Science March Draws Controversy.

There is something about airing dirty laundry that makes everyone uncomfortable. And we scientists have some dirty laundry… And we are struggling to interface with the world about our feelings.

The Root recently published a wonderful article which highlights the racist side of some of the leaderships teams for March for Science. It’s firing up a new hastag: #MarginSci. I am a white woman in STEM who often writes about how mathematicians interact with the everyday world. And if there is one thing that I truly believe, it’s that mathematicians and scientists don’t know how to get political.

Now, I’m going to spend a couple minutes talking about a white guy, but don’t let that put you off. White guys have had all the fun for the last 100 years (well, for way longer than that! but I digress). This particular white guy gives a good example of what happens when scientists spend years trying to influence politics. I present James Hansen.  No not the puppeteer Jim Henson, this is Jim Hansen. He is wildly famous in climate science circles for putting climate change on the map and into politics. He is also pretty famous as a scientist who, maybe, perhaps overstepped his bounds of a scientists into politics?

A colleague of Jim’s wrote, “I think he thought, as did I, If we get this set of facts out in front of everybody, they’re so powerful—overwhelming—that people will do what needs to be done. Of course, that was naive on both our parts.” Politicians didn’t respond to the facts. What’s worse, Jim started get a bad reputation in science circles. As New York Times author, Elizabeth Kolbert, wrote “Hansen argues that politicians willfully misunderstand climate science; it could be argued that Hansen just as willfully misunderstands politics.” [NYTimes]. His trouble is so famous, it’s included in his wikipedia page.

This is not limited to climate science.  I have PhD-wearing friends, astrophysicists and others, who feel that Neil Degrasse Tyson shouldn’t refer to himself as a scientist anymore because, well, he’s not doing science.  He is mostly doing science outreach. In the eyes of our serious academic partners, outreach doesn’t cut it.

We, as scientists, politely, yet inexorably, push the “less serious” out of our ranks. We excommunicate them from our inner circles because they want to influence the public (and, perhaps, the politics) of science. The old boys club is strong. We kick out some white people. We push away many black people and LGBTQ folks and a lot of others besides. We, as a group, quietly fill our plenary speaker spots with white men. There are several famous articles about the plenary speaker problem, the most beautiful by Lauren Bacon. Our women in science problems are large enough and public enough that major newspapers are talking about women in Silicon Valley.  The Atlantic article is particularly compelling about this. And, one cannot write an article about this without mentioning Susan Fowler’s review of Uber. And, I’m pleased to add #MarginSci to the list of public airing of science’s dirty failings.

I attended the women’s march in my city a few months ago. I was inspired and awed by the variety of issues that came to the table at that march. There were amazing posters about all kinds of issues. And there were some amazing posters about science.

And that march was organized fast! But what happens when a bunch of scientists take a few months to organize a science march?

Scientists (and I’m including Mathematicians in this too), are a different breed. We filter, classify, organize, and sort all of life into bins. We’d like to believe our sorting systems are unbiased. In fact, one could argue that’s the entire job; to create unbiased interpretations of the world around us.  But our biases are implicit. Sometimes we see them in advance. Like with Boston’s pothole app, where they purposely set out to get the app into every vehicle maintained by the city to get better coverage than just in the rich, cell-phone having areas. Harvard Business Review talks about these hidden biases in big data science.

But sometimes we don’t see them in advance. Sometimes we are human and we do stupid things. But now we, the scientists, are all trying to get into the public sphere to raise our issues. And people are starting to look more closely at our culture. Glass houses and all that. And people are starting to see that we, maybe, do not always live up to the ivory tower we’ve built for ourselves. And people are starting to wonder, “Maybe I don’t want to march for science, because science is just giving money to rich white guys.” To these people, I urge you to reconsider.

Science funding is key to our future. Science funding got us to space.  Science funding taught us about large prime numbers for internet security, about photovoltaic cells for solar panels, about cancer treatments, and our coral reefs. The list goes on and I, for one, will march for science and people’s equality. Even though there isn’t always people’s equality in science. The science is vital to our future. Despite our dirty laundry, we must persist and resist. We must talk about our issues, all of them, and bring them forward and solve them. Scientists are great at solving problems. But not always great at people. Let’s work to teach our scientific community about how to be inclusive and how to stand up for ourselves and each other.

Just as I saw posters for science at the women’s march, I hope I will see posters about everything else at the science march.  Because all of our issues need love. And all of our issues need science. They don’t seem mutually exclusive to me.



About Samantha from SocialMath

Applied Mathematician and writer of
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