Raised fists, tricorn hats, banners proclaiming “we are the 99 percent” and Gadsden flags are among the countless symbols and slogans that have pervaded social movements in recent years.
They’re images and words that rattle around the brain and have the power to affect serious change — or be relegated to the footnotes of history.
Donald Trump’s election has spawned a new series of burgeoning movements. That includes one where lab coats and chants of “science, not silence” are the new Revolutionary War-era garb and cries of “don’t tread on me.”
The current political climate has spurred a growing cadre of scientists to emerge from their labs, offices and fieldwork sites to contest an administration that’s openly hostile to scientific inquiry — particularly when it comes to climate change — and coined the term “alternative facts.”
“We’ve tried to let our data do the talking for us and that has failed miserably,” Kim Cobb, a coral researcher at Georgia Tech, said.
Scientists staged a thousand-strong rally in Boston during the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in late February. Much bigger protests are afoot with the March for Science and its 190 satellite marches planned for April 22. Scientists are also organizing support groups and many have said they are considering running for public office.
The current wave of scientific discontent has the makings of a budding movement. But whether it moves the political dial like the Tea Party or fizzles out like Occupy Wall Street remains to be seen.
Boots on the ground matter
Scientists in the streets is not a new thing. They rallied around nuclear disarmament during the Cold War, but they also weren’t the main component of that movement. That makes the current groundswell of scientists leading their own charge a different proposition.
The March for Science is the most visible piece of the new movement, with hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, a private planning Facebook group with more than 837,000 members and more than 50,000 volunteers. The march has the potential to go down as one of the largest mass mobilizations by scientists in history.
It’s also faced some challenges both internally and externally. Planners have been debating appropriate symbols. The lab coat has been adopted at rallies to-date, but scientists are wary of using something that isn’t inclusive of all disciplines, for example.
And some scientists have argued that taking to the streets puts the scientific enterprise in jeopardy of being seen as too politicized. Robert Young, a coastal geologist, crystallized that sentiment in a New York Times op-ed in late January.
“Trying to recreate the pointedly political Women’s March will serve only to reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research and findings for their own ends,” he wrote.
The piece drew the ire from a broad range of scientists. Cobb, who will be speaking at the Atlanta satellite march, said following the advice in the piece “would actively and forcefully remove a voice from the national discussion.”
“In many ways I agreed with virtually everything in that piece and yet I disagreed with conclusion he drew,” Ziad Munson, an expert in conservative social movements from Lehigh University, said. “Yes there is a danger of politicizing science, but the question is whether or not that ship has already sailed.”
While public support of science is high, specific issues have become political footballs. Climate change, genetically modified food and vaccines are a handful of scientific issues where researchers have reached a consensus worldwide that has not been fully embraced by the American public and lawmakers on both the left and right.
“One of the ways to fix this problem isn’t to have scientists stay out of social movements, but instead, reducing the dysfunctional level of partisanship that exists in the country,” Munson said. “I think scientists need to be involved in the political process and activism because it is increasingly important for them to do everything they can to share actual facts of how the world is operating.”
Research published this week in Environmental Communication provides yet another arrow in the quiver of scientists who are speaking out and marching. Scientists from George Mason University created a bio and Facebook profile for Dr. David Wilson, a fictional climate scientist. Users were shown posts by Wilson that either discussed climate facts or advocated for various types of climate action. While those surveyed thought the calls to action were more politically motivated, his credibility didn’t suffer.
The findings suggest that speaking out won’t necessarily create a downward spiral of trust in scientists.
How scientists frame the movement is key
Social science researchers say that getting involved is only part of the equation, and that scientists will need messages — and actions — that resonate.
“You can make a social movement out of anything,” Fabio Rojas, a social movement researcher at the University of Indiana, said. “You have to frame it in a way that makes sense to an audience and speaks to people’s moral core.”
He pointed to Occupy Wall Street, which didn’t create lasting political change, but yielded a wildly successful message about income inequality.
“Social scientists have been talking about income inequality for 150 years,” he said. “Occupy Wall Street didn’t invent income inequality. They came up with a killer phrase. They took a math statistic about income and said ‘the 1 percent.’ It captured it perfectly.”
Scientists haven’t necessarily hit on a message that succinct yet, but they have plenty of fodder. Americans overwhelmingly see science as a positive force.
In a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 79 percent of adults said that science has made life easier for most people. Scientists are a powerful reminder of those improvements, and while that hasn’t been translated into a specific symbol or slogan, it has the potential to move a wide segment of the population.
Beyond marches, scientists are seeking other ways to stay involved in both the political process and their communities. That’s because they understand that loafers and flats in the halls of power and sneakers at community centers are just as important as boots on the ground.
314 Action is new group aiming to get scientists elected to office at the local, state and national levels. With the 2018 midterm elections still a ways off, scientists will have to find other ways to influence politicians, though.
Rojas said they’ve done a good job so far of being reactive to threats such as the disappearance of federal climate data, “but where’s the proactive part? The question is what are scientists doing to make life miserable for people who want to delete the data? Once they answer that question, that’s when their movement can start to have an effect.”
That might involve rallying more people to their cause or merging with other movements forming, such as the Women’s March. It could also be as simple as being a bigger part of their communities.
“We’re trained to talk about our data and our results but we’re not trained to see ourselves as part of the equation,” Karen McLeod, the executive director of COMPASS, said. “But there’s a growing appetite among scientists to engage. This has galvanized a lot scientists to act instead of just talking about it.”
Whatever the case, the current efforts underway are only the beginning if scientists want to remake the political landscape.
“It’s not enough to complain and be on right side of history,” Rojas said. “You need a concrete strategy to translate into action.”