The March for Science has a diversity problem.
Ok, to be clear, the committee organizing the march is the one with the problem. As they’re about to find out, a movement like this will resist, among other things, the efforts of a few to take ownership over a much grander view of life. The Science March on Washington (and the marches in your home state) is bigger than one organization.
Five months ago, we issued a mandate for Southern Fried Science, that we would strive to tear down barriers, to breach the dam, because Diversity is Resilience. Seeing the March for Science struggle and seemingly succumb to the same weathered barricades reinforced, for me, exactly why we need that mandate.
“Science isn’t political” is a lovely Platonic platitude that we whisper reassuringly into comfortable ears.
It is not so.
Science as a discipline cannot be separated from Science as an institution, an institution built by people with their own prejudices and persecutions. Even if it could be, there are few declarations more radically political than to stand up and say that “this tool, this method of probing the universe, *this, THIS* is the best way to understand reality”. Science is that tool.
But there is a vein that runs deep into the corpus of science that seeks to minimize the structural problems that exist within the institution. In rejecting these appeals for diversity and inclusivity, in diminishing their roles within a political movement, the organization has disenfranchised the very voices which lend resilience to the resistance. It is a retreat to the mean.
This retreat to the mean is not unique to the March for Science organization. We see it in the science media we produce and consumer. We see it in the celebrities considered great popularizers of science. We see it in the cutesy way we throw Pi onto things, as if just mentioning a number makes people science literate. We see it in nature documentaries that disappear the human element, as if humans haven’t been influencing ecologic processes for tens of thousands of years. It is a tacit attempt to deny the inherent humanity of the scientific process, to sterilize it, as if by ignoring our structural failings, we can will them to disappear. It is science populism eager to appeal to authority.
It is this craven appeal to authoritarian populism that leaves me with the bitter taste of salt and iron on my tongue. Populism that is not just an appeal to the mean, not just a flag planted firmly upon the summit of the normal distribution, but a declaration that the mean is the ideal, that acceptance lies at its pinnacle rather than the long tails that stretch out into the infinite diversity of the human experience. It is populism that declares that we will not stretch out to meet you, but rather that you, no matter how many standard deviations you sit from the mean, must crawl towards it to be accepted.
I reject this populism. I reject it in politics. I reject it in science.
I reject the notion that participation in the pursuit of science requires that one must cling tightly to the mean of a normal distribution. I reject the notion that the normal distribution exists at all, that it is anything more than sample bias, the product of selection built on prejudice. Science, if anything, is infinitely variable across infinite axes. It cannot be normalized.
This vein of authoritarian populism brought us to this point. It will not liberate us.
I often talk about Jacques Cousteau. He has been my model for outreach, despite the decades that divide us. There’s a reason he still stands, without peer, among the great storytellers of the earth and ocean. There are no Cousteau documentaries that deny the fundamental humanity of science, discovery, and exploration. There is a compassion in his work, even in the earliest films that are as brutally, viscerally, unforgivingly human as they are beautiful, that rarely exists in the science landscape. Cousteau is not a solitary, charismatic narrator, he is a character in a story that is unflinchingly centered on how humanity interacts with the natural world.
But it’s more than that. Cousteau is more than that. He didn’t just make documentaries, he made tools. His greatest creation isn’t his films. His greatest creation is the aqualung. He didn’t leave us with images and words to inspire, he gave us the means to take that inspiration, go out into the world, and tell our own stories.
Today we March. We march for the idea of Science. We march for science funding. We march for political action. We march for the environment, for climate change, for habitat destruction, for environmental protection. We march for diversity and inclusivity and tearing down barriers. We march because we have to.
And if you don’t march, that’s ok, too. Resistance must take many forms for it to remain resilient.
When we march, we should march for the science that uplifts humanity. We should march for the science that is not an authority but a tool. We should march for the science that truly belongs to us all, the science that let’s you dive deeper, that gives everyone the means to tell their own stories.
And then, we should listen.