Historians of Science March for Science

by Conevery Bolton Valencius

Across the United States and around the globe, historians of science, medicine, and technology responded to the call to March for Science in Washington DC and in cities worldwide on Saturday, April 22, 2017. The March for Science emerged as a grassroots movement inspired by the Women’s March in Washington in January 2017. Numerous professional groups in the sciences and in many other disciplines supported the March for Science as a non-partisan protest against dismissal of the validity of scientific evidence and the severe reductions in resources for scientific work. The History of Science Society joined many sibling organizations in the humanities and social sciences to endorse this mass demonstration on behalf of the integrity and independence of scientific research.

HSS member Barbara Becker sent this view from the Washington DC March for Science Photo by Barbara Becker

HSS member Barbara Becker sent this view from the Washington DC
March for Science. Photo by Barbara Becker

The particular political circumstances are American, but the sense that scientific principles need defending spanned the globe. From the political firing of researchers in Turkey to the scrubbing of climate data from US government websites, from corporate shaping of agricultural research to the bland insistence on documented untruths by leaders of the US government, the free and open exchange of ideas and the nonpolitical exploration of scientific questions seems to many increasingly under threat.

So: historians of science marched!

Historians of science marched throughout the Washington DC event, variously estimated at 70,000-100,000 people. Once HSS officially endorsed the March, HSS Secretary Luis Campos organized a Facebook page to gather participants. A small group of HSS members, along with friends and family, met and marched through the DC downpour. HSS-ers pointed out their favorite placards, enjoyed sightings of Tyrannosaurus Rex in costume (“Even I know enough to support science, and I’m extinct”), and groaned together at terrible science puns. “Protest Sine” was popular, along with the occasional “Protest Cosine.” Several marchers let everyone know that “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.” Others, more obscure, wrote placards in code or spelled out messages using the periodic table. A theme beneath the tongue-in-cheek humor was the concern and anger of many scientific workers that they had to be making a public uproar to protect evidence-based rule-making, the worth of experimental data, and the credibility of scientific evidence. “Things must be bad if all these introverts are marching,” read one typical poster. “Why do I have to be here and not my lab bench?” read another, more plaintive.

In the DC March, there was a general sense of charming inexperience in the crowd. Some signs were written in very small font, and there were a few catchy chants or songs. A typically self jesting crowd activity was a rousing call-and-response of “What Do We Want? Evidence-based science! When Do We Want It? After thorough peer review!

In Washington and in many cities, participants talked as they walked, expressing their worry over attacks on the legitimacy of scientific explanations and feeling energized and supported by the shared concerns in the large crowd.

HSS members and friends soggy but cheerful at the end of the Washington March Photo by Zara John Valencius

HSS members and friends soggy but cheerful at the end of the Washington March.
Photo by Zara John Valencius

Ms. Frizzle, the dauntless elementary-school science teacher from the American book series and PBS children’s show, “Ms. Frizzle and the Magic School Bus,” became de facto patron saint of the March for Science. The fictional Ms. Frizzle transforms herself and her bus (and the class iguana) to help young people understand everything from undersea ecosystems to the vastness of interstellar space. Many Ms. Frizzles appeared in many marches, but the History of Science Society had clearly the most fabulous.

Johns Hopkins grad student Joanna Behrman, who studies science education, appeared along with a Magic School Bus (and passenger) in full explanatory mode. She reported that many people on the march—especially women and children—flagged her down for photos. “I think many attendees (myself included) connected with Ms. Frizzle in a way that they couldn’t with Bill Nye,” she commented, reflecting on the science educator and popularizer Bill Nye, who encouraged the March and was one of its honorary leaders. “Since the March,” she noted, “a lot more people are putting forward Ms. Frizzle as potentially a queer feminist icon for science. As Ms. Frizzle would say, “Wahoo!””

HSS boasted by far the best Ms. Frizzle: Johns Hopkins PhD candidate Joanne Behrman, along with trusty Magic School Bus Abel Corver. Yes, that is a solar system headdress. Photo by Zara John Valencius

HSS boasted by far the best Ms. Frizzle: Johns Hopkins PhD
candidate Joanne Behrman, along with trusty
Magic School Bus Abel Corver.
Yes, that is a solar system headdress.
Photo by Zara John Valencius

Historians of science advocated for science across the country. In front of the Utah State Capitol, Rachel Mason Dettinger’s whole family helped her make the point that “SCIENCE IS REAL!” Photo by Rachel Mason Dettinger

Historians of science advocated for science across
the country. In front of the Utah State Capitol,
Rachel Mason Dettinger’s whole family helped
her make the point that “SCIENCE IS REAL!”
Photo by Rachel Mason Dettinger

Naomi Oreskes speaking at the Stand Up for Science March in Boston during the AAAS meeting (19 Feb). Image: from HSS Facebook page

Naomi Oreskes speaking at the Stand Up for Science
March in Boston during the AAAS meeting (19 Feb).
Image: from HSS Facebook page

The March for Science took place in many parallel cities: a small group of well-bundled Arctic researchers and the sole inhabitant of a lonely island far north of Scotland who resolutely posted in social media solidarity while logging his research. Historians of science likewise marched in San Diego, in Chicago, in Boston, and in cities throughout the world. In the lead-up to the March for Science, historian of science Naomi Oreskes provided a leading voice in articulating the historical basis for scientists’ advocacy. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in February, historian of science

Naomi was a main speaker in the energetic Stand Up for Science March. At the event, lab-coated researchers took to Boston streets to oppose science denial and speak up for credible scientific work and evidence-based policy decisions. Drawing in part on her book Merchants of Doubt (published with co-author and HSS member Erik M. Conway in 2010), Oreskes argued that the determinedly a-political stance of American science is both recent and, in certain respects, self-defeating. She urged colleagues throughout the sciences to speak up for the intellectual vigor and social value of independent scientific work. This and similar events fired up scientific researchers more accustomed to lab notebooks than political protest and swelled the March for Science into a worldwide phenomenon.

Vassiliki (Betty) Smocovitis, who was serving as the Kosciuszko Foundation Visiting Professor at the University of Warsaw, during the March reported: “I was not plugged into any of the scientific organizations and didn’t know if anything was going to be done, but I did consult my colleague Thurston Cleveland Hicks who is an American primatologist on the faculty at the University of Warsaw. We arranged to have lunch together on that day and then to show up at the Copernicus Monument in front of the Polish Academy of Science. It seemed a logical place to go, and sure enough people began to come until we formed a small band of about 30…. I found it quite moving actually, especially since the history of modern science conventionally begins in 1543, with the publication of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus. It was the perfect place to commemorate the occasion and to support science.”

Impromptu rally at the Copernicus Monument at the Polish Academy of Science. Betty Smocovitis is 6th from the left.

Impromptu rally at the Copernicus Monument at
the Polish Academy of Science. Betty Smocovitis is
6th from the left.

Other far-field reports are more sobering. Central European University faculty and HSS member Karl Hall writes that there was little in the way of March for Science in Budapest—because of too many competing protests at the legislation passed at the urging of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban to close the university. As of now, CEU will be open next academic year, and there are efforts to shore it up solidly into the future— but the attacks on this well-regarded institution of higher education speak for the grim state of academic freedom and integrity in many parts of our world. Many on the March for Science expect advocacy to be a long walk.

Further resources:

  • HSS statement on the March for Science: https://hssonline.org/hss-and-the-marchfor- science/
  • A quick and sympathetic review of the March is Tim Appenzeller, “An Unprecedented March for Science,” Science 28 April 2017
  • An excellent starting place on science denial is Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press, originally published in 2010), as well as the 2015 Robert Kenner documentary film Merchants of Doubt.
  • Joel Achenbach’s “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” in National Geographic March 2015, is a well-balanced analysis that predates present US electoral politics.
  • Many people debated the March for Science on many platforms: one succinct summary of criticisms of political statements by scientists, as well as of the historical basis for scientists’ advocacy outlined by Naomi Oreskes at her AAAS talk, is Evan Haddingham’s March 2017 article “Should Scientists March on Washington?” published by PBS NOVA.
  • The American Association for the Advancement of Science has been updating information on proposed budget cuts to American science agencies: the most recent article is here.
  • Check out Twitter feeds @ScienceMarchDC and the topic #MarchforScience for advocates’ perspectives on the April 2017 event as well as updates on topics such as reactions to US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.

HSS Secretary Luis Campos and former Council Member Conevery Bolton Valencius. Photo by Matthew G. Valencius

HSS Secretary Luis Campos and former Council Member
Conevery Bolton Valencius. Photo by Matthew G. Valencius.