Is a little science a dangerous thing?

Is the popularization of science encouraging a growing disrespect for scientific expertise? 
Do we need to reform science education so that students are better able to detect scientific BS? 

It is common wisdom that popularizing science by exposing the public to scientific ideas is an unalloyed good,  bringing benefits to both those exposed and to society at large. Many such efforts are engaging and entertaining, often taking the form of compelling images with quick cuts between excited sound bites from a range of “experts.” A number of science-centered programs, such PBS’s NOVA series, are particularly adept and/or addicted to this style. Such presentations introduce viewers to natural wonders, and often provide scientific-sounding, albeit often superficial and incomplete, explanations – they appeal to the gee-whiz and inspirational, with “mind-blowing” descriptions of how old, large, and weird the natural world appears to be. But there are darker sides to such efforts. Here I focus on one, the idea that a rigorous, realistic understanding of the scientific enterprise and its conclusions, is easy to achieve, a presumption that leads to unrealistic science education standards, and the inability to judge when scientific pronouncements are distorted or unsupported, as well as anti-scientific personal and public policy positions.That accurate thinking about scientific topics is easy to achieve is an unspoken assumption that informs much of our educational, entertainment, and scientific research system. This idea is captured in the recent NYT best seller “Astrophysics for people in a hurry” – an oxymoronic presumption. Is it possible for people “in a hurry” to seriously consider the observations and logic behind the conclusions of modern astrophysics? Can they understand the strengths and weaknesses of those conclusions? Is a superficial familiarity with the words used the same as understanding their meaning and possible significance? Is acceptance understanding?  Does such a cavalier attitude to science encourage unrealistic conclusions about how science works and what is known with certainty versus what remains speculation?  Are the conclusions of modern science actually easy to grasp?
The idea that introducing children to science will lead to an accurate grasp the underlying concepts involved, their appropriate application, and their limitations is not well supported [1]; often students leave formal education with a fragile and inaccurate understanding – a lesson made explicit in Matt Schneps and Phil Sadler’s Private Universe videos. The feeling that one understands a topic, that science is in some sense easy, undermines respect for those who actually do understand a topic, a situation discussed in detail in Tom Nichols “The Death of Expertise.” Under-estimating how hard it can be to accurately understand a scientific topic can lead to unrealistic science standards in schools, and often the trivialization of science education into recognizing words rather than understanding the concepts they are meant to convey.

The fact is, scientific thinking about most topics is difficult to achieve and maintain – that is what editors, reviewers, and other scientists, who attempt to test and extend the observations of others, are for – together they keep science real and honest. Until an observation has been repeated or confirmed by others, it can best be regarded as an interesting possibility, rather than a scientifically established fact.  Moreover, until a plausible mechanism explaining the observation has been established, it remains a serious possibility that the entire phenomena will vanish, more or less quietly (think cold fusion). The disappearing physiological effects of “power posing” comes to mind. Nevertheless the incentives to support even disproven results can be formidable, particularly when there is money to be made and egos on the line.

While power-posing might be helpful to some, even though physiologically useless, there are more dangerous pseudo-scientific scams out there. The gullible may buy into “raw water” (see: Raw water: promises health, delivers diarrhea) but the persistent, and in some groups growing, anti-vaccination movement continues to cause real damage to children (see Thousands of cheerleaders exposed to mumps).  One can ask oneself, why haven’t professional science groups, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), not called for a boycott of NETFLIX, given that NETFLIX continues to distribute the anti-scientific, anti-vaccination program VAXXED [2]?  And how do Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump  [link: Oprah Spreads Pseudoscience and Trump and the anti-vaccine movement] avoid universal ridicule for giving credence to ignorant non-sense, and for disparaging the hard fought expertise of the biomedical community?  A failure to accept well established expertise goes along way to understanding the situation. Instead of an appreciation for what we do and do not know about the causes of autism (see: Genetics and Autism Risk & Autism and infection), there are desperate parents who turn to a range of “therapies” promoted by anti-experts. The tragic case of parents trying to cure autism by forcing children to drink bleach (see link) illustrates the seriousness of the situation.

So why do a large percentage of the public ignore the conclusions of disciplinary experts?  I would argue that an important driver is the way that science is taught and popularized [3]. Beyond the obvious fact that a range of politicians and capitalists (in both the West and the East) actively distain expertise that does not support their ideological or pecuniary positions [4], I would claim that the way we teach science, often focussing on facts rather than processes, largely ignoring the historical progression by which knowledge is established, and the various forms of critical analyses to which scientific conclusions are subjected to, combines with the way science is popularized, erodes respect for disciplinary expertise. Often our education systems fail to convey how difficult it is to attain real disciplinary expertise, in particular the ability to clearly articulate where ideas and conclusions come from and what they do and do not imply. Such expertise is more than a degree, it is a record of rigorous and productive study and useful contributions, and a critical and objective state of mind. Science standards are often heavy on facts, and weak on critical analyses of those ideas and observations that are relevant to a particular process. As Carl Sagan might say, we have failed to train students on how to critically evaluate claims, how to detect baloney (or BS in less polite terms)[5].

In the area of popularizing scientific ideas, we have allowed hype and over-simplification to capture the flag. To quote from a article by David Berlinski [link: Godzooks], we are continuously bombarded with a range of pronouncements about new scientific observations or conclusions and there is often a “willingness to believe what some scientists say without wondering whether what they say is true”, or even what it actually means.  No longer is the in-depth, and often difficult and tentative explanation conveyed, rather the focus is on the flashy conclusion (independent of its plausibility). Self proclaimed experts pontificate on topics that are often well beyond their areas of training and demonstrated proficiency – many is the physicist who speaks not only about the completely speculative multiverse, but on free will and ethical beliefs. Complex and often irreconcilable conflicts between organisms, such as those between mother and fetus (see: War in the womb), male and female (in sexually dimorphic species), and individual liberties and social order, are ignored instead of explicitly recognized, and their origins understood. At the same time, there are real pressures acting on scientific researchers (and the institutions they work for) and the purveyors of news to exaggerate the significance and broader implications of their “stories” so as to acquire grants, academic and personal prestige, and clicks.  Such distortions serve to erode respect for scientific expertise (and objectivity).

So where are the scientific referees, the individuals that are tasked to enforce the rules of the game; to call a player out of bounds when they leave the playing field (their area of expertise) or to call a foul when rules are broken or bent, such as the fabrication, misreporting, suppression, or over-interpretation of data, as in the case of the anti-vaccinator Wakefield. Who is responsible for maintaining the integrity of the game?  Pointing out the fact that many alternative medicine advocates are talking meaningless blather (see: On skepticism & pseudo-profundity)? Where are the referees who can show these charlatans the “red card” and eject them from the game?

Clearly there are no such referees. Instead it is necessary to train as large a percentage of the population as possible to be their own science referees – that is, to understand how science works, and to identify baloney when it is slung at them. When a science popularizer, whether for well meaning or self-serving reasons, steps beyond their expertise, we need to call them out of
bounds!  And when scientists run up against the constraints of the scientific process, as appears to occur periodically with theoretical physicists, and the occasional neuroscientist (see: Feuding physicists and The Soul of Science) we need to recognize the foul committed.  If our educational system could help develop in students a better understanding of the rules of the scientific game, and why these rules are essential to scientific progress, perhaps we can help re-establish both an appreciation of rigorous scientific expertise, as well as a respect for what is that scientists struggle to do.

Footnotes and references:

  1. And is it clearly understood that they have nothing to say as to what is right or wrong.
  2.  Similarly, many PBS stations broadcast pseudoscientific infomercials: for example see Shame on PBS, Brain Scam, and the Deepak Chopra’s anti-scientific Brain, Mind, Body, Connection, currently playing on my local PBS station. Holocaust deniers and slavery apologists are confronted much more aggressively.
  3.  As an example, the idea that new neurons are “born” in the adult hippocampus, up to now established orthodoxy, has recently been called into question: see Study Finds No Neurogenesis in Adult Humans’ Hippocampi
  4.  Here is a particular disturbing example: By rewriting history, Hindu nationalists lay claim to India
  5. Pennycook, G., J. A. Cheyne, N. Barr, D. J. Koehler and J. A. Fugelsang (2015). “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.” Judgment and Decision Making 10(6): 549.

Go ahead and “teach the controversy:” it is the best way to defend science.

as long as teachers understand the science and its historical context

The role of science in modern societies is complex. Science-based observations and innovations drive a range of economically important, as well as socially disruptive, technologies. Many opinion polls indicate that the American public “supports” science, while at the same time rejecting rigorously established scientific conclusions on topics ranging from the safety of genetically modified organisms and the role of vaccines in causing autism to the effects of burning fossil fuels on the global environment [Pew: Views on science and society]. Given that a foundational principle of science is that the natural world can be explained without calling on supernatural actors, it remains surprising that a substantial majority of people appear to believe that supernatural entities are involved in human evolution [as reported by the Gallup organization]; although the theistic percentage has been dropping  (a little) of late.


This situation highlights the fact that when science intrudes on the personal or the philosophical (within which I include the theological and the  ideological), many people are willing to abandon the discipline of science to embrace explanations based on personal beliefs. These include the existence of a supernatural entity that cares for people, at least enough to create them, and that there are reasons behind life’s tragedies.


Where science appears to conflict with various non-scientific positions, the public has pushed back and rejected the scientific. This is perhaps best represented by the recent spate of “teach the controversy” legislative efforts, primarily centered on evolutionary theory and the realities of anthropogenic climate change [see Nature: Revamped ‘anti-science’ education bills]. We might expect to see, on more politically correct campuses, similar calls for anti-GMO, anti-vaccination, or gender-based curricula. In the face of the disconnect between scientific and non-scientific (philosophical, ideological, theological) personal views, I would suggest that an important part of the problem has didaskalogenic roots; that is, it arises from the way science is taught – all too often expecting students to memorize terms and master various heuristics (tricks) to answer questions rather than developing a self-critical understanding of ideas, their origins, supporting evidence, limitations, and practice in applying them.

Science is a social activity, based on a set of accepted core assumptions; it is not so much concerned with Truth, which could, in fact, be beyond our comprehension, but rather with developing a universal working knowledge, composed of ideas based on empirical observations that expand in their explanatory power over time to allow us to predict and manipulate various phenomena.  Science is a product of society rather than isolated individuals, but only rarely is the interaction between the scientific enterprise and its social context articulated clearly enough so that students and the general public can develop an understanding of how the two interact.  As an example, how many people appreciate the larger implications of the transition from an Earth to a Sun- or galaxy-centered cosmology?  All too often students are taught about this transition without regard to its empirical drivers and philosophical and sociological implications, as if the opponents at the time were benighted religious dummies. Yet, how many students or their teachers appreciate that as originally presented the Copernican system had more hypothetical epicycles and related Rube Goldberg-esque kludges, introduced to make the model accurate, than the competing Ptolemic Sun-centered system? Do students understand how Kepler’s recognition of elliptical orbits eliminated the need for such artifices and set the stage for Newtonian physics?  And how did the expulsion of humanity from the center to the periphery of things influence peoples’ views on humanity’s role and importance?


So how can education adapt to better help students and the general public develop a more realistic understanding of how science works?  To my mind, teaching the controversy is a particularly attractive strategy, on the assumption that teachers have a strong grounding in the discipline they are teaching, something that many science degree programs do not achieve, as discussed below. For example, a common attack against evolutionary mechanisms relies on a failure to grasp the power of variation, arising from stochastic processes (mutation), coupled to the power of natural, social, and sexual selection. There is clear evidence that people find stochastic processes difficult to understand and accept [see Garvin-Doxas & Klymkowsky & Fooled by Randomness].  An instructor who is not aware of the educational challenges associated with grasping stochastic processes, including those central to evolutionary change, risks the same hurdles that led pre-molecular biologists to reject natural selection and turn to more “directed” processes, such as orthogenesis [see Bowler: The eclipse of Darwinism & Wikipedia]. Presumably students are even more vulnerable to intelligent-design  creationist arguments centered around probabilities.

The fact that single cell measurements enable us to visualize biologically meaningful stochastic processes makes designing course materials to explicitly introduce such processes easier [Biology education in the light of single cell/molecule studies].  An interesting example is the recent work on visualizing the evolution of antibiotic resistance macroscopically [see The evolution of bacteria on a “mega-plate” petri dish].bacterial evolution-antibiotic resistancepng

To be in a position to “teach the controversy” effectively, it is critical that students understand how science works, specifically its progressive nature, exemplified through the process of generating and testing, and where necessary, rejecting or revising, clearly formulated and predictive hypotheses – a process antithetical to a Creationist (religious) perspective [a good overview is provided here: Using creationism to teach critical thinking].  At the same time, teachers need a working understanding of the disciplinary foundations of their subject, its core observations, and their implications. Unfortunately, many are called upon to teach subjects with which they may have only a passing familiarity.  Moreover, even majors in a subject may emerge with a weak understanding of foundational concepts and their origins – they may be uncomfortable teaching what they have learned.  While there is an implicit assumption that a college curriculum is well designed and effective, there is often little in the way of objective evidence that this is the case. While many of our dedicated teachers (particularly those I have met as part of the CU Teach program) work diligently to address these issues on their own, it is clear that many have not been exposed to a critical examination of the empirical observations and experimental results upon which their discipline is based [see Biology teachers often dismiss evolution & Teachers’ Knowledge Structure, Acceptance & Teaching of Evolution].  Many is the molecular biology department that does not require formal coursework in basic evolutionary mechanisms, much less a thorough consideration of natural, social, and sexual selection, and non-adaptive mechanisms, such as those associated with founder effects, population bottlenecks, and genetic drift, stochastic processes that play a key role in the evolution of many species, including humankind. Similarly, more ecologically- and physiologically-oriented majors are often “afraid” of the molecular foundations of evolutionary processes. As part of an introductory chemistry curriculum redesign project (CLUE), Melanie Cooper and her group at Michigan State University have found that students in conventional courses often fail to grasp key concepts, and that subsequent courses can sometimes fail to remediate the didaskalogenic damage done in earlier courses [see: an Achilles Heel in Chemistry Education].

The importance of a historical perspective: The power of scientific explanations are obvious, but they can become abstract when their historical roots are forgotten, or never articulated. A clear example is that the value of vaccination is obvious in the presence of deadly and disfiguring diseases. In their absence, due primarily to the effectiveness of wide-spread vaccination, the value of vaccination can be called into question, resulting in the avoidable re-emergence of these diseases.  In this context, it would be important that students understand the dynamics and molecular complexity of biological systems, so that they can explain why it is that all drugs and treatments have potential side-effects, and how each individual’s genetic background influences these side-effects (although in the case of vaccination, such side effects do not include autism).

Often “controversy” arises when scientific explanations have broader social, political, or philosophical implications. Religious objections to evolutionary theory arise primarily, I believe, from the implication that we (humans) are not the result of a plan, created or evolved, but rather that we are accidents of mindless, meaningless, and often gratuitously cruel processes. The idea that our species, which emerged rather recently (that is, a few million years ago) on a minor planet on the edge of an average galaxy, in a universe that popped into existence for no particular reason or purpose ~14 billion years ago, can have disconcerting implications [link]. Moreover, recognizing that a “small” change in the trajectory of an asteroid could change the chance that humanity ever evolved [see: Dinosaur asteroid hit ‘worst possible place’] can be sobering and may well undermine one’s belief in the significance of human existence. How does it impact our social fabric if we are an accident, rather than the intention of a supernatural being or the inevitable product of natural processes?

Yet, as a person who firmly believes in the French motto of liberté, égalité, fraternité and laïcité, I feel fairly certain that no science-based scenario on the origin and evolution of the universe or life, or the implications of sexual dimorphism or “racial” differences, etc, can challenge the importance of our duty to treat others with respect, to defend their freedoms, and to insure their equality before the law. Which is not to say that conflicts do not inevitably arise between different belief systems – in my own view, patriarchal oppression needs to be called out and actively opposed where ever it occurs, whether in Saudi Arabia or on college campuses (e.g. UC Berkeley or Harvard).

This is not to say that presenting the conflicts between scientific explanations of phenomena and non-scientific, but more important beliefs, such as equality under the law, is easy. When considering a number of natural cruelties, Charles Darwin wrote that evolutionary theory would claim that these are “as small consequences of one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live  and the weakest die” note the absence of any reference to morality, or even sympathy for the “weakest”.  In fact, Darwin would have argued that the apparent, and overt cruelty that is rampant in the “natural” world is evidence that God was forced by the laws of nature to create the world the way it is, presumably a worlDarwin to Grayd that is absurdly old and excessively vast. Such arguments echo the view that God had no choice other than whether to create or not; that for all its flaws, evils, and unnecessary suffering this is, as posited by Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) and satirized by Voltaire (1694–1778) in his novel Candide, the best of all possible worlds. Yet, as a member of a reasonably liberal, and periodically enlightened, society, we see it as our responsibility to ameliorate such evils, to care for the weak, the sick, and the damaged and to improve human existence; to address prejudice and political manipulations [thank you Supreme Court for ruling against race-based redistricting].  Whether anchored by philosophical or religious roots, many of us are driven to reject a scientific (biological) quietism (“a theology and practice of inner prayer that emphasizes a state of extreme passivity”) by actively manipulating our social, political, and physical environment and striving to improve the human condition, in part through science and the technologies it makes possible.

At the same time, introducing social-scientific interactions can be fraught with potential  controversies, particularly in our excessively politicized and self-righteous society. In my own introductory biology class (biofundamentals), we consider potentially contentious issues that include sexual dimorphism and selection and social evolutionary processes and their implications.  As an example, social systems (and we are social animals) are susceptible to social cheating and groups develop defenses against cheaters; how such biological ideas interact with historical, political and ideological perspectives is complex, and certainly beyond the scope of an introductory biology course, but worth acknowledging [PLoS blog link].

yeats quote

In a similar manner, we understand the brain as an evolved cellular system influenced by various experiences, including those that occur during development and subsequent maturation.  Family life interacts with genetic factors in a complex, and often unpredictable way, to shape behaviors.  But it seems unlikely that a free and enlightened society can function if it takes seriously the premise that we lack free-will and so cannot be held responsible for our actions, an idea of some current popularity [see Free will could all be an illusion ]. Given the complexity of biological systems, I for one am willing to embrace the idea of constrained free will, no matter what scientific speculations are currently in vogue [but see a recent video by Sabine Hossenfelder You don’t have free will, but don’t worry, which has me rethinking].

Recognizing the complexities of biological systems, including the brain, with their various adaptive responses and feedback systems can be challenging. In this light, I am reminded of the contrast between the Doomsday scenario of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, and the data-based view of the late Hans Rosling in Don’t Panic – The Facts About Population.

All of which is to say that we need to see science not as authoritarian, telling us who we are or what we should do, but as a tool to do what we think is best and why it might be difficult to achieve. We need to recognize how scientific observations inform and may constrain, but do not dictate our decisions. We need to embrace the tentative, but strict nature of the scientific enterprise which, while it cannot arrive at “Truth” can certainly identify non-sense.

Minor edits and updates and the addition of figures that had gone missing –  20 October 2020

Science, Politics & Marches

Marching is much in the air of late. After the “Women’s March”, that engaged many millions and was motivated in part by misogynistic statements and proposed policies from various politicians, we find ourselves faced with a range of anti-science behaviors, remarks, and proposed policy changes that have encouraged a similar March for Science.  The March for Science has garnered the support of a wide range of scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a range of more march-logospecialized professional science organizations, including the Public Library of Science (PLoS).  There have been a number of arguments for and against marching for science, summarized in this PLoS On Science blog post, so I will not repeat them here.  What is clear is that science does not exist independently of humanity, and this implies a complex interaction between scientific observations and ideas, the scientific enterprise, politics, economics, and personal belief systems: it seems evident that not nearly enough effort is spent in our educational systems to help people understand these interactions (see PLoS SciEd post: From the Science March to the Classroom: Recognizing science in politics and politics in science).

What I want to do here is to present some reflections on the relationship between science and politics, by which I include various belief systems (ideologies).

The mystic Giordano Bruno, burnt at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church as a heretic in 1600, is sometimes put forward as a patron saint of science, mistakenly in my view.  Bruno was a mystic, whose ideas were at best loosely grounded in the observable and in no way scientific as we understand the term. His type of magical thinking is similar to that of modern anti-vaccination-ists who claim vaccination can cause autism (it does not)(1) or that GMOs are somehow innately “unhealthy” and more dangerous than “natural” organisms (see: The GMO safety debate is over).  A better model, particularly in the context of current political controversies, would be the many Soviet geneticists who suffered exile and often death (the famed geneticist N.I. Vavilov starved to death in a Soviet gulag in 1943) as a result of the state/party-driven politicization of science, specifically genetics, carried out by Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and the Communist party/state of the Soviet Union (see: The tragic story of Soviet genetics shows the folly of political meddling in science). In response to the  implications of genetic and evolutionary mechanisms, Stalin favored Lamarckism (inheritance of acquired traits) posited by Ivan Michurin (1855–1935) and Trofim Lysenko (1898–1976)[see link]. Communist ideology required (or rather demanded) that traits, including human traits, be seen as malleable, that the “nature” of plants and people could be altered permanently with appropriate manipulations (vernalization for plants, political re-education for people)[see: The consequences of political dictatorship for Russian science).  No need to wait for the messy, multi-generational processes associated with conventional plant breeding (and Darwinian evolution).  In both cases, the unforgiving realities of the natural world intervened, but not without intense human suffering and starvation associated with both efforts.russion march for science

It is worth noting explicitly that there are, and likely always will be, pressures to politicize science, due in large measure to science’s success in explaining the natural world and providing the basis for its technology-based manipulation. Giordano Bruno was an early martyr in the evolution of a highly ideological world view (illustrated by the house arrest of Galileo and the suppression of heliocentric models of the solar system)(2). Eventually such forms of natural theology were replaced by the apolitical and empirical ideals implicit in Enlightenment science. Aspects of ideological (racist) influences can be seen in 19th century science, most dramatically illustrated by Gould (Morton’s ranking of races by cranial capacity. Unconscious manipulation of data may be a scientific norm)(see link). How racist policies were initially embraced, and then rejected by American geneticists during the course of the 20th century is described by Provine (Geneticists and the Biology of Race Crossing).

More recent events remind us of the pressures to politicize science.  A number of states (Kentucky in 1976, Mississippi in 2006,  Louisiana in 2008, and Tennessee in 2012) have passed bills that allow teachers to present non-scientific ideas to students (think intelligent design creationism and climate change denial).  Such bills continue to come up with depressing frequency.  Most recently an admitted creationist has been appointed to lead a federal  higher education reform task force in the United States [see link]. Is creationism simply alt-science? a position explicitly or tacitly supported by both the religiously orthodox and those of a post-modernist persuasion, such as left-leaning college instructors, who claim that science is a social construct [see: Is Science ‘Forever Tentative’ and ‘Socially Constructed’?].

While such recent anti-science/alt-science attitudes have not had quite the draconian effects found in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany or eugenist America), I would argue that they have a role in eroding the public’s faith in the scientific understanding of complex processes, a faith that is largely justified even in the face of the so-called “reproducibility crises”, which in a sense is no crises at all, but an expected outcome from the size, complexity, and competing forces acting on scientists and  the scientific enterprise. That said, laws and various forms of coercion dictating right-wing/religious or left-wing/political correctness in science threaten to impact the education of a generation of students. Predictions of climate changed based on human-driven (anthropogenic) increases in atmospheric CO2 levels or the effects of lead in public water systems on human health [link] cannot simply be discarded or discounted based on ideological positions on the role of government in protecting the public interest, a role that neither unfettered capitalism or fundampolitics + science cartoonentalist communism seems particularly good at addressing. Similarly the lack of any demonstrable connection between autism and vaccination (see above), the physicochemical impossibility of homeopathic treatments (or various versions of “Christian Science”), and the lack of evidence for the therapeutic claims made for the rather startling array of nutritional supplements serve to inject a political, ideological, and economic  dimension into scientific discourse.  In fact science is constantly under pressure to distort its message.  Consider the European response to GMOs in favor of the “organic” (non-GMO); most GMOs have been banned from the EU for what appears to be ideological (non-scientific) reasons, even though the same organisms have been found safe and are grown in the US and most of Asia (see this Economist essay).

It is clear that the rejection of scientific observations is wide-spread on both the left and the right, basically whenever scientific observations, ideas, or models lead to disturbing or  discomforting conclusions or implications (link). Consider the violent response when Charles Murray was invited to speak at Middlebury College (see Andrew Sullivan’s Is intersectionality a religion?). That human populations might (and in fact can be expected to) display genetic differences, the result of their migration history and subsequent evolutionary processes, both adaptive and non-adaptive (see Henn et al., The great human expansion), is labelled racist and by implication beyond the pale of scientific discourse, even though it is tacitly recognized by the scientific community to be well established (no one, I think, gets particularly upset at the suggestion that noses are shaped by evolutionary processes and reflect genetic differences between populations (see Climate shaped the human nose) or that nose shape might play a role in human sexual selection (see Facial Attractiveness and Sexual Selection; and sexual dimorphism).  One might even speculate that studies of the role of nose shape in mate selection could form the basis of an interesting research project (see Beauty and the beast: mechanisms of sexual selection in humans.

What often goes undiscussed is whether differences in specific traits (different alleles and allele frequencies) between populations have any meaningful significance in the context f public policy – I would argue that they do not).  What is clear is that in a pre-genomic era recognizing such differences can be of practical value, for example in the treatment of diseases (see Ethnic Differences in Cardiovascular Drug Response). That said, the era of genomics-based personalized diagnosis and treatment is rapidly making such population-based considerations obsolete (see: Genetic tests for disease risks and ethical debate on personal genome testing), while at the same time raising serious issues of privacy and discrimination based on the presence of the “wrong” alleles (see: genome sequencing–ethical issues). In a world of facile genomic engineering the dangers of unfettered technological manipulations move more and more rapidly from science fiction to the boutique (intelligent?) design of people (see: CRISPR gene-editing and human evolution).

So back (about time, you may be thinking) to the original question – if we “march for science”, what exactly are we marching for [link]?  Are we marching to defend the apolitical nature of science and the need to maintain economic support (increased public funding levels) for the scientific enterprise, or are we conflating support for science with a range of social and political positions?  Are we affirming our commitment to a politically independent (skeptical) community of practitioners who serve to produce, reproduce, critically examine, and extend empirical observations and explanatory (predictive) models?

This is not to ignore the various pressures acting on scientists as they carry out their work. These pressures act to tempt (and sometimes reward) practitioners to exaggerate (if not fabricate) the significance of their observations and ideas in order to capture the resources (funds and people) needed to carry out modern science, as well as the public’s attention. Since resources are limited, extra-scientific forces have an increasing impact on the scientific enterprise – enticing scientists to make exaggerated claims and to put forth extra-scientific arguments and various semi-hysterical scenarios based on their observations and models.  In the context of an inherently political event (a march) the apolitical ideals of science can seem too bland to command attention and stir action, not to mention the damage that politicizing science does to the integrity of science.

At the end of the day my decision is not to march, because I believe that science must be protected from the politPearl quote - aegisical and the partisan(see: The pernicious effects of disrespecting the constraints of science); that the ultimate working nature (as opposed to delivered truth) of scientific observations and conclusions must be respected, something rarely seen in any political movement and certainly not on display in the Lysenkoist, climate change, anti-vaccination, or eugenics movements (see this provocative essay: The Disgraceful Episode Of Lysenkoism Brings Us Global Warming Theory.)


Thanks and footnotes

Thanks for help on this post from Glenn Branch @ National Center for Science Education.   Of course all opinions are mine alone.

(1) While there is not doubt that vaccinations can, like all drugs and medical interventions, lead to side effects in certain individuals, there is unambiguous evidence against any link between autism and vaccination.

(2) It is worth noting that as originally proposed the Copernican (Sun-centered) model of the solar system was more complex than the Ptolemaic (Earth-centered) system it was meant to replace. It was Kepler’s elliptical, rather than circular, orbits that made the heliocentric model dramatically simpler, more accurate, and more aesthetically compelling.