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Question on the March at Rally: Should Scientists be Advocates?

Tom Pelton

On Saturday, tens of thousands of people marched in support of science in Washington D.C., waving signs with slogans such as “Science is the Poetry of Reality," “Defiance for Science,” and “Make America Smart Again.”

The obvious question is: Aren’t scientists supposed to be objective? Isn’t marching in the street and political advocacy like this the opposite of objectivity?

Several marchers I talked to made a distinction between the dispassionate process of searching for the truth And then, after the facts have been tested and are established, the need to passionately advocate for a system of government that acts on the basis of facts and objective truth and not ideology and propaganda.

Dan Tinkleman, a 63-year-old accounting professor from Brooklyn, said, “In general, President Trump’s record throughout his public life and as a real-estate executive has been to claim things that are contrary to facts, including the number of stories in his buildings.  I feel that the emphasis and the claims that are critical of him are ‘fake news’ is definitely eroding a common way of talking about things.  There is the quote from the past that people are entitled to their opinions but not their facts, and the denial of facts is profoundly offensive.”

He was referring to Trump’s false claim that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese.

Other protesters were angry that Trump had proposed to cut EPA’s budget by 31 percent, eliminating whole areas of scientific research and slash funding for the National Institutes of Health by 18 percent.

Dr. Deborah Kapell is an epidemiologist who warned about the impacts of reducing federal grants for medical research.

“I don’t think there are many more antibiotics in the pipeline.  And the antibiotics we have are becoming very resistant. And pretty soon there will be no antibiotics, and people will die of the things they used to die of in the 19th century.  So I am here because the NIH should fund that kind of research in communicable diseases and antibiotics.”

In response to the science march, Trump issued a written statement that said, “Rigorous science is critical to my Administration’s efforts to achieve the twin goals of economic growth and environmental protection.  My Administration is committed to advancing scientific research that leads to a better understanding of our environment and of environmental risks.”

More useful would be if the administration committed itself to advancing honesty and logic. You can’t roll back environmental regulations and also be committed to environmental protection. You can’t cut funding for scientific research and also claim that you are advancing scientific research.

Two minus two is not four. That’s not politics; it’s logical thinking.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.