March for Science and Politics

On April 22, 2017 the March For Science will happen. It is an event where scientists around the world will take part to encourage lawmakers the importance of science in decision making. This march was precipitated by the election of Donald Trump, who has shown blatant disregard for evidence-based decision making, going as far as to appoint people who seek to dismantle the very institutions that they head. As for the marchers, I am encouraged that so many people are going out to show that scientists do care about the direction of the government.

However, it seems that lost in the message of marching for science is the extremely lengths some organizers are going to make sure this is a “non-partisan” effort. From the March For Science page:

Nevertheless, the march has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics. In the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery, we might ask instead: can we afford not to speak out in its defense?

From my twitter feed, it seems that there are organizers who are going to great lengths to distance themselves from any kind of political position, at the detriment of any solid message on how to move forward. Some organizers felt there should be a message of inclusion and diversity. This was resisted by those who felt it would detract from their message and repel the Republican lawmakers they wanted to bring to the fold.

I think that it is unrealistic to believe that science somehow lives in an elevated bubble that can work without inclusion and diversity in the modern world. But what role should science have in discourse? I would like to go through what the prerequisites are for science to exist, in the political realm.

The Pillars of Political Stability

Science cannot operate without strong backing at the society level. According to Francis Fukuyama (his book, The Origins of Political Order, is a must read for any serious academic), there are three pillars required for a strong society and state.


The three pillars are:

  • A strong, impersonal state
  • Follows the rule of law (rather than rule by law), that is leaders follow a set of rules, such as a constitution.
  • Has accountability to the people, via democratic means

The State

A prerequisite for science, I think, is a society that has a strong, impersonal state.  Without a strong, impersonal state, science cannot operate, as societal rules are left open to the whims of tribal level actors, who can play on the natural tendency of people to make decisions based on emotion and what is best for their kin group. Science is the quest for meaning through cold logic and facts, rather than feelings, and there will always be people who resist this. It is no coincidence that in Europe the rise of scientific discourse coincided with the rise of centralized, impersonal states. Before that, the threat of ostracism from religious leaders and the community prevented people from advancing scientific knowledge.

Rule of Law

Less important for science is the rule of law. Science thrived in the Communist countries that existed after World War II, simply because the results of science allowed them to advance the states’ agendas. However, these states were in no way held together by the rule of law. The state could arbitrarily make decisions on what was acknowledged as true, and could detain anyone that disagreed (even if they were right). The state made the rules, rather than being constrained by them. What the rule of law brings to the table for a scientist is the freedom to pursue their research without interference. When the government starts to silence scientists, as what happened in Canada during the Harper regime, you know that the rule of law has broken down. Without rule of law, science is not free and can be shut down anytime the lawmakers find it inconvenient.

Democratic accountability

The final pillar is that a state must be accountable to society. Though most people associate voting with democracy, there is more to democratic accountability than that. Venezuela had elections that were by all accounts fair, but that did not stop the state from descending into an authoritarian, broken country as soon as economic growth stalled. No, democratic accountability requires that the government makes decisions that are for the benefit of all society, even if they may be unpopular with the majority of voters, and resist the draw of tyranny. In essence, a good government should listen to the concerns of all people, and mechanisms should be in place so that they are removed from power if they only pander to a subsection.

What we are seeing in almost every advanced country around the world is the breakdown of democratic accountability. Rather than building up a consensus, many political parties are finding it easier to use a divide-and-conquer strategy using populism and globalization. Perfect examples of this is the current British political crisis, where the narrow Brexit win has allowed one side to forcibly remove Britain from the EU, even though there are major concerns on how this will negatively impact the country. Before that, the pro-EU side ignored for too long the voices of those who were suffering under the increasing globalization that led to the demise of local industries.

Democratic accountability is the pillar that science is part of. If governments do not listen to the findings of science, then it is unlikely to be acting in the best interests of society.  Scientific inquiry exists to find out about how the world works, and allows everyone to live better lives if its findings are incorporated in a reserved manner by a wise government. When scientific findings are ignored, it will ultimately lead to a reduction in the overall health of society. We are seeing this very thing with the effects of global warming bearing down on us, and the rise of the anti-vaccination movement.

Science and Politics

Science is a social institution that works best when it is accessible to all people. This allows society to make informed decisions on how to proceed.

But at the same time, we should not take for granted that the people in charge will listen to the results of science, since there is always an urge for lawmakers to return to a patrimonial society that will enrich their friends and family. It is necessary for scientists to be involved in politics if we are to hope for the future of science. In the past, the big scientists did not just live in bubbles. They talked to journalists and politicians and were seen as authority figures. Some were politicians themselves. It is no coincidence that some of the great founding fathers of the United States, like Franklin and Jefferson, were also scientists.

In democratic countries around the world, the breakdown of democratic accountability and rule of law is also leading to a downfall of the strong state that is necessary for scientific institutions to operate freely. But how do we solve this, except to become involved the political process ourselves? This is where I think it is folly for those who want a “non-partisan” approach to protesting the decisions of the government. Having a “march for science” is a good start, but unless you start naming and shaming those who are attacking scientific institutions, it will be very toothless. Just remember, all but two of the Republican senators voted for Betty DeVos, who wants to demolish America’s education system. All but three Republicans voted in favour or Scott Pruitt (and two Democrats as well), who wants to remove environmental protections. The campaign for science is also a campaign for rule of law and accountability, and we should be working to remove any lawmaker who voted in people who attack state level institutions designed to protect people from tyranny.

Although we want to be seen as working through the lens of pure objectivity, scientists are humans that operate within society. We are only allowed to do our work if society understands and appreciates our efforts. We should always emphasize that we are against injustice and inequality. We should fight against those who want to reduce education levels and allow wealthy corporations to ignoring the health of people so they can reap profits. This can only be accomplished if we also elect lawmakers who support the three pillars of a healthy state. Therefore we have to roll up our sleeves and become involved in the political process and risk that we may be seen as “partisan”.