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03/03/2017

March for Science

If anything can be gleaned from the early days of the new administration in Washington, it is that a lot of Americans appear eager to march. The sheer numbers of marches chronicled since the election and into the nascent days of the victors’ succession would impress John Philip Sousa. The newest entry is the “March for Science,” an event to be held on April 22nd, a day now also known as “Earth Day.”

The march, like virtually all of the marches, is a reflection on the new administration. “The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter.” So states the website, with rhetoric that heats up from there. Its organizers plan worldwide marches with a “Teach-in” along the National Mall in America’s apparent scientific capital, Washington, D.C. It would seem unlikely that this venue will protect it from partisanship.

It is, of course, ludicrous to believe that science is ever truly separated from politics. From before Newton to the Scopes trial, science has been linked to the political dialogue. In our age, science still carries great weight in any argument (perhaps second only to empathy), and politicians, corporations, and just about every one else will use science as needed to advance an agenda. And we should not think scientists are dispassionate about the work they do, or free of political impulses. And certainly federal funding of research, awarded broadly by politicians and specifically by government agencies, necessitates a tighter relationship than most scientists would have traditionally found comfortable.

I don’t want to be misconstrued as being overly critical of the concerns expressed in the call for the march. The principal issue with which the organizers are united is not particularly veiled. While this is not the forum, and a suburban small animal veterinarian is hardly the description of someone whose opinion on climate change should be sought, I do grieve the polarization on this issue that seems to fall along political lines. The left-versus-right divide would make some absolute enemies of the free market and others absolute enemies of science. We have lost the ability to have a nonpartisan discussion on this issue (or many scientific issues) in the public square, because to do so means we must accept an agenda. Whether you agree with it or not, the organizers of this march certainly have one, and it would not be fully embraced by many scientists (nor does some of it have much to do with science).

Beyond this, part of what I see missing in the aims of such a march is any reflection on what science can and cannot do. Science, at its core, ought to be a deeply humbling endeavor. Science uses empirical evidence to help show us how things work, from the cosmos to the quark. And sometimes new empirical evidence shows us that the earlier evidence was insufficient or outright wrong. Science tells us about the world around us and gives us tools to make new things possible, but cannot tell us if something is ethical. Bioethics emerged as a discipline, in large part, to evaluate and make judgments on the consequences of scientific discovery. Science is not itself a good or bad thing (though it can be done well or badly), and it cannot effectively determine either from within. Modernity taught us wrongly that science was its own arbiter, and we are not soon to recover.

I don’t know how to get all that on a placard, so I won’t find a way to attend the march. Marches don’t lend themselves to nuance. That’s a pity. I’d proudly march in celebration of scientific discovery that is ethical and recognizes its own limitations, its promise and its risks. I have spent twenty-five years in practice using science to try to bring health and happiness to my animal patients and their human companions. I often find it frustrating when a long-standing treatment is shown to be ineffective based on new scientific evidence. But I am compelled to respect that, and I change what I have done. Science is one of the greatest means for revelation that God has granted us. My faith in general, and my eschatology in particular, tell me that I have have profound responsibilities to care for the Earth and its inhabitants. The “March for Science” reminds me that agreement on the means of doing so remains supremely difficult.

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