How to argue for the appropriateness of scientists marching on Washington

This piece (“Science Has Always Been Political”) has a conclusion I absolutely agree with:

The argument for Science Marchers should not be to keep your government hands off of science; instead it should be that science and objectivity can have a complex political history, and that the discovery of facts can have a cultural and social basis—and “alternative facts” can still be lies.

And I’d think the argument for the importance of scientists marching politically should be straightforward. Scientists have no special obligation to avoid politics. The government is a major source of science funding, and so these institutions necessarily influence each other. If scientists have the ability to positively impact our society and government they, like any citizen, should act. The march has such a potential and, therefore, a political march on Washington is appropriate.

This is not the argument the piece provides, though, and I find the arguments provided unnecessarily convoluted. Not that this is like my area of expertise or anything. And, since Moses, Jenn and I had been going back and forth on this issue yesterday, I thought I’d write a post about it. Not because I have views that I’m confident in here but because I need space to stretch out on this discussion.

Here is our twitter discussion, by the way, in case you want to click through and see too much tweeting:

Thanks to Moses and Jenn for being so reliably thoughtful, and thanks to Moses for thinking to share this piece with me even though I’m sort of perpetually annoying about the relationship between politics and science/math.

The piece starts strong, from my point of view. Apparently, some scientists don’t know what “political protest” means:

Some very vocal scientists—even some of the March’s organizers—seem unaware of the political history of their profession, or they assume that the politics is a sideshow that can be separated from the business of uncovering the truths of nature. Even one organizer of the march tried to make this distinction,calling it “a protest, but…not a political protest.”

This is nonsense, and the piece correctly identifies it as such. A march on Washington that isn’t a political protest? I don’t even know what that means…

But the piece goes beyond pointing out this ridiculousness. Instead it argues that politics is inseparable from science.

What does that mean? First [Argument #1] that scientists have, historically, been interested in who is permitted to join the scientific community.

Questions about who could be a part of a scientific community and what kind of knowledge they could obtain were a matter of political control from the very beginning. The London-based Royal Society, established in 1660, initially restricted its membership to economically independent men, under the pretext that anyone else would lack the mental or moral capacity to set aside their self-interest and fairly observe the results of experiments.

Over 350 years later, some scientists still imagine their own purity, that quiet consensus within their own circles means that science is apolitical. (emphasis mine, -MP)

This is a political question, hence science is political.

I object a bit here. We slide very quickly from saying that who is permitted to do science is a political question into saying that science is political. Those aren’t the same thing, though. Granted that banning women from driving trucks would be political; is it political to drive a truck?

My objection here is entirely to the sloppiness of the argument. There’s no reason to overly complicate things: being a science professional puts you in contact with political questions. Why go the extra step to say that science — as a body of knowledge — is political?

A second argument [#2] for the political nature of science follows this first one. Scientists have gender, sexuality, race, nationality, religion and many other views. These political factors influence their ideas, and therefore their ideas are political:

The science-purity position argues that if Newton’s laws are true and right, his ideas are an objective truth that has nothing to do with his sexuality, race, nationality, or religion. But this position (mostly advocated by people in positions of privilege afforded to them by race, gender, language background, or other identities) often conflates positions of political privilege for political neutrality.

I completely grant that Newton’s scientific ideas are influenced by his  identities and other views — every human is a whole human. Likewise, the inventor of the corkscrew necessarily had many identities and views that influenced his invention.

Is opening a bottle of wine therefore political?

I think we have to distinguish between Newton’s ideas and the ideas of Isaac Newton. Newton had his own ideas. Ideas have a life beyond the person who caused them to become well known, don’t they? (If they don’t, then is using a corkscrew a political act?)

Agree or disagree with my analogy, this seems to be taking us into very weird and abstract territory. What does this have to do with the appropriateness of marching on Washington?

third argument: Since some scientists have been political advocates, we can also be political advocates too:

The claim that politicizing science is something new also overlooks advocacy by figures in the history of science or casts the work of white male scientists Robert Oppenheimer and Linus Pauling as apolitical.

What if Oppenheimer and Pauling were wrong to politicize science? This is sort of a non-sequitur to me.


It imagines that ethical disasters such as eugenic sterilization,scientific racism, and using the imprimatur and prestige of science to justify sexual inequality and oppression are disconnected from the pure scientific facts themselves.

This is obviously an instance when science was influenced by racism and other awful political views. But it offers no response to the critic who says, precisely! Politics should stay out of science.

Argument #4: 

From a historical perspective, imagining science as apolitical is itself a kind of political argument

I’m not sure what “from a historical perspective” means here. Like, in the past, if you said science was apolitical you were making a political argument, so if you’re doing that now you’re probably also making a political argument? That’s my best read.

But we’re spending all this time trying to convince people that science has to be political. At what point is the article going to get around to telling us why science ought to be political?

The final argument [#5] is that since science is not objective — it’s truths are influenced by the people and societies who produce them:

The science march may be united in opposing “antiscience” abuses by the new administration, and it has attracted the interest of more than 100,000 people, but two camps are quickly coalescing: those who believe science is objective and those who know objectivity is social.


I don’t see how recognizing that the ideas of science have social origins impacts whether science is political, or whether scientists ought to be engaged in politics.

If somebody challenged the appropriateness of teachers striking, I would want to argue that we’re people and can do what we want. I’d argue that teachers need to protect our own interests, there will be no long-term harm to students, and that if you want to blame someone you should blame those who refuse to agree to our reasonable demands.

I wouldn’t go straight to the social science, the philosophy, to Plato or Aristotle.

The arguments in this piece don’t make a ton of sense to me, but more than any particular argument, I don’t understand the overall approach. If people are challenging the appropriateness of mixing science with politics, you don’t want to just argue that politics is inextricably bound with science. You want to argue that these political actions are appropriate.

Why not make that argument? Wouldn’t that argument resonate more widely than these very abstract points?



2 thoughts on “How to argue for the appropriateness of scientists marching on Washington

  1. Some ideas that seem a bit outside your current line of thought, but might be helpful:
    Consider the “appeal to authority” tactic in rhetorical argument. People-at-large are used to hearing the phrase “scientists say” or similar as a source of authority for justifying something. On the one hand, does the implicit invocation of this authority make sense in politics (do scientists deserve to be seen as authorities)? I would argue “usually no, but sometimes” and clarify this a bit below. On the other hand, does political activity as a group have any implication for their authority role in other areas? I would argue “yes,” involvement in politics as a group with the label “science” has the potential to damage their credibility in other areas.

    Part of my thinking is based on a definitions of politics as the identification and selection of community values and collective decisions involving trade-offs between those values. As sub-fields, I would flag political science (the study and analysis of structures, institutions and processes for the identification of values and policy trade-offs between those values) and political philosophy (philosophy associated with the question of what those values should be).

    Personally, I feel that science contributes little directly to political philosophy, the selection of values and trade-offs between competing values. I don’t mean that scientists are less qualified than other people, but they aren’t necessarily more qualified. This shouldn’t be surprising, since it isn’t really part of their experience or training as scientists. As you mentioned, there have been plenty of scientists on the right and wrong sides of political questions through history.

    Where science as a field and scientists as a group do have a political role is in the establishment of a source of power outside government (or religion or wealth). In this sense, I even see every day in the math classroom as a deeply subversive and radical political act: training children to understand and wield the power of reason over the power of authority.


    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts — I like your thought that science is an institutional power that is non-political, but that interacts with politics. (At least, that’s how I interpreted what you meant.)

      It’s an interesting perspective, since there’s a way of thinking that I hear a lot that says that every institution is political. I don’t have a settled opinion on any of this, but you’ve definitely got me thinking!


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