Science March: Happy Hypothesis Confirmed

Hypothesis:

A large body of scientists and their allies can gather in a public place to perform a political act without it turning into a “shitshow”.

Subjects:

Forty thousand plus self-selected volunteers who identify as lovers of science, of all ages but with the greatest number between twenty and 55 years old, recruited via social media and a few television appearances by celebrities and organizers.

Method: 

An organized rally, teach-in, and march in Washington DC beginning at 0900 local time, and concluding at about 1400 local time.

Summary result:

The hypothesis is confirmed. The null hypothesis, that the event would become a “shitshow,” was disproven.  

I will admit it, I was scared. I was afraid the nay-sayers would ruin it. I was afraid real scientists and science respecting folks would stay away in droves and the woo-meisters would fill in with their pseudoscience. I was scared that the flakes would show up in their vagina suits and pink pussy hats, with their hateful signs, partisanship, and nature supremacy fallacies. What scared me most of all though, was the risk of violence. We saw it during the anti-Trump marches on the day of his inauguration. A small group of anarchists show up and start breaking windows and burn a car… suddenly your whole movement looks like a bunch of out of control violent jerks. Your message is discredited. Even with nearly a million people who did not commit such acts, just forty or so troublemakers become the face of your event. Worse, even though there was not a single violent incident during the Women’s March, and police confirmed not a single arrest, the violence of the day before tainted their march as well. It didn’t matter how many showed up, they were all violent thugs as far as the press coverage and the average non-event goer was concerned. The court of public opinion has a low standard of evidence for the null hypothesis and an unrealistically high standard for the stated hypothesis. Events that don’t even rise to statistical significance are enough to condemn the whole trial as failed.

Well, I can reassure you, none of that happened. Hallelujah! Not a single violent incident at the DC March. To be fair, I’ve not heard all the news reports from the other marches, so I can’t speak to them. But in the nation’s capital, everyone was cheerful, optimistic , helpful. Most importantly, everyone was nonviolent. I’d like to be a completely disinterested, unbiased observer. That would be impossible. I was as interested as nearly anyone else. I had invested my time, money, and emotion in this event. I had laid down challenges to others in my family, and online. A failure here would definitely affect my own reputation. So, since I can’t be that entirely detached observer of science, allow me to tell my subjective experience, and I’ll try to describe the events of today as completely and accurately as one involved witness can.

"a woman holding a sign that tells us she is the daughter of Frank McDonald, Science Adviser to Ronald Reagan. Holy moly!"

Null hypothesis states the event will be a “shitshow” in certain specific ways. One assertion is that fascistic police and security will make entry to the event difficult, add to the frustrations of the crowds, and react either too energetically, or not quickly enough to problems that arise.

My experience: As I try to figure out the Metro system for my first ride on their excellent rail system, a public employee asks if he can help, and another asks minutes later when my card is not activating the little gates they use instead of turnstiles. Two helpful employees in the space of mere minutes, and the day is just starting. The train ride is pleasant. I take a seat next to a young woman in a lab coat. She informs me she is employed in the biosciences industry locally, and has acted as an organizer and coordinator for several other attendees who flew in from out of state. One is sitting nearby and they talk amiably. Across the aisle, more attendees. An older woman boards at the next stop, and at the next, a woman holding a sign that tells us she is the daughter of Frank McDonald, Science Adviser to Ronald Reagan. Holy moly! Science royalty, one generation removed. She gets lots of cheers from others on board, many carrying their own signs. I express my concern that my electronic sign may not get past security. Everyone reassures me. I’m still worried. We arrive at the metro station just blocks from the capital. I’m lost but the crowd is going thataway, and I follow the stream of people carrying signs. Soon we see the parked police cars and the barriers. No one is rude. No attempt is made to stop or slow us. Advice is cheerfully given when someone asks where the entrances are. We make our way to the serpentine line to the bag check and security point.

I’ve been through security checks at airports, military bases, FOBs, amusement parks, even once at a Top Secret command center. I am expecting metal detectors or wands and thorough searches with lots of frustrated people being asked to throw away or lock up their bottles and such. I get my turn. A cheerful man sticks two wooden sticks in my bag, barely seconds, “Ok, you’re good, go on through.” He didn’t even ask if I had any guns, knives, glass bottles, etc. I suppose I should have been worried about such lax security. I was just glad my display and its battery didn’t even get a second glance. Inside, the security wears bright yellow jackets and vests. A few park rangers wear their Smokey the Bear hats. I see them watching at discreet distance. They aren’t bothering anyone as the crowd mills around, dances, takes selfies and gives interviews. There are a LOT of cameras. Geeks. Later, as the last of the marchers, a guy in a polar bear suit and a team of banner bearers, pass, the police announce the march is over, and to please step back on the sidewalk. They actually say “please.” They drive slowly up the road, and people follow their instruction. No excessive force. No resistance given.

Bee Girls
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How well is the woo represented? I don’t really see any evidence of it. I’m leery of the bee girls. I’ve seen some seriously unscientific assertions from the save-the-bee crowd. These two are behaving themselves. If they have unscientific beliefs, they aren’t sharing them. They just want to save the bees, no suggestion of what that means, really. There are a lot of tree huggers and save-the-planet types, but again, their posters just say things like “climate change is real” and “my mother sent me.” So, I don’t know if they are woo peddlers, or just people concerned about climate change. I am aware a lot of people think climate change is all a hoax, or is itself a pseudoscience, or is overblown. I see no one here with that position made obvious. No one is arguing about it around me. Everyone seems to be keeping things very generic, maybe to avoid the arguments. There’s a person with a sign that says, “This conservationist supports nuclear energy.” Ok, definitely not woo, possibly contentious and debatable. I didn’t hear anyone debating her. This seems odd to me, given how argumentative scientists and science enthusiasts usually are. I’m starting to think they are playing nice and treading carefully. I guess that’s understandable, given how uncertain many were about this kind of political action in the first place. It feels a little fake, like at any minute the storm clouds will gather and the disagreements will strike like lightning. Everyone is too cheerful for that. It’s like a day out during July 4th picnic at the park. Everyone’s listening to music and smiling and making bad science and geek jokes and calling themselves nerds, like it’s finally ok to do that in public and they’re not really used to it yet.

The major claim of the null hypothesis is violence or general lawlessness. Wrong crowd for that. We follow lines, even when there is no fence forcing us to. People are surprised as our line leads past some portapotties, and a few people step out of the line and into the grass. They actually talk about it, asking if it will be ok. Are you supposed to do that? Some opt to stay where they are, rather than do something they aren’t sure they are supposed to. As we realize it’s ok, we slowly peel off from the line, and join a few others who are also tentatively standing around in the outer grassy court. I realize I’ve fallen into lockstep with everyone else. I decide to throw caution to the wind and try to get to the front, near the stage, where the action’s happening. I find the crowds uncomfortable and fall back again. I’m not alone. The marchers wait at the intersections for the light to change to get to the march. I see one brave soul start to jaywalk. Everyone gapes at him as he gets honked at. He chickens out and steps back on the sidewalk. We follow rules. It’s not just the participants. There is no counter march, no counter protest of any kind. There aren’t even people heckling from the sideline. The older woman on the train earlier had said she couldn’t march with us, but she was with us in spirit. Some men sitting on the side of the march route ask what the point of it is, but that’s the worst thing I have heard today. Two bicycle delivery guys spot my sign and one of them pedals up to ask me about it. He’s friendly and interested. People ignore us to go about their shopping, sometimes nodding and smiling. Museum employees gather to cheer us on, and of course, EPA staff are encouraging as we shout “EPA, EPA, Save the EPA. Fund the EPA.” Well, they would, wouldn’t they? No one shouts back that we should cut or eliminate the EPA. The nay-sayers have not bothered to show up.

This was the worst of it, and those are not even our signs.

This was the worst of it, and those are not even our signs.

The null hypothesis assumes the March for Science, which has as one of its drivers the concern about climate change, will leave mounds of litter in its wake. I’m fearful of this as well. I see a trash can, jammed full of signs. I go over to examine these closer. They seem to be all the same. Seems early to dispose of so many signs. They aren’t science march signs. They’re standard anti-Trump protest signs. They look to be left over from a previous event. I spot one science march sign laying on the ground. I feel self-conscious about it, and pick it up. A fellow drops a bit of something from his sign, but when I point it out that he has dropped something, he picks it up, and a friend offers to hold it for him until they find a trash can. I look around but I see no overflowing trash cans as occurred during the inaugural weekend. There aren’t enough of them, but even so, people aren’t letting the trash pile up. There were food vendors on the street as we came in, but not that many people seem to have availed themselves. Coffee is the only thing I see them drinking, and the occasional water or cola. No trash on the ground. I’m sure by the time it's over, there will be some... People drop things. The weather is foul and the venue is crowded, so I’m sure there will be some stuff dropped and never missed. At least one cell phone has already gone missing. So maybe there is some, but not in my eyesight.

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After the long march to White House, I find a convenient building with a place to sit. I can film and photograph the never ending line of walkers still making their way to the end, and then follow the little groups as they break off and head up the parallel street to the one we marched on, Constitution Avenue. No one is throwing their signs down or casually disposing of them. They carry them back with them. I photograph them. All the long way back to the Metro station near the Ronald Reagan Building, past the Sailor’s Memorial, people take their signs with them. On the train, their signs rest on the floor in front of them, or are folded or wadded in their laps. Trash cans all along the route boast ones and twos. Later I see that people have placed their signs at designated locations near the capital building, but that’s a tiny fraction of all the signs out there today and they’ll be policed up later, as agreed, and as paid for by the march organization. That’s how it’s done in DC. I personally don’t see leaving them there, but it’s a thing, how it’s done. They’ve worked these tactics down over years, and groups have learned what the authorities expect. Everything goes to plan in DC where protests are a weekly, if not daily occurrence.

It’s over now. It’s almost disappointing that not a single incident happened. There’s not much to tell. We can go over our favorite signs. It’s time to plan the follow up. Now that the hypothesis has been confirmed, it’s time to do the follow up research. I’ll leave that to the scientists and the organizers. I hope there will be other opportunities to join in. I am a willing volunteer subject to this social research project. If there’s another such study coming up, I’ll be there with my electric “protest” sign. Hopefully, next time it won’t be raining. Maybe I’ll see you there!