Physicist and ex-Rep. Rush Holt: The March for Science fight isn’t over

Rush Holt speaks at the March for Science in Washington on Saturday. (Photo: Earth Day Network)
Rush Holt speaks at the March for Science in Washington on Saturday. (Photo: Earth Day Network)

Rush Holt Jr., a former congressman who serves as the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, spoke at the March for Science’s flagship event in Washington over the weekend.

He did not mince words when it comes to his field.

“We march today to affirm to all the world that science is relevant, useful, exciting and beautiful,” he said.

There have previously been science-related protests — such as those for or against nuclear power or genetically modified organisms — but the March for Science was remarkable, in part, because of its relatively modest message: an endorsement of the scientific process and verifiable facts.

Holt, who earned MA and PhD degrees in physics at New York University, represented New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District as a Democrat from 1999 until 2015 when he took the helm of his current group, the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society. He is also the executive publisher of Science Magazine, a peer-reviewed academic journal.

Yahoo News reached out to Holt to discuss the importance of the March for Science, why the scientific enterprise is being politicized and what supporters of science can do now that the march is in our collective rear-view mirror.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Yahoo News: Now that the march is over, what significance do you think it had for the place of science in our public discourse?

Rush Holt: The most significant thing about the March for Science was not what any particular speaker said or what any particular sign read, but that for the first time in many decades, hundreds of thousands of friends of science and scientists around the world turned out. Science is not something that people typically have demonstrated about, and scientists are generally not the kind of people who like to go public. Just the fact that it happened was truly significant. As the organizers said from the beginning, it was meant to be positive and constructive and nonpartisan.

How did we come to the point where a discipline that’s inherently nonpartisan and objective like science is being dismissed by a considerable portion of the population as political or left-wing?

One of the signs said, “Science is not a liberal conspiracy.” The fact that anybody would carry a sign like that or a sign like that would bring a smile tells us how far we’ve come — what a hole we find ourselves in as a society, where we would spend our time trying to dismiss the idea of evidence rather than trying to assemble the best evidence on any issue. When did it start? Why are we here? It’s hard to say. But it didn’t just start in November. I think people are realizing that it’s at a crisis stage, the fact that people would not just mistake evidence but actually ignore, dismiss or distort evidence.

Rush Holt with Bonnie Watson Coleman in 2014. She replaced him when he left Congress. (Photo: Mel Evans/AP)
Rush Holt with Bonnie Watson Coleman in 2014. She replaced him when he left Congress. (Photo: Mel Evans/AP)

In your view, how much are science educators and public intellectuals like Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris helping to educate the public about what science is and what it isn’t?

The people you mentioned do a lot to help people understand what science is all about. I think going into the March for Science, a lot of people said, “Oh, Bill Nye is a television personality.” Well, yes he is. And he uses his celebrity to talk about the importance of science in people’s lives. Is that bad? The wonderful thing about the march was that it was about the very idea of science. By seeking observational and evidence-based answers to questions and then subjecting those answers to public critique and peer review, you can actually learn things and get a better understanding of how the world works, how stars, biological systems and people behave. That fundamental idea of science is not well appreciated, and I think the march did quite a bit to emphasize this and why science is such a valuable way of thinking.

Slideshow: March for Science events around the globe >>>

How much do you think the oil and natural gas industry, the tobacco industry before them or other vested interests are responsible for spreading the distrust of science that we see nowadays?

The conditions that have generated the concern that led to the March for Science have been developing for a long time. The dismissal of evidence is partly the result of a distortion of evidence. There’s no question that some special interests have spent a lot of money distorting evidence about climate change and a number of other public issues. I hope what came out of the March for Science was that science is not just another special interest group, that scientists correctly believe that they’re engaged in a majestic enterprise to get at the truth, to answer questions about unknowns. The scientific way of thinking is one of the great inventions of the last 500 years. To say that the march was about a narrow special interest group diminishes the majesty of science. Sure, scientists don’t want their livelihoods curtailed, but most scientists feel they are engaged in something more than just a workaday undertaking. Science has enriched people’s lives, improved qualities of life and saved lives.

Now that the march is over, what can people do from here on out to support scientists and science in general?

I think now the science community and friends of science are already engaged in capturing and channeling all of this energy and concern into steps to advance science. That will mean putting in place forceful procedures that make sure policies and legislation are based on evidence. They will work hard to see that science is communicated with the general public in a way that helps them understand that it is relevant and enormously beneficial, that scientists will be working to develop a broad understanding that science is not some special activity for highly trained people — science is a way of thinking that’s available to everyone. And the beneficial output of science is available to everyone. Clearly, the march came about because a lot of people felt that public understanding of science had eroded, that scientists had been too reluctant to step out of their labs and into the public square, that policymakers were allowed to ignore science. I think we can take all of this energy, all of these concerns and address those shortcomings in communication, education and policymaking.

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