Has Teiresias Damned the March for Science?

Reading classics of literature are a great way to get a solid grounding in the art and craft of writing. It will teach the the tropes, the meter, the language of great writing. It will also provide you the best examples of important concepts of philosophy and sociology. It can even offer examples of all those things your neurology professor is trying to explain to you. If you don't have a neurology professor, I suppose you won't care much about that last one. 

This is not about writing. 

Jean-Baptiste Hugues [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Jean-Baptiste Hugues [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Oedipus Rex (Oedipus The King) is a play, originally from Athens, which was even then intended as a sort of political lesson and Psychology 101 morality play. Oedipus tells the story of a father who foolishly asks the Long Island Medium of their day to cast the bones for their son, or something along those lines. Ok, back then the preferred method was to send some virgin girls to nearly asphyxiate on some noxious volcanic fumes, then spin some crazy talk which could be interpreted by the priest or priestess. Anyway, the king is told that his heir is a bad seed that will grow up to kill his dad and marry his mom, which even then was sort of frowned upon in the best circles. So dad, being the wise parent that he was, decides to off the kid so he can't cuck him when the kid comes of age. Long story short, the kid's murderer mistakes him for Snow White or something, and doesn't do the deed properly. The kid is eventually adopted by a different king, as unlikely as that is. (I guess back then the world was lousy with kings and royalty were the only ones that ever adopted anyone. Moses got the same deal when he got literally shipped off in a basket, but that's another story.) The kid sure enough grows up, meets his real old man on the road, and murders him. Then, seeing as how that's how it was normally done and all back then, marries his dad's widow. What else could he do? Everything was going just great for the new king and queen (I guess she wasn't all that crazy about her first husband.) until Oedipus gets the bright idea to ask the Long Island Medium to read his palm, or some such twaddle, and the whole deal is blown. So Oedipus has to go and blind himself and all, because moral codes back then were harsh, man. So, the lesson of the story is, don't go asking a bunch of stoned teenagers to tell you your son's future. Just don't do it, because if you do, the very actions you take to try to avoid the thing you fear, can actually cause the thing you fear.  This concept is known as a self-fulfilling prophesy

March for Science web page banner

March for Science web page banner

This is about the March for Science.

For a couple weeks now, it has become distressingly common to hear certain people in the science and skepticism business, who should know better, nay-saying the pending March for Science that has been scheduled for Earth Day, April 22. Now, while many of them make fair points about the dangers of politicizing science, or of having people misunderstand the intent of the march, or of making enemies of people we are trying to sway, nearly all of them seem to have forgotten the lesson of Oedipus. So let me remind you, and maybe you can pass it on to them.

If you refuse to go to this march, it will still happen.

Oedipus' father did not stop his son becoming a murderer or doing the nasty with his birth mother. This march has been planned. Money has been spent. Reservations have been made. There are Facebook pages, and a Twitter account, and a nice webpage where you can look up marches in nearly every major city in the country... well, at least one in nearly every state, and several in New York! Somewhere between a few thousand and a million people have already replied. There have been stories on it in mainstream papers and online blogs. It. Is. Going. To. Happen. 

If you refuse to march, those others, whose views you are so concerned about, will still march.

Yes, I'll be there. I've already paid for the hotel for the night, and it's nonrefundable. I don't have money to waste, so I will be there. I bought a tee shirt and everything. I made a sign! I will be there. Now maybe you don't find my scientific illiteracy too troubling. My sign is pretty uncontroversial, except to the most flaky anti-scientist. But I won't be alone. Greenpeace will be there. Yep, they've put out a call on their Twitter feed. They will be there because of their interest in global warming. In case you hadn't heard, Donald Trump has said,

The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive. -Donald J. Trump, Twitter, 6 Nov 2012

A lot has been said of Greenpeace, terrible awful things. They've been called terrorists, fools, unscientific, law breakers, idiots, woo-meisters, and snake oil salesmen. And that's just the things I've said about them. But here is the thing. They've been around rabble rousing about climate change since before Al Gore went on his infamous speaking tour. You may hate Greenpeace as much as I do for their tromping over historically important and delicate cultural artifacts. You may hate Greenpeace as much as I do for their fear mongering about and outright vandalizing of GMOs. You may even hate Greenpeace as much as I do for the eco terrorism they regularly get away with, from landing on a Russian oil rig, to sinking whaling ships with men aboard. But the one thing you cannot say about Greenpeace is that they don't show up to defend the environment. They aren't particularly wedded to the scientific method, and so they make poor representatives at the March for Science. But they are enthusiastic in their support for the science that just happens to support a cause they believe in, anthropogenic climate change. So, Greenpeace will be there, unscientific and loud as they are generally wont to be, even though the organizers have stated they are not welcome.

One of the images featured on my sign. Photo courtesy NASA.

One of the images featured on my sign. Photo courtesy NASA.

If you tell them not to go, they won't.

You have an audience. I don't. This is important because for all my happy cheerleading, I have an audience of about seven people, and that includes my son who is forced to read my drivel because he's the web page admin. I can sway at most three of those people. If I really push it, I might get a fourth on board. The fifth only reads my stuff to make fun of it. So, no one is going to attend this event because of me, save my son and my dog, who is diabetic and has to be with me if he wants his insulin. Luckily, my son wants to go, because he's not diabetic and I don't have anything to threaten him with. But you, skeptics, scientists, television personalities, magazine writers and editors, prominent atheists, and linguistics professors... you have an audience. You have people who actually subscribe to your Twitter feeds and Facebook pages and read your work. They will listen to you. And you, you are Teiresias. They come to you, and they ask you to tell them what they should do. And what do you do? You tell them that the March will go terribly. You tell them that they will be made to look like fools. You say the Science March will become "a shit show".

Protest sign image. Smokey the Bear, the National Park Service logo and Forest Service Logos are property of those organizations. Neither the Department of Agriculture nor the National Park Service authorized this image. No claim of representation is made. Images used under fair use.

Protest sign image. Smokey the Bear, the National Park Service logo and Forest Service Logos are property of those organizations. Neither the Department of Agriculture nor the National Park Service authorized this image. No claim of representation is made. Images used under fair use.

 

Well, lo and behold, it will come to pass, and amen.

If they listen to you, and they will, the science lovers and enthusiasts, the students just starting their careers in science, the nurses and aides and techs, the teachers, the adjunct professors, the science writers for mainline magazines, the people employed in related fields who really love science, the method, and the system, will just not show up. 

But this thing is going to happen. Greenpeace will be there. Anti-vaxers will show up. Not many, and they aren't very well prepared and they certainly were not invited. But they will of course show up. A Science March is too tempting a target for them to all stay away. They'll show up and demand to be heard. They'll have signs, poorly drawn and with spelling errors. And the flat Earthers, and the 9-11 truthers, and Creationists-- The Creationists are well organized and have better signs.-- They'll all show up, but for the pessimistic scientists. They've decided not to bother.

So there will be a Science March, and we will be surrounded by the woo of the few, the few anti-scientific die-hards who show up. And the television cameras and the reporters will be there. It's a national event on the National Mall. Bill Nye the Science Guy is giving a speech as one of the honorary co-chairs. So, there will be cameras there from CNN and Mother Jones and Fox News' local affiliate. Who will they interview? Me? No. Bill Nye, but then they'll look around for who else is drawing a crowd, who has a contrary opinion. And Greenpeace will be there. And the Creationists will be there. And you will not be there arguing with them, getting in their faces, holding up your better sign with the correct spellings and pretty pictures and all. You will not be there with the facts and the explanation that I haven't quite mastered. You won't be there to explain the expanding universe or the chemical composition of vaccines. I'll try. I promise I'll try. I'll argue with any nutbar that insists we don't need the NOAA or that the FAA's regulations are unnecessary. I'll insist that the Earth is not flat, vaccines don't cause autism, and global warming is real. I'll repeat the slogans I've read on your pages, that everything is a chemical and we are transitional forms. But they'll be louder. There will be more of them. And it will turn into a shit show. It will be a shit show called The March for Science. And you can pat yourself on the back, or rub your hands in glee, while you mutter, "I told you so."

Just make sure you bar the door, hide the valuable research, back up your files, and have an exit strategy. Because, once the shit show on the National Mall is over, the real shit show starts. It starts with loss of your funding, and loss of public support. It ends with shuttered schools and labs, new regulations,  loss of necessary regulations, and firing of teachers, professors, scientists, inspectors, and regulators. It ends with Woo 1: Science 0. Not because it had to be that way. There are no prognosticators, seers, or prophesiers in real life. There is no reason why the scientifically literate should lose this debate, on our own terms, at our own event. We have better arguments, better visuals, and a much better message. We are the future. We have technology. We cure or prevent diseases and predict hurricanes and floods, create new seeds that can grow better food in any environment, save bees and forests, and create new energy technology that will power our self-driving cars, quad copters, and hover boards. Our message isn't fear or hatred. It is optimistic and joyful. And there is only you and your audience that can tell it. There is no doomsday prophesy here. There is only the self-fulfilling prophesy of the perpetually scared nay-sayers. We skeptics generally advise against asking the advice of self-styled mediums. Yet, it seems, for some reason, we have let a few self-styled fortune tellers predicting a worst case outcome for our first ever Science March scare us away from spreading this message of hope. 

Photo of Neil Armstrong's bootprint on the moon courtesy NASA. NASA retains the copyright.

Photo of Neil Armstrong's bootprint on the moon courtesy NASA. NASA retains the copyright.

If you don't want to go. If you're too busy, or you can't afford a ticket, or can't get a babysitter, or your dog needs his insulin injections... I understand. This is the first such event I have ever attended. I was always too busy, too broke, to disinterested. I only ask that you don't discourage countless people like me, who really believe in the future that science can bring, who honor the scientific method and understand its importance, and who really want to support you and all you do, you scientists and science educators. Recall the reluctance of the Jocasta and the servant. No good can come of prophesy.