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In the Age of ‘Alternative Facts,’ Scientists March in Defense of Evidence

Typically apolitical, scientists felt compelled to defend their work outside the AAAS conference in Boston.

Hundreds of scientists and science enthusiasts gathered at Boston's Copley Square on Sunday in a defiant show of support for research, evidence, and facts. Real facts, not the "alternative" kind.

As we've been discussing at Motherboard, scientists have assumed a new role after Donald Trump's election: resisting the anti-science rhetoric surrounding the administration. At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the importance of scientists connecting to the public, and expressing their views, was a ubiquitous theme, and many scientists who were at the conference chose to attend the rally.

The Stand Up for Science rally attracted scientists of different backgrounds and disciplines, as well as members of the general public, gathering to stand up against an ethos of anti-evidence.

"Scientists are really enraged because they're working all of their lives to serve society, and right now that's under attack," said Lucky Tran, a scientist and science communicator who attended the rally.

Image: Kaleigh Rogers

In just one month, President Trump has repeatedly targeted the scientific community. This has included subtle signals, such as meeting with prominent anti-vaxxer Robert Kennedy Jr. and nominating a cabinet made almost entirely of climate change deniers and skeptics.

But the president has also made moves that more directly target science, including muzzling government researchers from sharing information with the public, and enacting the immigration and refugee ban, which quite literally disrupted the ability of many US scientists to do their work, and barred esteemed researchers from entering the country.

"President Trump has been appointing a lot of people into his cabinet with anti-science backgrounds, which speaks volumes for what his personal stance is," said Barbara Del Castello, a PhD student studying genetics at the University of Georgia at the rally. "This is to let the administration know that science is not going to go quietly. We will not go gentle into that good night."

Santiago Correa, a biological engineering PhD student from nearby MIT, told me the administration's muzzling of federal scientists was most concerning to him, and spurred him to attend the rally.

"It feels like there's been a breakdown of trust between science and the public, and so it's time for scientists to step up and start communicating directly to the public," he said.

Image: Kaleigh Rogers

Whether or not scientists should take a visible and vocal stance on political issues has been cause for debate over the last few weeks. Many scientists just want to do their work and let the facts speak for themselves. But some think that argument is flawed.

"In your science, much like journalism, you have to be fair and objective," Tran told me. "But the whole argument is missing the main point, which is people are passionate right now because [...] it's under attack: scientists are being silenced, they can't physically do their work, and science as an institution is being cast in doubt by specific political tactics."

Read More: Scientists Offer Four Guidelines for Maintaining Scientific Integrity in the Age of Trump

All weekend, President Trump and his anti-evidence administration have hung in the air at AAAS, one of the largest science conferences in the world. References to Trump—from light-hearted jokes to more concerned warnings—were made at nearly every panel we attended at the annual meeting.

A Saturday evening talk entitled "Defending Science and Scientific Integrity in the Age of Trump" was so well attended that organizers had to set up a spillover room where the discussion was livestreamed.  

And a plenary lecture on Friday evening from science historian Naomi Oreskes argued that scientists must stand up for science. In her call to action, Oreskes pointed to historical examples of scientists standing behind their research even when it was politically disruptive to do so, such as researchers who spoke out against nuclear weapons, or the harms of tobacco.

"Science is not politicized because we cross a line," Oreskes told a crowded auditorium, "Science is politicized by people who don't like the findings."

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