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Why scientists need to go to the barricades against Trump – and for the humanities

Nicola Gaston on the anti-science agenda of the Trump presidency, and why scientists should embrace the arts.

First they came for the scientists, but I was not a scientist, so I did not speak out.

Scientists are often not comfortable with politics, with the idea of marching for a cause, with the idea of protest. It goes against the cherished idea of scientific objectivity, in a way that is probably familiar to many journalists.

This means that the announcement of a Scientists’ March on Washington is a big deal, and a symptom of deeply held concern in the US scientific community about the attitude of the Trump regime to scientific issues. Climate change undoubtedly tops the list due to the record of Trump’s own statements (plus urgency, let’s be clear), but the vaccine denial of Robert F Kennedy Jr, who will chair a presidential commission on vaccine safety, comes a close second. Or is it perhaps the entire Zeitgeist –the coinage of “Alternative facts” by Trump’s White House Counsel, Kelly Conway – that should concern us most?

Or is it actual action? Such as the restriction of scientific communication to the public from government agencies (although in one case, that this was due to a directive from Trump has since been denied); or that the ability of employees of the National Park Service to share scientific knowledge about climate change has been censored, albeit in some kind of revenge for sharing reports about the size of the crowd at his inauguration; or that the Environmental Protection Agency were to delete their climate change page from their website (though this appears to have since been walked back on).

Singer Gigi love protests against climate change outside the Trump Tower in New York on November 14, 2016. / AFP / KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Singer Gigi Love protests outside the Trump Tower in New York in November. Photo: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

There is a lot for scientists to worry about. This is for sure. However.

It is not only science that is under threat. Government spending on the arts? Gone. Government spending on the humanities? Also gone. And who is it, precisely, that speaks for the scholarship, the knowledge, the research, that does not fall under the umbrella of science?

Who?

It was Martin Niemöller to whom we owe the line that I have misappropriated above:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

If a Science March happens in New Zealand, which it may – watch this space – I’ll be there.

Very few of the Trump regime’s attacks on science have not been previously signaled – I spoke about one example, the proposal to prevent scientists from giving evidence to the US EPA on the basis that as experts, they have a conflict of interest, at the NZ Association of Scientists conference two years ago. None of this is actually all that surprising, though that doesn’t make it less awful.

But a couple of days ago, I ran the idea of a Science March past a fellow scientist, and the response that came back surprised me: “We should do something … but maybe not a march … because there aren’t enough of us.” This has taken me a while to process, but today I woke up and:

what

A march is not a parade. You don’t march for yourself; you ask others to do it for you. This is what solidarity requires. The whole fucking point of the Niemöller quote is that he was not a socialist: not by his own lights, for all that his sense of solidarity went on to land him in both Sachsenhausen and Dachau, after he retracted his initial support of Hitler.

If there has been some opposition to the idea of a scientists’ march, then this is why. The idea that science is inherently apolitical, as expressed by the organisers of the march, is problematic.

The biggest problem is that this leaves the impression that scientists would never march for anyone else. So perhaps it is rational that a scientist would not expect others to march for us – but it is possible to be both rational, and wrong.

In the midst of the National Park Service protest (by which I mean the tweeting of scientific facts), there was one action that stood out to me: the Death Valley National Park tweeted about the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. History, not science: but just as important in terms of supporting our ability to understand the dangers of the Trump regime. A perfect example of how caring about more than one issue at once can make a protest all the more powerful.

Here’s the point where I declare my own conflict of interest: I have a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Auckland. I majored in French and Japanese, took beginners Mandarin and Spanish, and tucked a few maths papers in there as well, to balance the requirements of my Bachelor of Science which I was completing conjointly.

Why does this matter?

The value of the BA degree is often discussed, and often not in complimentary terms. So I disclose what I studied to illustrate my own utter lack of awareness at the time: I was not a student who put any faith in the ability of teachers to assess work that seemed subjective. Marking schemes for essays never had the satisfying rigour of exams that contained questions to which there was one right answer; but languages – languages had an apparent objectivity contained in the prospect of translation of specific, innate meaning. Lists of vocabulary, and above all, the holy truth – and precision – of grammar.

How little I knew.

It was studying Japanese that taught me most of what I know about Hiroshima, and thence the responsibility of scientists to understand the consequences of their actions. Norma Field’s In the Realm of a Dying Emperor is just one of the texts that has stayed with me since, with all its thoughts on the collective nature of responsibility that have come of age once again in the era of Trump – and that were a key part of Niemöller’s platform as expressed in the Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis (Stuttgart Confession of Guilt).

It was studying French that taught me the impossibility of perfect translation. It also taught me – somewhat embarrassingly – about feminism; on being asked by a sociologist recently where my feminism comes from, I had to confess to having read Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) at the age of 20 primarily because it was in a book I found in the French section of the university library (to be fair, some of it did sink in). I don’t think she has yet stopped laughing.

En bref: what I learnt from my BA was not at all what I expected to learn. But I am all the richer for it.

The value of subjectivity – of understanding other cultures, other people, other times – the value of our differences and our diversity: is it not perhaps this that we need most in the era of Trump, in the era of alternative facts? A kind of practised empathy, developed through reading and reasoned argument – an essay is, after all, quite literally a test, etymologically speaking – where the point is not to be right but to learn by thinking through your own ideas. Is it possible that this is what we actually need most, as scientists: a public that has the empathy to value science while not actually being scientists?

Is it possible that the best thing for science would be more people with BAs?


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