02. Marching for Facts
Foreword: While this won't show up for a week or so after, I wanted to write my thoughts on the March for Science. Frankly, I didn't march, partly due to the complexities of the issues at hand, and my difficulties grasping all their nuances, but mostly because I personally, as an individual, do not do well in large groups, or with loud noises. A grad student in my department recently successfully defended their thesis, and the raucous applause he received at the biweekly progress happy hour made me viscerally cringe, to the point of pain. As much as I may have wanted to show solidarity with the vocal scientific community, I know myself well enough to need to take my own care into consideration.
The United States, like many nations the world over, is in the swell of reactionary mindsets, in which the progressives must stand strong and stand together to assert the common good. The challenge of a resurgence in authoritarianism is troubling to behold, as the tenets of democracy, which until now were already somewhat shaky, in part due to their intrinsic entanglements in bureaucracy and at times, nepotism, is now revealed to be dependent on an honor system, on the trust that politicians aspire to be representative of their constituents, as opposed to their own good, their own wealth.
It goes without saying that it is disturbing to see the development of the current administration. I do not know for certain what bothers me more, the actions of those in power, or the fact that these actions are constantly, if not always, boldly in defiance of promises made prior to the election. It highlights the idea that the highest offices of a nation are dependent on the people taking politicians at their word, but without failsafes to ensure at the very least an attempt to follow through with their stated positions, their promises to the people they claim to represent. Representative government crumbles at its foundation when the basic concept of it is cast aside by those who act within it.
I could likely write endlessly about the frustrations of political systems, of the historical precedents that have led to the current surge of reactionarism, of the frustration of battling against opponents who distract the true argument with petty accusations, bold lies, and deflective counterarguments and logical fallacy. Instead I will write about science.
Science is the process by which we, as a civilization, as the billions of people alive, billions of people who have ever lived, and billions of people who will live in the future, attain knowledge. The goal is, at all times, to acquire facts from the chaos of the world, to extract the elements of the maelstrom, to gather them, sort them, understand them, so we may appreciate what has happened, why it has happened, how it has happened, and in what ways such happenings will occur in the times to come.
So it is so fascinating, so infuriating, so interesting, to see the critiques of the organization of the March on Science. There is talk of it not focusing enough, or focusing too much, on diversity issues in academia and science; of it degrading science by politicizing it; of the movement lacking a focused central goal, and by a result being ineffective. These conflicts all blend together, in layers upon layers I can only begin to delve into.
Academia, and by extension, science, is an institution. It is old, ancient, and so as a result, rather unfortunately, it is often entrenched in tradition. Some of these traditions are those of method, of how science works as an inquiry based process. But some of these traditions are traditions of practice. The stereotype of the beleaguered PhD student is ubiquitous in the public consciousness and the consciousness of those experiencing it. The concept of publish or perish is so real, both as a laconic description of the pressures of work in academia, and as a toxic cause of recurring ethical breaches made by researchers struggling to relieve this stress. I personally have had negative experiences with supervisors who lack sympathy, or compassion, or understanding for individuals' difficulties in adapting to research development at the graduate level. It is these 'traditions', these entrenched works of the old guard, that have contributed to many of academia's woes. Just as our country is awash with institutional bigotry of every shape and size, academia as an institution, and as an institution within this country, suffers too from such issues. I am too young, too inexperience, and frankly, too white to begin to dissect the complexities at play, and like all large problems, it has too many faces for us to face one without facing the others, and this need to fight on all fronts can often leave us spread thin, spread weary, and make our front seem far weaker than it truly is.
There are some who say science is apolitical. Others will counterargue that it is absolutely political, but is and should be apartisan. Science is not about opinions. Science is about knowing. We try not to believe that any one thing is true, but rather that there is truth, and that is what we seek to achieve. These truths, these understandings of the world around us, the world within us, we seek so we can use this knowledge for our betterment. We as scientists assemble these data, these truths, so they may be used by all. Choosing to neglect truths found in favor of 'truths' desired, is antithetical to the scientific process. So when a politician, or any group or individual decides that truths, facts, whatever you wish to call them, are something they can choose to believe or disbelieve, they have descended into the madness place.
I could discuss the concept of burden of evidence, or provide analogies of the inane arguments being made, but frankly, that has been done. It does not work. People are selfish, and mean, and cruel, and when we are lucky, they see these things within themselves and strive to overcome them. This is what I do. This is what science does. It sees the human condition, and strives, struggles, strains, to be their best. To take knowledge and make wisdom, not take desire and make belief.
I agree, that science should be apartisan. I may even agree that science should be apolitical. But when there are no fail-safes, when there are no checks or balances, when the foundations of the pursuit of human knowledge are being dismantled a piece at a time: our hand is forced. We must fight for something we love, for something that sustains us, for something that we see as a high glory, a goal to attain.
I love knowledge. Science is the way we attain knowledge. Thought, reason, wonder, are the tools of humankind, and its fruits are my joy. This is not a battle for slashed funding, or higher wages, or even the institutional problems that do haunt the hallowed halls of academia. This is a battle for survival in an age where living should be a guarantee.
Postscript: Especially at the end of this writing, my tone, my cadence, my vocabulary, begin to sound almost.. religious in tone. My spirituality and faith are private, but how I feel about the things I love makes me treat them in similarly high regards.