The March for Science and the Unconquered Mountain

It is a strange, frightening world when we need a March for Science.

I know it was a while ago and that the news cycle has passed. But I find myself thinking back to it whenever I see pseudoscience headlines or another announcement of cuts to science funding. Because the March for Science was heartening to see – the protesters, the crowds, the hilarious signs, and above all, the action of coming together as a movement and making a statement: We exist. And whether you believe in it or not, the scientific method will keep advancing the human race.

March for Science
So it was disappointing, although understandable, to hear some critics state that the March for Science actually damaged science. Here are some of the ones I found. I encourage you to read them. They definitely made me think.

Critiquing the March for Science

I think the main thrust of these articles boil down to two points:

  1. Making Science a Religious Movement is bad – Given the dichotomy between faith and scientific method, there is understandably a lot of discomfort in seeing “God” replaced with “Science” in a belief system. Now, talking about the relationship between science and religion is worth a post of its own, or even a series of posts. But for the purpose of this one, I will commit the sin of gross oversimplification and state that if religion is about the belief in and worship of a supreme power or an idea, and that idea or power is the scientific method, then yes. Science can be a religion. That doesn’t make it anti-scientific. If your God is the scientific method, then the way you worship it is profoundly different to another God. It means becoming aware of and recognising our cognitive biases and beautiful, unpredictable irrationalities. It means committing to truth and what the data shows rather than gut reactions and faith. It’s really, really hard.
  2. Oversimplifying Science is bad – There’s another issue, the second contention intertwined with the first,  which is that when we make Science a religious or more popular movement, the vast majority will start oversimplifying basic tenets of science to the point that people can start pushing radically unscientific messages.

Here’s an example from Dr Alice Bell’s excellent article Four Good Reasons to March for Science this Weekend (and One Bad Reason for Going):

“Those on a science march shouting SCIENCE WORKS, BITCHES, will look like dogmatic, hectoring fools… it’s profoundly misunderstanding the nature of science. And that’s just embarrassing. Science is about evidence, and it is worth standing up for that. But science is not about absolute certainty and closing arguments.”

If I’m honest, I would totally hoist a sign declaring: SCIENCE WORKS, BITCHES, because I think it’s hilarious. But Bell is absolutely right when she goes on to point the many issues with the ways we practice science at the moment: the sexism, the racism, the elitism, bullying, exploitation, and dealing with arms trade and oil companies. That is certainly not something to glorify. But the fact is, any ideal by its nature, including that of the scientific method, is inhuman It’s pure, beautiful, and beyond the grasp of any flawed human with a brain riddled with cognitive errors. If we were to create a March for Science with only people who understood the p-value debate, who never let any of their emotional or cognitive biases interfere with their work, or who were completely depoliticised, then there wouldn’t be anyone left to march. I think both sides of this debate would agree that that would be a shit outcome.

Learning from Religion

In fact, I think in this instance, science has something to learn from religion. Please don’t hit me. Give me a moment to explain.

If you look at the beginnings of major world religions such as Christianity and Islam, you see a common trend where the founder of the religion (Jesus, Mohammed) are incredibly open and welcoming to anyone. In fact, part of Jesus’ story is that he actively sought out “sinners”: prostitutes, the poor, the forgotten… the last people you’d expect to be welcomed in today’s super churches. But what we see as time goes on is religion fragmenting as it’s fought over by people with very precise measuring sticks. Fine, we all agree we should worship God. But do you think the Church has become too materialistic and the best way to worship God is at home? You’re a heretic who deserves to die. So we all agree that Jesus came down to save us. But did you interpret some Bible sections to read that Jesus was actually the living incarnation of God on earth? You’re a heretic who deserves to die.

Sound familiar? It should. We’ve seen this before in several movements. Feminism. Racism. It even crops up in interest groups (probably because it’s a standard part of being human). Booklovers. Nerd culture. If you’re an anti-choice feminist, you’re scum and actively working against the sisterhood. If you’re an Asian who appreciates some ‘Western’ values (or contradicts your elders when they don’t like to be contradicted), you’re a banana. If you don’t have the right genitalia, you’re probably a fake geek girl. If you enjoy fantasy or science fiction, then you’re a lesser being the literary intelligentsia will sniff over before turning back to their 500-page tomes chronicling a rich white man’s despair at his privileged life. It’s standard in-group, out-group psychology. (And I’d also like to take the opportunity to note I don’t believe in any of the above statements).

All right. So if that’s the case, then how do we fix it?

The Unconquered Mountain

There’s probably a term for it somewhere, but because I’m a SFF writer and I like making things up, I’m going to call it The Analogy of the Unconquered Mountain.

The Unconquered Mountain
Picture this. We all start out on the plains of ignorance. Before us lie a spread of mountains. You can climb many in your life, but you’ll never reach the top, because we’re human, and it’s impossible to reach perfection. You can get really, really close though, depending on the mountain. Also, because we carry around so many unique combinations of perspectives and history in our brain, our climb up the mountain will be fundamentally different from any other person’s climb up the mountain. In fact, they may be so radically different, we may end up finishing our journey in completely different caves or on opposing ledges.

Now, since we’re talking about the March for Science, let’s say we pick the Science Mountain. I know, I know, it’s a laughable misnomer because of all the different fields of science, but for the sake of the metaphor, let’s just imagine a Science Mountain. The goal is absolute knowledge through the scientific method. That’s how you get to the top. So you’re going to have to pull yourself up through the rocks of Unknowing Ignorance, understanding the basics, acquiring the language, and then surmounting your ego.

There’s a bunch of other people who have decided to pick the Science Mountain. Excellent. You move up at different rates, but it’s comforting when you’re clinging to a ledge of rock and your rope has just broken, to know that there are others around who can lend you some rope or hoist you over the edge. Well, actually, it’s not just comforting, it’s important to your damn survival and ability to get up the mountain.

But climbing the mountain is hard. Some people may choose to stop climbing and go check out another mountain. In fact, the mountain’s difficulty curve looks a little like this:

Learning Curve

So if you want more people up the mountain, you need to dramatically increase the number of people who start the climb.

The Unconquered Mountain (Funnel)
The thing about picking a mountain you like, is that as you get further up, most people have a general tendency to want to share the news. Sometimes it’s to justify how goddamn hard their climb has been. Sometimes it’s because they are genuinely super excited about how awesome the mountain is. At any rate, people start inviting others. Come to my mountain! It’s a good thing! In fact, it’s the best mountain ever!

This is good and natural. This is how knowledge gets spread. As long as you’re not too demanding and annoying in asking people to come, you’ll probably get other people to start climbing your mountain.

The issue starts when you look down and realise to your horror that they’re climbing it all wrong.

You see, when you’re further up the mountain, you have the ability of perspective, and the all-too-human tendency to forget what it was like originally when you were scrambling up those first really hard climbs. Hell, with the knowledge you’ve gained, you’ve probably completely forgot how you even thought when you were first transitioning from a plain or even a valley of ignorance to climbing a fucking mountain. All you can see is that from your level and your experience, they’re doing it wrong.

Now tell me, what do you think is the best way to encourage that poor sod further up the mountain?

The Unconquered Mountain - Encouragement
You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and remember, if you want more people to ascend your mountain for the good of society, then you need to encourage a lot more people to even start considering climbing. And it’s harder than it sounds. Because there’s another problem with climbing really high up the mountain. You start to lose perspective on what it’s like at the bottom of the mountain, or in the plains and valleys, where most people live who aren’t experts on your particular mountain. It’s easy to become judgemental. Why are they such idiots? Don’t they know anything? They must have voted for Trump. They are so goddamn stupid. That’s the only reason they can’t see your point of view.

Not, you know, because they’re just at a completely different level of the mountain. Or maybe they’re not on the mountain at all, or they’re on another mountain.

The Unconquered Mountain - Perspectives
If we go back to the useful analogy of religion, let’s look at the way people might end up in relation to the different mountains.

The Unconquered Mountain – Religion

The Unconquered Mountain - Religion

The Unconquered Mountain – Science

The Unconquered Mountain - Science

Here’s something that successful religions tend to do – as a general rule of thumb, people higher up the mountain are encouraged to be compassionate to people further down, because a) it fits into the whole do unto your neighbour what you would have done unto you thing, and b) if you’re nice to them, it’s way easier to convert them/convince them to come further up your awesome mountain. The incredible Stephen McCranie of Doodle Alley has drawn the lovely comic How to Be Friends with Failure and improve as an artist. I think his points on self-talk are just as applicable to how we talk to others here.

In short? I’m not saying we should stop critiquing public attitudes and the oversimplification and misunderstanding of science. That would be profoundly against the nature of science itself. The moment we settle on an accepted truth and never question it, that’s the moment the scientific method is definitely lost.

But I am saying it’s important to remember to be kind. If the ultimate goal is to combat the profoundly anti-scientific pockets of society, to protest against slashes to funding, to improve the current way we’re practicing science… then we need to encourage more people up the Mountain of Science. And the best way to do that is not just to sit back and point out every single goddamn thing they’re doing wrong when they’re trying. It’s to see the March for Science as a positive thing, even if it’s peopled mainly by people in the Foothills of General Interest, or those still on the steep Slopes of Learning. It’s to mentor, constructively critique, and help.

So go climb a mountain. It’s exhilarating and wonderful and you learn a lot and meet beautiful people. But if you can, climb more than one mountain. See how different yours looks from another perspective. See and respect how many mountains are out there.

And for Science’s sake, if you see someone struggling below you, don’t be an asshole and yell at them. Give them a hand.

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