Of the weird things I have on my bucket list, one has always been being part of a protest. Filmy that I am, the vision of me marching and shouting slogans has always seemed immensely appealing. Maybe it’s the idea of being a part of something bigger than me, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment. But it would definitely make for an interesting experience and a good story. Today, I sort of fulfilled that wish. Today, I marched for science.
Today, I marched for science.
Technically speaking, this wasn’t the first march I’ve attended. A couple of months ago, I braved the cold winter weather to participate in a small local march in support of Planned Parenthood and women’s rights it stands for. It was a lot like a traditional protest with people standing out on the road waving signs. People passing by in cars, enthusiastically honking to show support or else pointedly staying silent. And then the actual march, led by a police car to clear the traffic, while we shout out catchy (hopefully) slogans, the tail end of the group often a beat or two out of sync with the front. Then comes the traditional group photo at the end of the march, words of encouragement, a plea for continued support by the organizers and then we disperse. It was a fun experience, with the quintessential satisfaction that comes with standing up for a cause that matters. But if you asked me what concrete goal was achieved by that march, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have an answer.
But changing the world is a tough job.
It’s an issue that has often been debated in my house. If you choose, for a moment, to play the devil’s advocate, you can easily question the utility of such a one-off act. It’s not a pessimistic viewpoint, just realistic. You can shout out slogans for a full day. All the opposing party has to do is block their ears and ignore you and all the effort is wasted. If a person’s mind is made up then it’s not very likely that a few slogans, no matter how catchy, will change that; especially since they know that our view towards them is pitiful at best and antagonistic at worst. Maybe a few people who are undecided might hear us and change their mind, but that’s a slim chance. I know, this sounds super pessimistic. But changing the world is a tough job. Hell, changing the opinion of even one person is a tall order, then imagine what it would take to change the world! But if I truly think that marches are a hopeless endeavor, then why go today?
A few months ago, I waged a teeny tiny war with a stranger on Facebook. A “facebook friend” of my colleague posted an anti-vaccine article on his wall and I decided to help set him straight. Of all the debates around science, vaccines are the one issue where the skepticism is almost entirely without foundation and the benefits are unquestionable. I went on with the task determined to be polite, direct, concise and precise in my arguments. I wanted to debate in a way that would not seem like an attack but rather a calm rebuttal of the fallacies in his argument. We had a couple of back and forths, at the end of which, predictably, nothing was achieved. I failed to change his opinion. But somehow I still felt good about it.
Science and Facts are worth the fight.
For once, I felt like I had done my duty as a scientist. I stood up to someone, to defend the facts. It didn’t change his mind, but his misinformation did not go unchallenged. My dissent officially marks his post and there’s some measure of satisfaction in that. And it’s not just strangers. Even in my own family, close family in fact, there are many with opinions which are not based on evidence and logic. For years, I have been supportive of the bad experiences that have informed these opinions. But I realize now that I am doing them a disservice by keeping what I know to be facts from them. Running away from a debate just because it takes effort and might be futile is not excusable. The goal may be to win, but a loss doesn’t lessen the value of the fight. Science and Facts are worth the fight.
Which is why today I marched for science. I know what some of you might say to this. Didn’t I just write a whole paragraph about marches being futile? To be completely honest, going in to it, all I expected was for it to be a fun personal experience. I spent an evening making posters with colleagues. It promised to be a good time with fellow scientists supporting a worthy cause. But being there actually made me realize how much more it represented.
There was something really magical in the atmosphere, something very powerful about so many people gathered to send out a positive message rather than shouting slogans against something or someone.
March for Science, inspired by the women’s march in January, started out relatively small. But over the past couple of months, the idea spread across hundreds of cities in the US and across the globe to march in support of science to mark Earth Day. In Boston, where I attended, the march had appropriated the massive Boston Commons for the event and it was filled with thousands of men, women and children all carrying colorful and witty posters in support of the cause. My favorite part of the evening was just watching the people around me. There was something really magical in the atmosphere, something very powerful about so many people gathered to send out a positive message rather than shouting slogans against something or someone.
More than anything else, I was in love with the idea of the Kids zone. I think it was a brilliant idea by the leadership of the march. Organizations from across the city had set up stalls to engage children in activities. There were kids blowing beautiful smoke rings in the air, learning to inject medicine into teddy bears and small girls building structures using straws. Looking at all the excited, engaged faces took me back to a lecture I recently attended by a famous professor at Brown, who is deeply engaged in public outreach. He spoke of his own childhood; how as a kid there was no need for anyone to push him into science. The space race in the US and good science programming on TV, was more than enough to spark the imagination of his entire generation. Finding a way to light that spark for the current generation, would probably be much more effective than countless debates. And today at the march, I felt as though I could see that happening.
Be it on stage or in the activities around it, the march found a way to give voice to people of all ages, genders, abilities and ethnicities. The inclusivity and diversity in the event gave it the personal connection that so many other scientific events completely lack. I imagine news channels all over the world covering the event, showing examples of so many diverse people and cultures successfully represented in science. I imagine this image sticking with kids, giving some child somewhere the hope to dream big. I imagine those kids at the march, going home and torturing their parents by asking them endless questions and insisting on building bigger and better things with straws. I imagine scientists and educators looking at the crowd around them and realizing, maybe for the first time, the number of people they could positively impact if they choose to step out of the lab more often; how dire the need for their participation and help actually is.
After all, the best things in life come from the power of our imagination.
I probably sound silly, imagining away in a manner only John Lennon would appreciate. For all my talk, I don’t know if this will make me do more outreach in the long term. But it gave me hope. Hope, that even if we don’t change the administrative policy for science in the short-term, that we would have ignited the minds of the people today. Hope that events like this would give us a future generation that might learn from the mistakes we made. It might be foolish and optimistic, but for once I am content to indulge myself. After all, the best things in life come from the power of our imagination.
About the author:
Namrata Iyer has completed her PhD from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and is currently working as a Postdoctoral research associate at Brown University, Rhode Island. Her current research focuses on the interactions between the gut microbiome and the host immune system. Her interests include teaching and writing. This blog has been posted previously in her personal blog (http://namrataiyer.blogspot.com/2017/04/just-imagine.html)
This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.