Why I will be participating in the March for Science

Last night a new piece started filtering around my Twitter ecosystem: “Why I won’t be participating in the March for Science”. But it was part of longer day of depressing infighting on a variety of fronts. I understand that a lot of people have suddenly discovered that public protest is hard. It can be uncomfortable (although I have now refined my winter protest gear so my thighs don’t freeze and circulation continues to my feet). And you also have to show up with people who may not agree with you 100% on your pet issues or your wider views. Welcome to politics. You can check your purity at the door. You have to be a pragmatist to get things done. This is a long-standing tension on everything I’ve been involved with over the decades. Deal with it.

I decided not to reply immediately — which is somehow supposed to make me more measured and calm. I fail at this. I replied over at the piece that set me off, but character limits made that hard. So I have re-assembled my full response here, with additional links and a couple of edits. Do note: I like the Mad Virologist. But I disagree vehemently on this. And I’ll show you why. With evidence.

This piece is depressing in a number of ways. But most disappointing is that you suggest you have just decided to stay on your sofa as some kind of protest.

No sofa-based protest has ever made change. Anywhere. Ever. Remember the gay activists who sat on their sofas during the AIDS crisis? Oh, no, wait — you don’t. But you do know that ACTup showed up and made noise. They drove discussion. And then they drove change.

Also, it suggests that if you can’t stand the heat in a comment section somewhere, the chances of you being a decent ally when we have to face assholes that have been planning to take science funding and agencies away since they were at the keg parties, where we were standing around talking
about using science to make the world better in many ways, you aren’t that useful anyway.

I’ve been protesting on DC since the 80s. Sure, it doesn’t always end up in the change we want. In fact, the first one I went to was reproductive rights for women. Yes, we were back out working on that just a few weeks ago. But that’s because the people we are battling play a very long game. On all of these things.

#StandwithPP Rally, Boston Common, March 2017. Note the date on the button. This is a long game. Photo credit: B. Dearing.

They. Keep. Showing. Up. It’s irritating as all f*ck, but you know very well that they do. But they are guaranteed a win if you can’t be arsed to show up at all.

And scientists not showing up has gotten us to exactly the point where we are now. People don’t know that they know scientists. We aren’t making the case for why the work matters. We haven’t been out supporting public health scientists at vaccine meetings. Well, I was, but I know the rest of you weren’t because I was the only one.

And yes, there are people who show up at rallies who are not people I’d choose to be there. I’d love to punch anarchists who screw things up, but that would be what they want.

You know what’s sure to make it look like only pseudoscience is showing up? By actual scientists not showing up.

I’m not a fan of the anti-GMO cranks, and I spend a lot of time jousting with them. But I’m not willing to clear the field for them. That only helps them. And I’m gonna make damn sure that’s not the only signage that people see on facebook later.

But I also see this as a chance to bring them into the fold. Go ahead — show up, tell us how much you agree with the march’s mission: “We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.” And I’m gonna hold them publicly to evidence-based policies the next time they try to peddle nonsense instead.

I understand why messy political movements are a turn off. But that’s what the forces against us want, to make you dislike this. And they’ve been winning. That’s why we are where we are.

The science march folks were tasked with impossible competing demands right away. Enthusiastic young scientists wanted to do something. Right out of the gate people demanded that they be non-partisan. After that, people demanded that they be partisan. They were new at this, and given hardly any time and space to pull this off. And all they want is to help us to align for the battles we are about to face, that are real and imminent. If you wanted professional organizing instead of real grass roots, good luck waiting for that. It’s not coming, because there is nobody else standing for us. We don’t have strong street-fighter allies on our side because we’ve always pooh-poohed it. And now it’s biting us in the ass.

But fine. Put up your feet. I’ll still fight for evidence-based policy as your air conditioning keeps you and the Senators comfortable in a world where our corals are bleaching and coal streams blacken. Maybe if the coal blackens enough water we won’t see the bleached corals anymore. And you look back over your life and wonder what you could have done.

Ask yourself this: who benefits if you don’t show? Cranks and people taking away the funding. That is an own goal.

Further, protest is not a buffet where you can pick and choose the people that show up. Some people are gonna be people you don’t like. But if you want purity in your protesting, there are models for that. They aren’t pretty.

But I went to my congresscritter’s town hall meeting the other day. He scolded us for unreasonable demands for purity. We cannot achieve that. But what we might be able to do is align with some allies who can help us to drive some of our shared goals forward.

Will we win? Maybe not. Not every experiment succeeds either. But we will stand up. We will be visible on people’s facebook pages and twitter feeds, or as Mad Virologist wants, we’ll make an “effort to flood social media with science and to engage the public in science-related issues”. We will (and already are) driving discussion just by talking about science march.

Boston Rally for science, February 2017. Photo credit: @daviddespain

In addition, there are some people who can’t march on some issues for various reasons. Federal scientists may be unable to participate — I’m wearing my old Park Ranger hat to stand for them. At Sanctuary City rallies, some of my neighbors can’t show up for obvious reasons too. Fine, I’ll stand because they can’t. I can stand, and I will stand.

There have been some days where in my cynical moments I think: fine, let them have the world they want. It’ll suck, and that will show them. But the collateral damage is just too high. This song isn’t about you. It’s much bigger. Try to keep that in mind.



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Mary Mangan PhD is a genomics scientist, with credentials in microbiology, immunology, plant cell biology, and and molecular biology.