Is a March for Science a ‘terrible idea,’ or is the New York Times blaming the victims?

Science is under assault, and it’s long since time scientists fought back.

A sign at Denver’s Women’s March, January 21st. Credit: Phil Plait.
A sign at Denver’s Women’s March, January 21st. Credit: Phil Plait.

The U.S. scientific community is trying to figure out what to do in response to the greatest assault on science, reason, and basic, observable facts in modern history.

Following the tremendous success of the Women’s March, a remarkable number of scientists have embraced the idea of a March for Science as a way to stand up for scientific research and evidence-based policies. (I say it’s remarkable because scientists are a notoriously unorganized and unorganizable group.)

Despite the Trump team’s escalation of the war on science, the New York Times decided this week to run a blame-the-victims op-ed headlined, “A Scientists’ March on Washington Is a Bad Idea.”

Let’s be clear: The war on science is a war on your prosperity, your security, and your children’s future. And the most dangerous form this war has taken is the war on climate science. The president, his White House advisers, and the cabinet are active deniers of climate science who plan to thwart both global and domestic climate action, thereby ruining a livable climate for your children and the next 50 generations.

Every day, team Trump opens another front in the war — whether that is muzzling government scientists or taking down websites that present accurate scientific information. His war on immigration is itself a war on our scientific leadership, which relies on the free flow of people. No wonder so many scientists oppose it.

The Times, however, asserts that “trying to recreate the pointedly political Women’s March will serve only to reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research, and findings for their own ends.”

Seriously. The Times is saying that the anti-science narrative created by the most well-funded disinformation campaign in human history—which was led by Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson — will only be reinforced if scientists vocally push back against it.

In short, blame the victim.

Indeed, the Times repeats the hoary “creation” myth that blames Al Gore and his 2006 movie “An Inconvenient Truth” for polarizing the debate. Contributor and geology professor Robert Young asserts that “so many of the conservative Southerners whom I speak to about climate change see it as a partisan issue largely because of that high-profile salvo fired by the former vice president.”

The Times should not be relying on anecdotes by victims of a concerted campaign of disinformation. Again, the first salvos in this war came from Exxon and Big Oil a half century ago, after their scientists determined their product was a serious threat to a livable climate.

Moreover, the Times’ attribution of causation is factually inaccurate. Social science literature could not be clearer that polarization of views on the veracity of climate science jumped in 2009, three years after Gore’s movie came out.

Not coincidentally, the war on climate scientists went nuclear in the fall of 2009, after scientists’ emails were hacked in an attempted to undermine the Copenhagen climate conference. The attacks on science and scientists became so brutal that in 2010, Nature, the highly respected British scientific journal, editorialized, “Scientists must now emphasize the science, while acknowledging that they are in a street fight.”

That was seven years ago, and this country is now run by people who fomented the war on science. Worse, Trump and his team are clearly “unhinged from verifiable scientific fact.”

Of course scientists should be marching — and they should be doing a lot more.