Thousands descended on DC to march for truth and science

Many more around the world joined them in rallying for the cause.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

A balmy Friday evening gave way to a miserable Saturday, with low, gray clouds that blotted out the sun and soaked Washington DC with rain. That wasn't enough to stop thousands of people -- from all over the country -- from gathering on the grounds in front of the Washington Monument to march for science. It's no wonder, either.

The people who showed up were career researchers, teachers, students and families, all alarmed by the federal government's lack of appreciation for the importance of science. And they were joined in spirit by still thousands more around the world, showing their support for facts and inquiry at satellite marches in over 600 cities.

Each march had its own flavor, but DC's was special because of its proximity to the powers that made marching necessary. It wasn't just about federal funding for research being slashed, or the Trump administration's disdain for the EPA. On some level, people on the ground were marching for the recognition of objectivity itself.

That this had to happen at all seems a little crazy, but remember: we're living in the age of "alternative facts," and people are sick of them. That collective desire to stress the importance of objective truth brought together thousands who agree that science is crucial to our lives, and it wasn't hard to find other patches of common ground.

Take the role of politics in science, for instance. This was an event predicated at least partially on collective distaste for President Trump, so a liberal skew was to be expected. Most people I spoke to agreed that science should remain politically neutral, but said that pressure from the Trump administration had basically forced their hands.

"It should be apolitical," said Karl VanNewkirk, a retired engineer from Maryland who attended the march with his wife. "But it's very disappointing that the current administration seems to be very dismissive of facts and science and truth. We need to speak and say, 'Yes, really, this is important.'"

Taylor Seitz echoed VanNewkirk's viewpoint. A recent graduate of the Astronomy program at North Carolina's Guilford College, Seitz was quick to level blame at the Republican Party.

"I would definitely prefer not to see science become political," he said. "But I think it's very clear the Republicans in Congress and the White House are the ones that politicized science first by taking all this money from corporations and churning out lies and falsehoods in response."

Despite the weightiness of the conversations I had, the mood at the march was distinctly upbeat. On-stage presentations by Mona Hanna-Attisha -- the pediatrician-turned-whistleblower who publicized Flint's water crisis -- and Bill Nye were interspersed between sets by Jon Batiste and Stay Human. (You might know them better as Stephen Colbert's Late Show house band.) Questlove, drummer for The Roots and unabashed science nerd, was on hand to keep the program flowing smoothly. And yes, as you'd expect, the signs were clever.

As the last of the speakers exited the stage and the throng of people moved off the monument grounds and started marching down Constitution Avenue, a ripple of excitement surged through the crowd. People were happy to be out in this April mess, chanting and clapping and drumming for the cause. Sharon O'Shaughnessy, a former speech scientist clutching a blue "Christians for Science" sign quickly got caught up in the energy.

"All of these big movements just make everybody say hey, there's enough of me to actually do something," she said with a broad smile as she cruised down Constitution. "More importantly, it gives people hope."

Ultimately, what the march didn't give its participants was a clear sense of what should happen next. When the massive crowd finally parked on a broad expanse of grass overlooking Capitol Hill for a photo op and a few, final moments chanting "We! Made! History!", the march's organizers proclaimed that this was only the beginning. They didn't lay out more detailed plans on-site (the March for Science website has vague details for a subsequent "week of action"), but the people in attendance had their own ideas about how to keep the movement going strong.

More than anything, the people I spoke to believed the most important step would be to open up new -- and more elegant -- lines of communication about what science means for commerce, quality of life and more. I caught up with Seitz, the astronomy graduate, at the end of the march, and he already knew what he and others like him should do when they get back home.

"We definitely need to keep the momentum going," he said. "I think it's really great for people to see others like them who believe the same things, and take that energy back with them into their cities and their towns and start talking to local legislators. I know I've started talking to my local congresspeople all the time about these important issues that matter to me."

Naturally, talking to lawmakers is only one part of the puzzle. Some here also argue that in order for the government to fully realize the importance of the scientific method, scientists need to do a better job of explaining to everyone what they're actually doing.

"People keep forgetting that science is important," said Barry Turniansky. "There's anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, people who don't understand how important science is, that's our fault in part. Scientists can't do much about it because their research is necessarily complicated. We need to put more emphasis on science reporting; it's really science reporters' jobs to take the complicated stuff and distill it down so everyone can understand."

"To bring it home, you have to talk to people about how science impacts their future," added Karen Doherty, a higher education professional who took a detour off the Appalachian Trail to come to the march.

She added: "Science crosses all lines: gender, religious beliefs, everything. If you take one thing you care about, you can tie science into. If you have a belief you care about, there's a way to make it palatable and to show that science is intertwined."

Whether politicians take note or policies will change for the better; no one can say for sure. If nothing else, though, the conversations that started here will continue to drive people to do more for the sake of science. That's a fact.