Why I Won’t March for Science

By Dr. Bruce Hull

I marched in DC at the Women’s March, but I’m not marching for science.  I don’t see the end game.  Yes, we need more science, more respect for science, and better science, but more so, we need to win the political battles, and that means fighting for hearts and minds.

Scientists using their science are ill equipped to win hearts and minds.  Sadly, as I argued previously, the tendency of scientists to rely on facts and rationality often work against the ends they desire.  Winning hearts and minds mostly comes down to telling a compelling story, which scientists resist, because it means exposing their values.  For all kinds of reasons, some outdated and some legit, scientists often feel they lack the social license to be honest about their values.

Things do need to change.  Scientists need to change.  If we don’t begin winning the battles for hears and minds, we’ll lose the political war against scientific openness and deep expertise. And if that happens, society seems at real risk of sliding back into a pre-enlightenment era that characterized the “dark” Ages, when gut feelings and faith trumped facts and logic.  Those were not hopeful times (life expectancy was 20 and children had little hope of a life different than their peasant farmers living in crowded, windowless, smoke-filled hovels shared by livestock). The enlightenment (and science and individual rights and humanism and capitalism and all that came with it) gave people the courage to admit its OK to say, “I don’t know,” and realize how dangerous it is to trust myths and legends and populist leaders who promise easy answers.  The challenges of today are bigger and more complicated and more interconnected and more accelerated than ever before, so we need more science, more inquisitiveness and more tolerance for enlightened experimentation, not less.  Unfortunately, Trump is fanning the flames of anti-intellectualism, anti-truth, anti-inquisitiveness, anti-critical thinking, and anti-science.  Those flames risk plunging us into the dark.

Scientists and other professionals need to educate, agitate, and organize for winning hearts and minds. I found the Women’s March inspirational but draining (for an introvert) and it didn’t produce any next steps.  Marching for science might do more harm than good if it makes scientist feel they have done enough and are excused to go back to their labs and books.

I’ve been working for the last few years at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability helping scientists (and sustainability professionals writ large) influence hearts and minds.  The tools to do so are straightforward, but not easy.  Leadership programs have been teaching this stuff for years.  There exist tons of techniques for coalition building, boundary spanning, collaboration, interest based negotiation, collective impact, and social innovation that can be taught and mastered by scientists. Sadly, implementing those tools is time consuming and doesn’t produce grants, papers, promotion, or tenure.


Dr. Bruce Hull is a Senior Fellow at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), a professor in the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE), and an affiliate faculty member in the Global Change Center.



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