How Marching for Science Risks Politicizing It

Support for science, in other words, is less polarized than many people believe. The fear that many observers have expressed (including me) is that events like the march could spread the polarization observed on contentious issues like climate change to views of science more generally.


In Washington, D.C., Bill Nye, a.k.a. the Science Guy, was among those marching for science on April 22.

Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images North America

“If science begins to be seen as a ‘liberal’ pursuit” in this way, wrote Megan Mullin, an associate professor of environmental politics and political science at Duke University, “it risks losing public favor.”

Were these fears realized? Some preliminary evidence is available from Matthew P. Motta, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Minnesota who tracked opinions toward scientists and scientific research among a sample of survey respondents recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workplace. Though these participants are not representative of the general public, we can still conduct a valid test for polarization by comparing how the views of liberals and conservatives in the sample changed from before the march to afterward. (Eight in 10 respondents reported having heard at least something about it, including approximately one in two who said they heard a “moderate amount” or a “great deal.”)

Between the Wednesday before the march (April 19) and the Monday and Tuesday afterward (April 24-25), liberals and conservatives in the survey panel moved further apart in how warmly they felt toward scientists. Specifically, liberals reported somewhat warmer feelings toward scientists (up to 86 from 82 on a 0-to-100 feeling thermometer scale) while the feelings of conservatives toward scientists became somewhat less warm (down to 67 from 70).

The liberal-conservative gap in agreement with the statement that “Scientists care less about solving important problems than their own personal gain” also widened significantly — conservative agreement increased to 32 percent, up from 22 percent, whereas liberal agreement fell to 8 percent from 11 percent.

However, no corresponding increase in polarization was observed on the statements that “Most scientific research is politically motivated” and “You simply can’t trust most scientific research.” On the latter question, for instance, agreement did not change significantly among conservatives (22 percent agreed before the march compared with 21 percent afterward) or liberals (6 percent agreed before the march; 3 percent did afterward). This finding suggests that the polarizing response that the march elicited toward scientists did not spill over into views of the research they conduct.

Mr. Motta cites the emphasis on the marchers in news coverage as a potential explanation for these findings. In an email, he writes that “the ‘public face’ of the march appears to be the protesters; the clever signs they came up with, dressing as dinosaurs, etc.” This focus on the scientists who participated, he writes, “put a human face on science, which might be why it led to polarization with respect to attitudes about people, but not necessarily their research” — a topic that received less attention.

These findings should be evaluated in future studies, but they suggest another way in which science can become politicized — not by challenging the findings of a field of research, but by portraying the people who do science as political. In this sense, the march and events like it could paradoxically make scientists a more inviting target for future attacks.

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