Facts So Romantic

Will the March for Science Matter?

The closer one looks, the more intractable the politics become.Photograph by Mihai Petre / Wikicommons

Here’s a hypothesis worth testing: If anybody concerned with science was left on the fence about whether the April 22 March for Science was a worthwhile endeavor, a flurry of news in late March catalyzed them to action.

Let’s look at the data. On March 28, President Donald Trump signed a wide-ranging executive order designed to roll back the Obama administration’s efforts to combat climate change. The order took direct aim at Obama’s Clean Power plan—the key mechanism by which the United States was intending to meet the emissions cuts it committed to under the Paris agreement. Trump’s order also included a declaration that the federal government need no longer take into account climate change when evaluating environmental impacts on a project, lifted a moratorium on new coal leases, and set the stage for weakening regulations on methane emissions.

On March 29, Politico reported that an Energy department official had banned the use of the words “climate change” or “Paris agreement” in department memos. That same week, the GOP-controlled House passed one bill limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to craft regulations based on standard peer-reviewed scientific research. It also moved forward on another piece of legislation that would forbid scientists who had received EPA funding from serving on an EPA Scientific Advisory Board, while at the same time easing restrictions that prevented industry lobbyists from joining the Board.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Tom Price, secretary of health and human services, told a House Appropriations subcommittee that the Trump administration was seeking to cut the budget of the National Institutes for Health—the premier federal government funding mechanism for biomedical research—by $1.2 billion in 2017, and was asking for an additional 18 percent cut ($5.8 billion) in 2018.

That’s a hard trifecta to ignore: a comprehensive effort to defund science, undermine scientific influence on government policy, and reverse action on what many scientists consider the greatest current threat to humanity: climate change. Could there have been a more forceful demonstration of why scientists need to hit the streets? As the March for Science mission statement declares, “It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.”

“Setbacks in the science community affect our economy, our public health, and our defense,” Valorie Aquino, one of the March’s three main co-organizers, tells Nautilus. “The March for Science is a call to defend scientific integrity and the scientific community.”

If all goes according to plan, adds March spokesperson Aaron Huertas, mass mobilization in Washington D.C. and scores of satellite cities in the U.S. and around the world will send an unambiguous message to politicians. “Policymakers will look at the March and think, ‘You know what? There really is widespread support for science around the country, this is something that my constituents really care about.’ If you are a policymaker and you are thinking about attacking a scientific agency or criticizing a scientific study because you don’t like the conclusion maybe you’ll second guess yourself and have an argument about the policy instead of trying to attack the science to advance policy goals.”

The historical record is clear: Climate change is an intensely partisan issue.

The March organizers, however, have taken pains to stress the “nonpartisan” nature of the march. On the March for Science website, the wording is unambiguous: “we will not let our movement be defined by any one politician or party nor do we try to advance the prospects of any party or individual. Science affects people everywhere, and we want to build a movement that can advance science’s ability to serve communities for a very long time, long after today’s politicians have left office and however political parties evolve.”

There are good reasons for the March to be gun shy about partisan labeling. Recent social science research suggests that scientists can lose credibility with the general public when they make policy recommendations that are in line with what the public perceives to be the political orientation of the scientists.1 There is also clear reluctance on the part of some scientists to get dragged into the partisan mud pit—science, after all, is supposed to be above all that. As Alan Lightman, the physicist and bestselling author, tells me, “A march certainly looks political. I would rather sign a statement from the National Academy of Sciences that is published in many newspapers.”

More pragmatically, if the goal is to build a mass movement, building as big a tent as possible requires not alienating large swathes of the public with explicit partisan messaging. And then there’s the principle at the heart of the scientific method: Scientific fact results from testing hypotheses until they produce results compatible with available data. Political considerations or ideological predispositions are supposed to be irrelevant.

It is reasonable to assume, though, that most of the people who do participate in the March will be motivated by partisan concerns. And the historical record is clear: Climate change is an intensely partisan issue. While it is certainly true, as the March notes on its website, that “anti-science agendas and policies have been advanced by politicians on both sides of the aisle,” it is difficult to ignore the reality that at this particular point in time, one particular political party holds the levers of power and is advancing an agenda that runs counter to science.

Researchers who have studied the increasingly fraught evolution of how science intersects with American politics point to the late 1990s battle over the Kyoto Protocol between the Clinton administration and Congressional Republicans as the first major skirmish in the so-called “war on science.” President Clinton signed the treaty, which called for signatory nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in 1997. But Senate ratification was required for the treaty commitments to become binding. Well aware that a Republican-controlled Senate was dead set against approval, Clinton never even submitted it for a vote. From that point onward the question of whether or not to take action on climate change has broken down along party lines.

But to understand why the two parties staked out opposite positions on an issue that the vast majority of climate scientists already regarded as a clear and present danger, requires turning the clock back even further, says Aaron McCright, a sociologist at Michigan State University, who has published extensively on the political polarization of scientific topics. McCright says that his analysis of the content of two leading conservative news magazines, National Review and Human Events, show that climate change (and environmental regulation more generally) did not emerge as a divisive political issue until the late 1980s, or just around the time that the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union started to collapse.

As the specter of Communism faded, political conservatives started to see a new threat in the rise of what McCright calls “global environmental problems” that challenged core free-market principles. “Ozone depletion, global biodiversity laws, climate change, are examples of problems that required policies at the global level,” says McCright, “and [these policies] challenged the American economy and the American way of life: Where we live, where we get our energy, our ease of transportation, how we heat our homes.”

Far from being value-neutral, the emerging scientific consensus on climate change, suggests McCright, delivered a devastating critique of industrial capitalism. The Industrial Revolution was overheating the planet! “If ever there were a bogeyman to replace the threat of the Soviet menace, it was global environmentalism,” McCright says.

Greens were the new Reds. The conclusions of science were at odds with the profit-maximizing credo of market capitalism. Around this time, says McCright, a sustained effort to cast doubt on climate change science started to emerge from conservative news outlets and think tanks funded in significant part by corporations with stakes in industries threatened by strong environmental regulation.

The challenge for science was exacerbated, says Jon Miller, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, who studies scientific literacy, by a major political realignment whose roots dated back even earlier, to at least as far back the civil rights era.

Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s, notes Miller, both the Democratic and Republican parties had liberal and conservative wings that embraced a wide variety of opinion. After Southern conservative Democrats fled to the GOP, and northern Republican liberals all but vanished entirely, the two parties settled into more or less monolithic entities with sharply different views on almost every political issue. The culture wars that blew up in the 1990s, dragging many scientists into the maelstrom along with it, were a direct consequence of that political realignment.

The closer one looks, the more intractable the politics become. With Democrats identifying themselves with the necessity for environmental regulation and Republicans carrying the banner for a deregulated free market, scientists who pointed out the deleterious environmental effects of specific economic policies were bound to get caught in the partisan crossfire.

Two months ago, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, in Maryland, Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA, told the audience, “I think people across the country look at the E.P.A. the way they look at the I.R.S.” Photograph by Gage Skidmore / Wikicommons

Flash forward back to the present. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who said in March, in stark contradiction of scientific evidence, that he didn’t believe carbon dioxide was “a primary contributor to global warming,” has also stacked the EPA’s top echelon of officials with climate skeptics closely affiliated with Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, long one of the leaders of the Republican effort to characterize the consensus scientific understanding of human-caused climate change as a “hoax.” Also on the table: significant funding cuts to the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal government’s most important climate monitoring agency. All of these developments trace back the longstanding partisan differences between the two major political parties in the United States.

Changing the world isn’t just about showing up at a rally—it’s about what you do after the protest.

The history is clear. Climate change is a partisan issue in American politics, and is directly responsible for much of what falls under the “war on science” rubric. And that raises an obvious question: How does a March for Science that wants to steer clear of partisanship negotiate such fraught territory?

The key might be in the careful distinction that the March for Science organizers make between “political” and “partisan.” “The March is political,” says Aquino, “and we can’t argue that it’s not. But it’s also not going to ally itself with any particular party.” At the same time, the organizers state, the march is “aimed at holding leaders in politics and science accountable.”

Putting aside the semantics of partisanship and politics, how can leaders be held accountable by a march? The most interesting data comes from what scientists call a “natural experiment”—the April 2009 Tax Day protests organized by the Tea Party to protest the emerging policy initiatives of the Obama administration.

The parallels to the current moment are striking. The Tea Party protests were targeted at an incoming administration whose party had total control of Congress. A significant portion of the population strongly rejected the policy agenda of the new administration.

A careful study of the Tea Party protests conducted by three economists and a public policy researcher set out to find out whether there was a quantifiable link between rally turnout and the consequent wave of political change that occurred in the next midterm election. And they found one, with one big caveat. Changing the world isn’t just about showing up at a rally—it’s about what you do after the protest that counts.

In “Do Political Protests Matter: Evidence From The Tea Party Movement,” the researchers employed the variability of weather in cities where protests were scheduled as a proxy for the size of the protest, operating under the not very controversial hypothesis that bad weather would depress attendance. After crunching the numbers, they found that in congressional districts where there was good weather during the protests, there was significantly higher Republican voter turnout in the 2010 midterm elections, and a measurable shift toward a more conservative voting pattern by Congressional representatives.

In other words, the protests worked.

“The variation we looked at was very helpful in identifying an actual impact, as opposed to the rally just being a sign of discontent,” says Stan Veuger, lead author on the study, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and lecturer in economics at Harvard. But Veuger was quick to note that mere attendance at a rally is not enough to influence a politician to change his or her ways. “We see [attendance] as more a catalyst of later involvement and activity down the road.” That includes attending town halls meetings, contributing financially to candidates, calling and writing representatives. Veuger says the sustained pressure exerted by partisan activists resulted in the dramatic electoral change that occurred in the 2010 election.

Removing people who don’t support science-based policy from office is the way to make facts matter again.

Social scientists who study protest marches agree: Political change occurs when the marches take place in the context of a larger social movement. A march itself, says Emily Rainsford, a research associate at the University of Newcastle, who has studied protests, “serves a more psychological purpose than a material one. Marches can be a useful tool for an organization to do more substantive work, donate money or share information about the issue in social networks.”

Ultimately the science march organizers hope to light a lasting fire in people who take to the streets on April 22. They have plenty for them do after the last placard is laid down. “We have a long term vision that goes well beyond the march,” Aquino says. Adds Huertas, “We want to focus on concrete actions that people can take in addition to this highly physical action.” He lists “meeting with a local legislator, participating in a citizen science project, or supporting a colleague in public service who might be afraid to speak out.”

As understandably careful with language as the March organizers may be, the political calculus is blunt: Removing people who don’t support science-based policy from office is the way to make facts matter again. For better or worse, that’s a task, right now, that can’t be separated from partisanship.

Andrew Leonard is a writer in Berkeley, California, who writes about technology, economics, and Sichuan food.


1.  Kevin C. Elliott , K.C., McCright, A.M., Allen, S., Dietz, T.  Values in Environmental Research: Citizens’ Views of Scientists Who Acknowledge Values, PLOS ONE, forthcoming.

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