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Showing Up to Shape the Science March

Megan K. HalpernMar 23, 2017

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A few weeks ago, I attended my first annual meeting of the  American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). I spent much of my time in committee and interest group submeetings where AAAS positions about the march were hashed out. Mostly in hushed tones. Mostly with ambivalence and uncertainty. I am not one to shy away from opening my big mouth, so I made my opinion clear in person and on Twitter:

Talk of #marchforscience continues to be tense, guarded, & uncertain. My take: if we want to shape the message, we better show up. #AAASmtg
— Dr. Halpern (@dr_halpern) February 19, 2017

Since the meeting, several things have happened: 1) The March has gained momentum, and now Sigma Xi, AAAS, and dozens of partner organizations have signed on as partners of the march; 2) The organizers of the march have been speaking out about their various reasons for marching; and 3) The march itself has begun to draw sharp, pointed criticism from all sides. I am glad to see some of the big voices of science, such as AAAS, step up and join the cause and lend their platform to commentary. I think all this discourse makes for a more thoughtful march. I particularly appreciate the community behind the hashtag #marginsci for pushing march organizers to consider issues surrounding representation, inclusion, and diversity. I am encouraged by the fact that while I was writing this, the organizers released a statement supporting diversity and inclusion. The whole statement suggests a reflective, thoughtful approach to building a strong community.

Since the march is happening, I’d like to set aside the conversation about whether it is a good idea or not. Like the Women’s March in January, it is going to be a part of our experience of this moment in history. I am joining the remarkable conversation that surrounds the march because I think I can be one of the voices that helps make it a powerful event that sparks a wave of advocacy and activism—but only if we avoid falling into the same patterns that have stymied public engagement with science for almost half a century. Marching is not a way to tell people things they do not know; it is a way to share our experiences of science.

The scientific establishment, including some of the organizers of the march, have been focused on advancing descriptions of what kinds of knowledge need to be imparted, how to best generate enthusiasm for science, and how to shut down science deniers. In my field (science communication), we’ve had a term for this issue for decades: the deficit model of science communication. Deficit thinking, the idea that the (monolithic, uncomplicated) public needs only more facts to get behind science, is a dangerous mindset for two reasons. The first is that it misconstrues the relationship between scientists and publics, presuming that there is nothing scientists have to learn from the rest of the world, and everything the world has to learn from scientists. The second is that it has been proven, time and time again, not to “work.” More facts generally reinforce existing beliefs; they rarely change beliefs. Yes, even about climate change. Yes, even about evolution. Identity and ideology are not separable from perceptions about anything, even science.

Science communication scholars have been telling scientists this finding—imparting this information to them—for as long as we’ve been writing about it. Scientists haven’t accepted the information in front of them. Sound familiar? It should. Telling someone something that doesn’t resonate with their own experiences of the world is a bit like banging your head against a wall. I won’t do that. Instead, I will (hopefully) offer a perspective about science communication that might mean something to you.

My work on science communication resists deficit-laden debates about public knowledge because it rests on the theory that we are all in a constant state of experiencing, rather than understanding, the world. This is not to say that we don’t seek out information and build understanding. Of course we do. What it means is that the information we seek, as Naomi Oreskes so eloquently said during her AAAS plenary talk last month, doesn’t “speak for itself.” It holds no meaning outside the meaning we make of it in the contexts of our lives.

To tie together some of the existing debates about politics and diversity in science and to help frame them in terms of experience instead of knowledge, I want to advance a set of ideas about the relationships between science, publics, politics, and culture. My hope is that if these ideas can help people embrace the idea that the march (and science more broadly) exists as a set of personal and shared experiences, perhaps we can work to make these experiences meaningful, or even profound.

  1. Science is a part of society, not apart from society. Science permeates our culture and our culture permeates science. The biases, philosophies, and ideologies we discuss when we describe ourselves also describe our scientific enterprises. There are “underrepresented groups” in science because there are underrepresented groups in our culture. Not only that, our scientific theories themselves are products of their times (Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender makes for a powerful, utterly readable, example). For this reason, our experiences of science are going to be varied and complicated. Respect for all these experiences helps provide greater context for us to develop our own sense of what science means.

  2. Science is political: It always has been and always will be. I applaud the organizers of the march for noting that they are taking a political, but not partisan, stand. The fact that there is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is political. The space race in the 1950s and 1960s is probably the easiest demonstration of the political nature of science. The government marshaled resources around the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), told stories about astronauts as heroes, and evoked the mystery and wonder of space because they/we deemed dominance in space politically necessary. I still adore NASA and even wrote a rock opera about a NASA mission. But, I don’t doubt the politics behind the funding of the mission or the politics behind the privatization of space exploration today. The political nature of something like space matters because many people who grew up with the Apollo missions still talk about Kennedy’s moonshot with more than just a glimmer of nostalgic pride. Their sense of shared ownership of the successes and failures of each mission formed the basis for a meaningful experience. The political nature of science is even more important when our experiences of it are matters of life and death.

  3. Science, like the rest the world, is deeply flawed precisely because it exists within our social systems. We (as people and as scientists) are at our best when we take opportunities to reflect on the troubling parts of our past and our present. Films such as Hidden Figures and books such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are powerful because they provide a way of seeing contributions that have been invisible. Part of this march should be a march toward stronger representations of those who have been erased from the history of science. This task means acknowledging that the doors to scientific careers aren’t currently wide open and that scientific research doesn’t yet benefit everyone. It also means acknowledging that when we’ve benefited from the knowledge, skills, and even biological cells of those of us who have been marginalized, we’ve unwittingly hidden their contributions from ourselves. Marching because we see the lack of representation in the United States—specifically when it comes to race and gender—starts with listening to the stories of those who contributed to science but weren’t recognized, those who have had a difficult time finding opportunities in the sciences, and those, like many of my own undergraduate STEM students, who don’t see enough models in their future fields who look like them. When we share stories, we share experiences. These are opportunities to build our capacity to empathize with others’ experiences and, in turn, reshape our own.

  4. We have an obligation to march precisely because we are in a position of power. For the past few centuries, science has occupied an incredibly powerful position in the world. Marching from a position of power may seem contradictory, but it isn’t. I think by marching, we can show our strength. We have this opportunity to stand up for children and families without safe water, such as those in Flint, Michigan, or to speak up about the causes of disintegrating ocean ecosystems and rising sea levels. We don’t march because people at the EPA are being oppressed; we march so that the EPA can effectively protect us all. We are not disenfranchised underdogs, but it is up to us to stand up for those who are disenfranchised when our work is ignored or abused. And if we fail to show up? We tell a different story. We reveal ourselves as weak, not strong. This is why it is important that AAAS, Sigma Xi, and 25 partner organizations have joined the march. They are our megaphones. In short, with great power comes great responsibility.

  5. We also have a duty to embrace humility. One of the reasons the deficit model I mentioned above is so troubling, and so apt to backfire, is because it carries with it an arrogance that we (as scientists) know better. We must resist this urge. We provide unique and valuable perspectives, but we are just one set of voices, one subsection of perspectives that, like so many other perspectives, have a set of beautiful, flawed, very human methods behind them. By embracing our role in the chorus, we find where we can better harmonize with others to create rich, complex music.

All of these points—politics, culture, power, and humility—amount to so much more than knowledge about science. So, most importantly, marching is not a way to tell people things they don’t know. This point is the most important to me. The march and the surrounding events (even the teach-ins) are ways of sharing experiences and providing moments for meaningful reflection about science, politics, and culture. I spend most of my time thinking about how to get people to embrace the idea that we are experience-seekers, and that seeking information is a way of deepening or enriching our experiences. This view means our messages should not be about information; they should be about meaning. What does marching mean to us? What experiences can we share? How does science serve us? If we embrace the multiplicity of meanings, we also end up asking a series of questions about what the EPA and climate change mean. But do we stop there? What about the places where science means vastly different things to different people? I suggest a conversation, beginning now, not about why we march, but about what marching means.

I will start: For me, #marchingmeans building community with people around me who are also alarmed by general disinterest in the role we play in the global degradation of environments and ecosystems. #Marchingmeans showing the world that I aim to stand up for and with those who are most vulnerable in a future without a strong EPA and open access to the products of science. #Marchingmeans I know that we are nowhere near done advocating for more diverse voices in science and in government. And, importantly, #marchingmeans I have an opportunity to learn from the experiences of others who are moved to march and those who have marched before.

This post is published in Macroscope

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