In 1959, not long after the Soviets’ Sputnik launch astonished and terrified the nation, Dwight Eisenhower named George B. Kistiakowsky, a Harvard chemist, to the position of Presidential science adviser. Jerome Wiesner, who would later become the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sat on the Presidential science-advisory committee. Kistiakowsky was a Republican and Wiesner a Democrat. They met with the President every month.
The next year, when John F. Kennedy was elected, Kistiakowsky wasn’t purged, or prosecuted, or denounced. He and Wiesner simply switched roles, and continued to meet with the new President. That surprised no one because, while scientists may have had political affiliations, science did not. In fact, while Wiesner served on Eisenhower’s science board, he became a central adviser to the Kennedy campaign. Nobody blinked. (Though he did promise to reveal no classified information.)
We live in a different world today, and science has become as horrifically politicized as any other aspect of American life. On April 22nd, Earth Day, tens of thousands of researchers and other scientifically minded Americans will express their fealty to reason, data, and, above all, the scientific method, by travelling to Washington and joining the March for Science. I understand the impulse, though I fear that, if the march is seen as little more than a crowd forming in the nation’s capital, it will come across as just another statement of vitriol delivered by Trump’s enemies. I have no problem with vitriol. But there is a genuine risk that the March for Science will be widely regarded as a manifestation of the great urban-rural divide that helped elect Trump. You know the story: those who say we must support science versus the many out there who insist there be no more tax dollars for rich urban élites.
One would have to be epistemologically blind to ignore President Trump’s contempt for fact, reason, and science itself. Like many journalists, and not a few scientists, I used to laugh at Trump’s aggressive ignorance. I am not laughing anymore. There was a time that I considered Ronald Reagan’s attempt to designate ketchup as a vegetable for school lunch programs as the height of callous ignorance. It almost seems quaint now. George W. Bush was guided more by faith and ideology than by science; his Administration opposed the HPV vaccine because, it contended, it would encourage premarital sex. Administration officials altered government Web sites to suit their political views. Again, that seems like the good old days. Despite such heavy-handed political interference, science has flourished, and, because it has, so have we.
It has been noted many times, most recently in this week’s magazine, that Donald Trump acts as though he despises the earth itself. Every hour of his Presidency, our planet inches closer to ruin. Climate change is real, but so is the effectiveness of vaccines, which Trump has denigrated for reasons that mountains of data and years of study have demonstrated are not worth repeating. His proposed annihilation of the National Institutes of Health’s budget would devastate research in this country and turn promising students away from fields for which there will be no funding. His “plan” to repeal and replace Obamacare was not so much a plan as a tirade. Nobody who has even a glancing acquaintance with reality would act this way.
So I understand the desire, expressed by thousands of people, to march on the home turf of our most notoriously ignorant President. We need to protest his mindless rejection of modern life and bring attention to the growing gap between those who support science and those who consider scientists disposable intellectuals. But will this march help get us there? Rush Holt, the chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an organization I value greatly, recently said that he couldn’t think of any similar protest for this kind of mass activism. “As I understand it, the marchers want this to be a gigantic endorsement of the idea of science, the idea of verifiable evidence,” Holt said.
Agreed. But then what? If we truly want to endorse the idea of science, let’s break up into groups and fan out across America: let us talk quietly to people from Alabama to Maine and Alaska about evolution and climate change. Others can spread out among the Tesla crowd in Northern California and explain the power of agriculture, the growing need to feed the earth, why all food is genetically modified, and why we need to stop protesting something that causes no danger.
Some of us could go to the richer precincts of Southern California, or stop by Vashon Island, just outside of Seattle, and describe to parents, in realistic but understated terms, the ways in which vaccines matter. Others might go to Hawaii to explain why a powerful telescope cannot only help us see the stars but understand ourselves. The scientists of America have a truly marvellous story to tell; in fact, thousands of them. But they need to tell it to the people who matter. And, sadly, almost none of them live in Washington.