‘Science not silence’: Thousands rally in New York to take aim at ‘alternative facts’

Science March demonstrators parade down a Manhattan street.
Science March demonstrators parade down a Manhattan street. (Photo: Ben Adler)

Carefully penned within barricades by the NYPD, thousands of demonstrators lined up, stretching a mile along Manhattan’s Upper West Side, for Saturday morning’s New York City March for Science. The event, on Earth Day, was one of more than 600 simultaneous marches all over the world in conjunction with the flagship event in Washington, D.C., marshaling tens of thousands of activists.

The New York march opened with a rally, followed by a parade to Times Square. Protesters held aloft witty handwritten signs with phrases extolling science’s virtues and calling for politicians to stop denying scientific reality in the service of ideological or political expediency. “Brought to you by science: Silicon, television, Propecia, Twitter. And lots more…” read one typical sign. Another: “Science saves lives.”

Some signs made oblique reference to President Trump and his unprecedented aversion to empirical reality, such as one that read, “Science demands proof — not alternative facts.” Others were more assertively political, including a placard that baldly threatened electoral consequences if Congress enacts the massive cuts to spending on scientific research proposed in Trump’s budget: “Cut science? Be cut in 2018, 2020.”

That sign may have been a little off-message. Even though they were inspired to put together the first-ever March for Science by the new administration’s hostility to unbiased fact-gathering and analysis, the national march organizers say that they want the event to be resolutely nonpartisan and apolitical. Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and the national march’s co-director of partnerships, says she got involved “on the heels of reading articles about scientists frantically downloading and saving government datasets they were afraid would disappear [under Trump.]” But, Johnson insisted, the march was to be “strictly nonpartisan,” with no politicians selected as speakers and no “political organizations” as co-sponsors.

The national march was co-sponsored by an array of professional science organizations, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and public health and environmental advocacy groups. The New York march was co-sponsored by similar groups, including the Nature Conservancy and the New York Academy of Sciences.

Two Science March demonstrators hold up their signs.
Two Science March demonstrators hold up their signs. (Photo: Ben Adler)

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But is being apolitical actually helpful to the pro-science cause? Hahrie Han, an expert in social movements who teaches political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the Atlantic that it might be an impediment to achieving change. She says that rallies and marches are effective when they “can strategically translate the resources they have into relationships and political influence with people who are decision-makers.”

“With the March for Science, given the initial resistance of the people in the movement to politicize it, and the newness of these groups in thinking about their work in political terms, it’ll be a challenge to develop those strategic capacities,” Han said.

The day certainly had a few touches that are unusual for a political protest. The New York marchers were accompanied by a brass band that paid homage to the nerdy crowd’s presumed enthusiasm for science fiction, playing the theme songs from “Star Wars” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” The only frequent chant was “Science not silence.”

Beyond scientists, several groups were better represented than is usual for a political demonstration: notably children and people with disabilities. The latter may have been motivated by the role scientific research and advanced medicine have played in their lives. Several speakers at the rally emphasized that they survived cancer only by the miracle of modern medicine. Others carried signs with wry comments such as “Got plague? If not, thank a scientist.”

Many parents said they had attended other recent protests, such as the Women’s March, without their children, but this one struck them as more kid-friendly, easier to grasp than, say, the nuances of immigration policy or inflammatory things Trump has said about women. “Science is something they can get behind,” says Rebecca Cameron, a mother from Brooklyn who brought her two young children. Her 6-year-old son Colin was carrying a handwritten sign that declared, “Fact is true.” The PTA of Colin’s public elementary school in famously progressive Park Slope, Brooklyn, had organized a whole contingent of students and parents.

A younger protester at the Science March in New York. (Photo: Ben Adler)
A younger protester at the Science March in New York. (Photo: Ben Adler)

Schoolteachers also seemed especially well represented among attendees. “People thinking there’s no way to know if something’s true is really dangerous,” said Kira Kingren, a middle school media literacy teacher, also of Brooklyn.

Students and children were highlighted by the event organizers. Elijah Van Belle, an 18-year-old New York City high school senior, spoke at the rally. “I believe climate change is the greatest threat to my generation,” Van Belle said, in contrast to climate science denial that many protesters cited as among the most dangerous contemporary attacks on science. He added that the excitement of discovery “fills me with goose bumps, but maybe that’s just the weird weather we’ve been having.”

Counter-protester Jim McDonald of Queens stood at Columbus Circle, near where the rally occurred and the march began, holding a sign promoting a different epistemology: “Thank God for Donald Trump,” it read.

“I’m here to show that most of the country supports Donald Trump,” McDonald said. “I’m also angry that they say they’re here to promote science. They should be honest enough to say what they’re here for,” he added, arguing that the science march was just another excuse to protest Trump. In fact, aside from a few mutterings as the march passed the Trump International Hotel and Tower on Central Park West, Trump’s name hardly came up.

The real enemy of the day seemed to be “alternative facts,” a widely mocked term coined by top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, who was defending the White House’s false claim about the inauguration crowd size. The phrase evoked hearty boos from the crowd when mentioned by a speaker. (McDonald, fittingly enough, is a firm believer in at least one alternative fact: After all, his claim that “most of the country supports Donald Trump” flies in the face of both current opinion polling and Trump’s popular vote totals in November.)

More signs at the Science March in New York.
More signs at the Science March in New York. (Photo: Ben Adler)

While protesters readily conceded that Trump himself would not be likely to change his approach to anything in response to their march, they hope to galvanize a movement that pressures members of Congress and opens up a new realm of public awareness about the importance of scientific integrity to good policymaking.

Whether or not they will succeed is unclear. Trump has for years dismissed climate science, calling global warming a “hoax.” And he has previously dismissed April 22 as “so-called Earth Day.”

But on Saturday, at least, he took a different approach. “Rigorous science is critical to my administration’s efforts to achieve the twin goals of economic growth and environmental protection,” he declared.

Trump followed the statement with a less nuanced tweet on the matter. “[A]lways remember that economic growth enhances environmental protection. Jobs matter!” he wrote.

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