On a beautiful sunny morning on Saturday, I followed hundreds of women, men and children making their way through Toronto’s downtown core as part of the highly publicized March for Science that took place in Washington, D.C. and another 610 cities around the world. There was no tear gas or trees lit on fire—just a lot of white lab coats and witty protest signs like “Cell-ebrate Science” and “Alternative Facts are the Square Root of Negative 1.”
Sounds uplifting, doesn’t it? In reality, scientists have been critical of the March for Science since its inception, with public figures, notably Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer, speaking out. What I found particularly concerning was the March’s emphasis on intersectionality as a “core principle.” This theory is fuelled by anti-science sentiments, such as the belief that we should prioritize subjective feelings over objective fact. These ideas have no place in the discourse on legitimate science.
Many of the people I spoke with were scientists protesting President Donald Trump’s defunding; others were self-proclaimed defenders of science or had friends and family working in research.
But at the March, it took all of about five minutes before many of the organized speakers broke out the usual identity politics rhetoric, with talk about how “race, religion, gender and class” should not divide us. Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree with this, but since the goal of science is to be impartial, it really wasn’t necessary for them to keep pointing this out. Another speaker blamed “power structures” and capitalism for our current predicament. I saw people holding anti-fascism signs and wasn’t sure what this had to do with funding cuts to the NIH or NASA.
The March should have been about the desire to seek the truth regardless of whether it fits your worldview.
Of all of my interactions that day, two stood out to me. I approached a speaker whose talk had centered on criticizing the underrepresentation of women in STEM. She believed our society was to blame for this disparity (as did the March’s Twitter account). I was curious as to what she’d say when faced with facts backed by sexology. When I mentioned the enormous body of scientific literature (and by this, I mean thousands of studies) supporting biological explanations for the gender differences we see in people’s interests and occupations, she said that research can’t yet tell us “what is nature and what is nurture.”
I also came across a fellow millennial, wearing a white lab coat, texting on his phone. I interrupted him to ask what had brought him to the March. As a PhD student doing stem cell research at the University of Toronto, Ken Grisé says it’s important that we “ask the right questions,” and he wanted to defend science against those who “ignore the evidence if it doesn’t agree with the outcome they want.”
This is what the March should have been about—the desire to seek the truth regardless of whether it fits your particular worldview. And maybe it was about this, on some level, buried down below. But it seemed the resounding theme that day was uniting everyone over a disdain for science deniers on the right.
But what about anti-science tropes coming from the left, particularly when they’re being laid out directly in front of you, in the park on Saturday? When I’d bring this up, people would look at me like a third eye was growing out of my head, or they’d suddenly get very uncomfortable.
This recent video featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson powerfully sums up where we are in the conversation on science denial, and it applies to both sides of the political spectrum. Scientists deserve to be shielded from political interference across the board. If we hold only one faction of anti-science crusaders accountable, we will pay dearly for this complacency down the road.
Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto. She has written for Harper’s, Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.