Marching for Science and Humanity

Against the Current, No. 189, July/August 2017

Ansar Fayyazuddin

I WANT TO use two anecdotes to briefly illustrate the chilling yet defiance-inducing effect that Donald Trump has had on the community of scientists since he took office.

In January of this year, I attended a physics conference that happened to coincide with Trump’s launch of the first version of his Muslim ban. The announcement had an immediate and electric effect on the conference attendees.

Over and over, in lectures that had nothing to do with the ban, speakers spoke out against it. It wasn’t just that the ban went against the international nature and principles of science, but that it had direct personal and professional repercussions for the attendees, their colleagues, students and collaborators.

A letter drafted by a few prominent physicists condemning the ban was circulated almost immediately. It quickly garnered hundreds of signatures from across disciplines and displayed conspicuously at the conference.

In mid-March I attended another conference, this time in Italy. Again I saw firsthand the implications for science of Trump’s draconian and openly racist edicts on travel. I heard members of different international experiment collaborations discussing privately how they should no longer have collaboration meetings in the United States, because of the travel ban and the harassment that collaboration members were likely to face as they tried to enter the country.

The starkest and most heartbreaking event took place on the penultimate day of the conference when a scheduled U.S.-based speaker of South Asian origin presented his talk over Skype. The speaker, who had purchased his airline ticket to Italy, was forced to change his plans on the advice of his university, who advised him not to travel overseas because of concerns that he might not be let back into the United States.

Needless to say, this injustice was deeply embarrassing for the U.S. participants and was condemned by the chair of the session, and I am sure privately by everyone in attendance. We can be certain that Trump’s policies are already having an effect on international scientific collaboration, conference attendance and foreign graduate student recruitment.

Festive and Defiant

It was under these conditions that on April 22 the March for Science took place in Washington DC, which I attended. It was a dreary rainy day that was lit up by the large crowd of scientists and concerned citizens gathered at the Washington Monument. The atmosphere was festive and defiant despite the weather.

I went with no clear sense of what to expect. I had a nagging worry that not many people would come, since the People’s Climate March was scheduled for the weekend after and the weather was dreadful.

My fears were thankfully unfounded. Both on the Metro and as I got out at the subway stop, a ten-minute walk from the Washington Monument, I was surrounded by people who were clearly there for the March. The organizers estimate that over 100,000 people joined the march in DC alone and over a million people marched worldwide!

The rally preceding the march was almost four hours long but with a great lineup of speakers. The organizers did a good job of selecting speakers representing not just a diverse array of scientific disciplines but also of gender and, to some extent, ethnicity. Speeches were interspersed with outstanding music lifting the spirits of the indefatigable if drenched crowd.

Among the speakers was Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who exposed the horrific contamination of the water supply of Flint, Michigan, the cause of the ongoing public health crisis there. She spoke eloquently, saying “Flint is what happens when we dismiss science … when saving money is more important than public health.”

Another speaker, Iranian-American astronaut Anousha Ansari, spoke movingly on the universality of science and how as she viewed our planet from the space station she could see no borders, only a beautiful but fragile home that we all share and need to protect.

The march itself was impressive. I could sense the size of the crowd by the amount of time it took us in the middle of the march to start moving. At the end of the march, I had to back track to get to my subway stop and all I could see was a sea of people that continued as far as the eye could see. What a beautiful sight it was!

A Global Outpouring

The march in Washington was accompanied by a series of satellite marches not just in the United States but throughout the world. In my own social circle, a friend sent a picture from the march in Berlin, comrades in New York City attended a march starting at Columbus Circle, and work colleagues marched with a contingent at the Stony Brook University campus.

On Facebook, people posted pictures from actions that they had participated in in their own communities. These various inputs contributed to the feeling of being a part of something truly large. Seen in its totality, the march was extraordinary in its global reach and in its appeal to sectors of the population who do not generally express themselves through political activity outside of the polling booth.

The March for Science website, the central clearinghouse of information for the march and post-march activities, lists 610 locations scattered all over the world where satellite marches took place.

This astounding geographical breadth was combined with endorsements from not only expected ones like those of and the Union of Concerned Scientists, but also from professional scientific societies such as the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), APS (American Physical Society), the Geological Society of America and many others. Transportation to DC was organized both by activists and, surprisingly, by many of employers of scientists.

The mission statement of the March for Science is succinct (see

“The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science. as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.”

The call reflects the heightened anxieties among scientists and the science-positive lay public as Trump, more brazenly than his predecessors, defies scientific consensus, proposes deep cuts in government funding of research and, perhaps most disturbingly of all, tries to muzzle inconvenient scientific facts emanating from federally funded agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency.

Among the many clever signs that people carried at the march, one read “Not a scientist. Also not an idiot” — affirming a sensibility crucial to democratic society that scientific knowledge must be public knowledge, not just the preserve of the experts.

We simply cannot have a democracy without a public that not only understands that there is a scientific consensus, but comprehends what it is in broad outline.

The Trump administration has had a lightning effect on the citizenry. The travel ban, the unfolding multifaceted ecological disaster, the lack of adequate healthcare and myriad other assaults on our living conditions have their roots in policies that go much further back than the last few months. Nevertheless, Trump’s jarring rhetoric, his open embrace of ignorance and celebration of know-nothingness has breathed life into once relatively complacent sectors of the population, including that of scientists.

It is from these sectors that a new level of activism is emerging. Many people at the science marches had probably never been to a demonstration before. It is a hopeful sign that activism going beyond voting, signing petitions and lobbying is being legitimized in larger sections of the population.

In Defense of Thought

The March for Science is a long overdue response to increasingly virulent irrationalist strains of thought that have acquired undeserved legitimacy and are regularly inserted into public discourse as a counterweight to fact-driven and consensus-based science. These ideas have generally not emerged from the public, but from well-funded think tanks whose purpose is to remove obstacles to corporate profitmaking, sometimes with the help of rogue members of the scientific community.*

At times over the past century, scientists have gone further than merely countering irrationalism. They have formed and joined movements that interrogate and resist the way scientific authority and knowledge are used to legitimate inequality or build weapons of increasing destructive power. They have proved willing to speak out when these projects run counter to the interests of humanity.

These movements of scientists arose not in the cyclical routines of daily scientific work, but as ruptures in historical periods when the legitimacy of the everyday was questioned more broadly in periods of political upheaval. Thus the 1930s saw the emergence of a vocal movement of scientists that tried to put science in historical, social and political context, and in the words of J. D. Bernal, to understand the “social function of science.”

Scientists like Bernal, J.B.S. Haldane and Lancelot Hogben wrote extensively for the public for the purpose of making scientific knowledge accessible to the non-expert.

In the aftermath of World War II, a movement among the so-called atomic scientists emerged to resist the spread of atomic weapons. These scientists sought to ban atomic weapons globally and, counter to the emerging Cold War consensus, worked toward international collaboration to control nuclear weapons.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the antiwar movements gave rise to groups such as Science for the People, which not only resisted imperial adventures of their governments but countered racist, sexist and homophobic ideas at home that were given pseudoscientific credence by sections of the scientific community. It remains to be seen where these newly mobilized scientists will take the present movement.

*See the excellent book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press, 2010) for an exhaustive treatment of this topic.

July-August 2017, ATC 189