March for Science Was Important, Silly Signs Aside

The demonstrations reflect the public's understanding of where we'd be without it.

He's got a point.

Photographer: Mark Ralston/afp/getty images

It’s easy to make fun of last weekend's March for Science. People groan at the nerdy signs. The critics question the purpose of the march, beyond simply bringing scientists into the public eye. And they point out that although the march was aimed mainly at President Donald Trump and his plans to roll back environmental protection and spending on research, in reality there are elements on both sides of the political spectrum that deny or challenge the scientific consensus.

But the demonstrations in dozens of cities across the U.S. -- which drew between 250,000 and 600,000 people -- were a crucial sign that our society is a healthy one. And it’s a reminder that respect for science, as an institution and as an idea, is necessary in order to keep our civilization on the right track.

To understand why science is so important, it’s essential to take a broad view of history. Economic historians estimate that modern developed countries are more than 25 times as rich as they were in the Middle Ages. For example, here are estimates for the U.K.:

Better Living Through Science

U.K. annual GDP per capita*

Source: The Maddison Project

* In 1990 international dollars

The developing world is now repeating that transformation, following in the footsteps of places like Britain. In the space of a couple of centuries, the human race went from scratching in the dirt for a living to driving cars and ordering pizza. Industrial technology made that amazing change possible.

Not all of the Industrial Revolution was due to science -- a lot of inventions came from tinkering. But there’s no question that science was essential to the process. From the germ theory of disease to the quantum physics that created semiconductors, the process of careful experimentation and practical, mathematical theory that we now call “science” has been the most powerful tool humanity has ever discovered. It has let us master the natural world and improve the human condition.

Science was also the secret sauce of Western civilization. At first, Western nations harnessed science for war -- it was the systematic advancement of engineering, chemistry and materials science that turned Europe from a disease-ridden chaotic backwater in the 1300s into the wealthy masters of the globe in the 1800s. But in contrast to earlier world-conquerors like the Mongols or the Romans, the modern Europeans remained rich, healthy and successful even after they lost their colonial empires. Today, despite a shrinking population, Europe remains one of the centers of the global economy, even as science and its bounty have spread to the rest of Earth’s nations.

That success stands in contrast to several other civilizations that, in earlier centuries, were on the verge of scientific revolutions but shied away, probably dooming humanity to additional centuries of poverty.

During the Middle Ages, the Islamic empire under the Abbasids of Baghdad boasted many of the world’s leading thinkers, some of whom were experimenting with ideas eerily similar to those eventually embraced by European scientists. But for some reason, the Caliphate turned away from these ideas. No one knows exactly why, but many blame the rise of anti-scientific and anti-rationalist schools of thought.

Another frustrating historical example is China’s Ming Dynasty. China bounced back from the Mongol conquests, and in the 15th and 16th centuries it was the world’s most technologically advanced civilization. Proto-science was common in early modern China, but the country cut itself off from foreign influences and de-emphasized science in the civil-service examinations. Eventually, China ended up importing Jesuit astronomers from Europe.

No one will ever know how close the Abbasids and the Ming came to full-blown scientific revolutions, or exactly which factors led to the fizzling of their promise. History, of course, isn’t very scientific. But it seems very likely that each dynasty probably could have used a March for Science. If there’s something that makes the U.S. and other modern developed nations more successful than those old empires, it’s not the strength of their armies or the superiority of their religious beliefs -- it’s a healthy respect for the march of systematically acquired knowledge of the natural world.

For now, that respect for science is intact. Americans of all political leanings and educational backgrounds evince a healthy respect for science as an institution:

A Matter of Respect

Percent reporting a "great deal" or "fair amount" of confidence scientists act in public's best interest

Source: Pew Research Center

And most Americans support government investment in basic science:

Neither Red Nor Blue

Percentages favoring U.S. science investment in 2015 national poll

Source: Pew Research Center

So the March for Science would seem to have the public on its side. Still, there is no guarantee that scientific values will continue to prevail in the U.S. Research funding has stagnated over the last few years. And scientific issues like climate change are way too politicized -- opposition to the scientific consensus on global warming is a badge of honor for too many partisans. Meanwhile, dangerous anti-scientific ideas like the thoroughly debunked anti-vaccination movement are spreading, and have even gained the ear of the president.

That’s exactly why the U.S. -- and the world -- needed a March for Science, and why they need a durable pro-science movement now. Science is too valuable to risk. It’s all that stands between the human race and the poverty and darkness that once engulfed us.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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