a politician, didn't like that input, you could talk values or economics or any of the many other non-science things that went into policy-making. What you did not do, however, was call the science a hoax. You didn't do that because it would, eventually, undermine the whole scientific enterprise that the nation needs so badly.

Not anymore.

American scientists now find themselves in a strange new world of denial, fake news and alternative facts. That new reality is what got me thinking about the March for Science and how we Americans feel about doing our jobs.

See, the thing about scientists is that we love what we do. Doing science is an honor. It's a privilege. Most of all, it's a solemn responsibility that we take very, very seriously.

And what is it that we do? Well, you could fill a few textbooks with an answer to that question. But, for me, it can be distilled down to three lines:

Find the evidence,

that lets everyone see,

how the world works.

That's it in a poetic nutshell. Our job is to understand how things work so we can make things better — so we can make America better. Our job is to do the science that lets Americans stay healthy, lets our prosperity grow and keeps the nation secure. Oh, and it's also our job to blow America's collective mind every now and then with amazing stuff like landing a robot on Mars.

And, really, we just want to do our jobs.

It's a measure of how bad things have gotten that there is talk of this March for Science at all. Do we really want to have to book a room at some hotel for the march? No, we'd really rather spend all night (we love all-nighters) figuring out what's wrong with that vacuum pump on the ion-trap. Do we really want to spend a day walking around holding up a sign that says "Science Is Our Children's Future"? Well, we certainly want people to understand how deeply that's true. But given a choice, we'd rather get the new satellite data loaded up on the computer so we can start doing some spectral analysis.

The point is simple. Doing a job that is of value to your community and your nation is what makes us great as nation. That's what Americans have always wanted to do. That's all we American scientists want to do, all day and everyday (which is kind of frustrating for our spouses).

We just want to do our jobs and we want to do them as best we can.

That is why I will be marching — even though I'd much rather spend the day doing science, doing my job. There is a lot to discuss about the March for Science and what it means. But the fact that the nation has gotten to this point at all says a lot about what has gone wrong — and just how wrong it has gotten.


Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4

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