We marched for science – did science care?

So last Saturday I joined the March for Science in Sydney. I’m still trying to work out what it was all about.

First I should say that it was great. Tons of cool people, great friendly feel, wonderfully clever placards – I loved every minute of it. But the thought that I kept coming back to was: What does this mean?

You see there were a huge number of differing agendas that had all come together under the one banner. Some people saw ‘science’ as meaning keep scientists in jobs; some saw it as representing the need for funding for science research; some saw it as representing environmental issues; some as representing the need for honesty in politics; some saw it as covering social issues such as how we treat refugees; some people saw it negatively as too corporate or representing big-science issues. The attendees, the posters, the speakers, they covered a huge range: I’m still pondering how to look at the wonderful aboriginal musician extolling the crowd to respect indigenous science when marching for ‘your science’.

All of these things are great and credible in their own right, but I’m not sure that science’s shoulders are broad enough to usefully carry them all.

“We marched. Now we act.” is the catch cry on the official website. But it’s still not clear (a) who ‘we’ is and (b) are ‘we’ all in agreement about what we’re acting on? ‘Science’ cannot be all things to all people, otherwise it is meaningless. For me the March and the movement is, or should be, about respecting the scientific method in decision-making, but that’s clearly not a universal view.

It would, perhaps, have been different if we were marching to support refugees, or against women being mistreated, or for a minimum wage. There’s an intrinsic clarity to those things that tends to get summed up neatly in a chant.

The march for Science proceeded in a hubbub of friendly chatting. There was an attempt to get a chant going; but perhaps that sums up the problem. The chant that was failing to be picked up by the crowd was: “What do we want? Evidence based science. When do we want it? After peer review” It’s clever, and right, and I agree with it – but it was bloody awful chant, and probably reflected the wants of only a proportion of the marchers.

I enjoyed the March for Science but I’m not convinced it goes anywhere from here without a great deal more clarity of purpose and simplicity of message.

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