On Saturday I went to the local gathering of the March for Science. It was a very different vibe from the march that I went to the night of the inauguration.
Let me back up.
Since 45’s inauguration I, like many other people who are not happy with his election, wanted to find some way to help contribute to resisting his power grabs and attempts to hurt people that don’t fit into his category of humanity. In the intervening months I’ve become more sensitive to following what’s going on with my members of Congress (like many Republicans, they tend to avoid actually addressing the concerns of their moderate and liberal constituents) and trying to pressure them on issues that matter to me. In the realm of scientific research, I’m not a massive advocate, though I recognize its importance to pretty much the whole of modern society. Rachael and some other friends of ours are big science nerds, and as soon as they heard about the March for Science they made plans to attend the nearest rally. Originally we were going to go to the march in Atlanta, but the city’s highways are in the middle of an apoplectic fit, so we figured that wouldn’t be such a smart idea just in terms of dealing with the traffic. Fortunately, there was a satellite march planned for Athens, so we went to that one instead.
There were a few problems.
The size of the rally was perfectly cromulent, but after everyone had gathered the organizers announced that they had not been able to secure a permit to march because their event coincided with G-Day, the annual spring scrimmage of the University of Georgia football team. Football is more important than Jesus in the South (and game days bring lots of money for Athens businesses), so I’m guessing the city didn’t want a bunch of nerds marching around downtown killing everyone’s buzz or something. The organizers suggested that even though we couldn’t legally march, there was nothing stopping the assembled crowd from dispersing and just sort of… wandering around with our signs proudly displayed. They’d even printed up little index cards with helpful talking points for anyone who wanted to engage football fans on why scientific research is important and the current administration is bad for it.
I get that you do what you can when the city denies you a permit to demonstrate, but this alternate tactic did not strike me as the most potent way to transmit a message.
Another problem that the local rally had was with its speaker line up. This was clearly an event organized by professors from the university, and they weighted the roster towards people that they figured would have prestige among the local science community. The problem is that the people speaking were overwhelmingly older, white, and male. Among the crowd, there were a few people of south and east Asian descent, but virtually no Black or Latinx people. When part of your messaging is supposed to be about the universal importance of science to everyone’s lives, you should probably think more carefully about how you represent that on your stage. Athens is a college town, but it also has a major Black community, and when most of the speakers come from the university and the crowd is mostly white, you’re unconsciously sending a message that this is an issue only for educated white people.
Also, most of the speakers were just boring. They spoke like they were giving a lecture rather than working a crowd. I heard at least one protester near me say that they needed to get a rabble rouser on the stage to get the crowd more engaged. The last three speakers (all women, coincidentally) were much better, and it was a good move to save them for last; they seemed to understand with their speeches that they needed to deliver a succinct, easily digestible message that the people could hold on to.
In the end, I’m not sure how successful the local rally ended up being. It felt like the people who showed up were already passionate about science, but the messaging didn’t do much to invite passersby to engage with what was going on. In an action that was meant to let people know that science is not an ivory tower pursuit, it felt remarkably like we were all hanging out in an ivory tower.
The reason I have these criticisms is largely because just before our group went downtown to the rally, I was thinking about the weirdness of the evangelical mindset. I read this article by Molly Worthen (it’s a New York Times piece, so be aware of your free article count) that discusses how evangelicalism’s formulation and adoption of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has fostered an epistemology that asserts the existence of objective truth, but places it in a position where it’s only accessible through supernatural means. This mindset led to a fear of cultural relativism, where non-Christians, not knowing the truth, assume that values are all relative and various actions are permissible in different contexts (in contrast with the set of rules that God has laid down that must be followed at all times in all situations). The irony of this line of thinking is that white evangelicals have now succumbed to their own relativism in support of 45. His moral repugnance is something to overlook because he does things that they like, never mind the fact he undermines everything white evangelical Christianity has purported to stand for.
Anyway, that’s all to say that this is a group that has built up an epistemic bubble that allows them to dismiss objective reality. Science, as the rest of us like to conceptualize it, is a method of thought that is supposed to help us uncover objective reality about the physical world. If the purpose of the march was to promote the idea that science is helpful to everyone, then there needed to be some more thought placed in how to deliver that message, particularly to people who fundamentally distrust science because of their epistemology. At the rally that I attended in Athens, I didn’t see evidence of that kind of thoughtfulness. Of course, this might all be moot; I’m a cynic when it comes to believing that white evangelicals can be brought out of their bubbles, and the current unpleasantness argues strongly to me that it’s not worth trying to compromise anymore.