The intellectual dichotomy between scientists and libertarians, while superficially plausible, is at its core a false one. That’s why I’m marching.
Today, thousands of scientists are descending on Washington, D.C., for the March For Science. With satellite marches unfolding across the country, the march may well become the largest protest by scientists in American history. It’s received the formal endorsement of some of the scientific community’s largest stakeholders, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society for Cell Biology and, most recently, Nature magazine, one of the world’s premier scientific journals.
Today, I’ll be among those “marching for science.” My decision was impulsive, at least at first. Science is part of my personal and professional identity, and many of my friends and colleagues are worried about what the current political tide means for the future of science in this country. So instinctively, I’d want to be part of a science movement. And hey, for a political nerd like me, what better excuse is there to spend a weekend on the National Mall?
As the day has approached, though, I began to reflect on what, precisely, the march means to me.
I’m a scientist, through and through. I’m also a libertarian—and these two identities don’t always fit neatly together. With the rise of an overt political movement driven by scientists, I’ve been feeling the intellectual tension rather acutely.
Academia has a fairly well-deserved reputation for being, shall we say, inhospitable towards conservatives, Republicans, free marketers, and libertarians, and the halls of science are generally not immune from this inhospitality.
It’s therefore not surprising that, from the outset, concerns were raised that the march would become politicized. Polarization would indeed instill a patina of partisanship to the whole movement, unintentionally marginalizing erstwhile allies of science.
In the months leading up to the march, it’s become clear that these reservations have merit. Despite outward efforts to create a non-partisan atmosphere, the march has been tinged with ideological overtones. To begin with, the march was forged in the fears of a nascent Republican administration, and anti-Trump themes will likely perfuse much of the rally. The run-up to the march has meanwhile been plagued by leftist political outbursts tangential to the core message of the march. The most colorful example is the “colonialism, sexism, racism” Tweet that went viral some months ago. More recently, march organizers were criticizing military strikes in Syria. Even the date chosen by the march organizers—April 22nd, Earth Day—is soaked with political connotations.
Yes, the march is probably too biased, and too diffusely focused in its message.
Nevertheless, I will stand in solidarity with the marchers, and I think that others of like-minded free market political persuasion should as well.
The most salient reason for my decision to march is that the ideals underlying science span across political ideologies. This is often easy to forget in all the political noise that surrounds hot-button scientific controversies. At its core, science is simply a way of thinking about the world. It’s an intellectual pursuit directed by evidence, guided by skepticism, and ultimately driven by an insatiable curiosity for the working of the universe.
It’s true that for some political pundits, “science” is not so much an empirical worldview but a mental palliative, one of those tribalistic markers that separates the wise and knowledgeable us from the uneducated them.
But scientists themselves are by-and-large driven by a desire for truth-seeking. Being human, of course, scientists are colored by their own values and ideological dispositions, so it’s hardly surprising that scientific pursuits are very often intermingled with ideology. The truth of it is, though, that scientific evidence tends to chip at the axioms of all political belief systems. Thus, for every pitched battle between scientists and conservatives over the EPA, you’ll find equally acrimonious disagreement with liberals over genetically modified foods and nuclear power.
Climate change is the major science story of the day, which may leave the impression that scientists adhere to a fairly tailored set of ideological beliefs. In reality, their political views are as diverse as the people who hold them. It’s therefore a mistake to assume that all scientists—including those joining the march—are synonymous with run-of-the-mill liberalism. Scientists are not all in lock-step with the policy positions of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and they don’t all believe that climate change skepticism should be a criminal offense.
Another point that struck me is that scientists represent the kind of intellectual expertise that sustains a free society. One of the great surprises of the last election was the strong resurgence of populist sentiment, now personified in the current president. While democratic institutions are designed to respond to the will of the electorate, populism can be dangerous and difficult-to-control. At its worst, it can be hard to distinguish from mob rule. Indeed, history is replete with populist movements that ended in long-term damage to free societies. It’s ugly in all of its ideological forms—look no further than Jean-Marie Le Pen and Nicolás Maduro.
The framers of the American system of government were well-aware of the dangers posed by populism. Our carefully constructed system of checks and balances was designed not only to limit the power of an overbearing government, but also to consciously mitigate the vicissitudes of the public opinion that shapes it. The Senate is a purposely deliberative body, designed to insulate legislation from rapidly shifting waves of sentiment. The Executive and Judicial branches both contain administrative niches, where unelected experts play a central role by design.
Combating populism requires good governance. Good governance, in turn, needs knowledgeable people who can run government competently and prescribe empirically sound policy. Even within the framework of a government of circumscribed powers, institutions ultimately need to be managed and guided by experts. Scientists—who comprise our intellectual elite and are some of the brightest experts in the country—have the collective depth of knowledge needed to guide wise policy-making in government.
It’s true that there are sharp political disagreements over how evidence is defined and interpreted. Indeed, such disagreements lie at the very heart of the rancor surrounding climate change. Even so, we need to firmly acknowledge the value of scientific expertise in society, and throw our philosophical support behind intellectualism as a bulwark against populism.
I’m also marching to support the principle that, contra the views of the current administration, basic research should be well-funded, and done at taxpayer expense. From a libertarian perspective, there’s nothing inconsistent with support for publicly funded basic research. Just as government protection of property rights undergirds free trade and commerce, public funding of non-translational research creates an intellectual framework that allows technology to flourish in the free market.
While many intellectual pursuits can readily find private funding streams by filling an unmet market need, others whose value is tangible but cannot be measured in the near-term wouldn’t be adequately funded without public backing. Such is the case with basic research. A recent study found that at least a third of publications funded by public grants are cited in patent applications. However, the same study found that there’s typically a lag of more than a decade before such “pure” science shows up in patents. We simply cannot predict with certainty what research will pay out over the long term, and how long until the payoff surfaces. The gene-editing tool CRISPR was discovered over twenty years ago, and it is only within the last few years that we’ve come to appreciate how absolutely revolutionary the discovery will be to the future of medicine.
Lastly, it’s worthwhile to point out that while political protest movements are often impulsive, can fall victim to groupthink, and can become tainted by unsavory individuals and condemnable actions, ultimately most protests speak to a real underlying concern that society will eventually need to address. Behind the Black Lives Matter movement, despite its many flaws, lies an opportunity to address real criminal and penal issues through bipartisan reform. The populist movement that elected the current president, while putting its faith in a figure lacking core convictions, arose from real concerns over a rapidly-shifting post-industrial economy. And the March For Science, for all its political shortcomings, speaks to very real fears that the central role of science in American life will be diminished by policy trends coming out of the federal government.
The bottom line is, for me, the upside to supporting the marching outweighs the risk. As is always the case, the devil is in the details—policy preferences are inherently ideological and contentious, and political consensus is always difficult to achieve. But by acknowledging the concerns of the protesters, we can take a serious look at the root causes, and perhaps propose solutions of our own.
If we dismiss the concerns of science marchers, then we cannot lay blame when scientists continue to assume the left is their only political safe-haven. Where political ideologies and the scientific mindset can coherently exist together, it’s worthwhile to amplify that space and find areas of agreement. At the risk of exposing my own naïveté, I’ll stake my claim this way: in a free society, bridge-building with adversaries is far more productive than sowing distrust and derision.
And it’s far better for the long-term health of a republic. That’s why I will march.