April 28, 2017
By Mike Schneider

Saturday, April 22, Earth Day: Balmy spring arrived in Pittsburgh right on time for thousands of Pittsburgh citizens (official count, 5,000 plus) to publicly show their support for knowledge. Make Hypotheses Not War. Without Science It’s Just Fiction. There Is No Planet B. These were a few of many creative slogans on display at the Cathedral of Learning, Fifth Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard, University of Pittsburgh, 12:00 p.m., for a rally and urban hike around the block.

Tens of thousands in hundreds of cities world-wide were also on the streets for this far-out idea: Science (from Latin scientia, knowledge), the English word that, since the Renaissance, has stood for evidence-based study and learning.

Ironically, Saturday’s unprecedented event begs a question. How far have we come since the Dark Ages? In the era of Francis Bacon and Galileo, the opponent of scientific knowledge — such as that the Earth revolves around the Sun — was religion. That hasn’t entirely changed, but in 2017 the powerful opponent of knowledge is the executive branch of American government.

As speakers noted on Saturday, the Trump administration proposes 31 percent cuts in funding to the Environmental Protection Agency (along with a legislative proposal to eliminate EPA) and 20 percent cuts to the National Institutes of Health. It also promotes the looming threat to existence posed by climate-science denial. At a time when many thinkers (prominently including Noam Chomsky) assert that the issue of climate change is urgent for humanity, the March for Science is, at least, a mildly heartening symptom for our planet.

At 1:00 p.m., as the marchers looped back to their starting place; a lineup of speakers took the stage. David Finegold, new president of Chatham University, energized the crowd with a shout-out for Chatham alumna Rachel Carson. One of the most important science communicators in history, Pittsburgh-native Carson awakened the world to the perils of human-wrought environmental degradation. Science, not Silent Spring, noted one of the marchers. Carson’s legacy, in the form of the United States EPA, is now under direct attack.

Software engineer and start-up founder Kelauni Cook emphasized science education: “This is not just a march for the recognition of science;” she said, “it has to be a march for equity and access as well.” She gave the example of “black kids in Homewood who are looking at the stars and wondering how they can build a rocket ship out of cardboard boxes to get to the moon.” Science, she stressed, includes the right to imagine.

Carnegie Mellon climate scientist Neil Donahue talked about fine-particle emissions: “About 250 people die in Allegheny County every year from fine-particle air pollution,” he said. If you’re going to have a heart attack, there’s a ten-percent chance it will be caused by fine particles, most of which in Allegheny County come from predominantly coal-fired power plants to our west. What climate change means for Pittsburgh, says Donahue, is saving about 200 lives per year, if we could only stop emissions from fossil fuels.

This work, he stressed, requires public confidence, and not the current administration’s withdrawal from global cooperative efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Pittsburgh’s march began with a University of Pittsburgh town-hall style meeting in early February, organized by two groups, said Pittsburgh March for Science communications director Rebecca Tasker. A student group, Pitt Progressives, joined with a community group called Pittsburgh Progressives. The wider Washington, D.C.-based March for Science initiative came from scientists galvanized by January’s Women’s March. Within the first week of its creation, this movement gained over a million social-media supporters.

Twenty years ago, late astrophysicist Carl Sagan published The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. “Sagan understood something,” observed Carnegie Mellon philosopher Andy Norman, “that most of us only dimly comprehend: Science and reason keep the darkest demons of the human psyche at bay. Just as a lit candle can chase away the darkness, reason and science chase away ignorance, superstition, fear and bigotry.”

The flip side, he said, is that when our commitment wavers, the demons close in. “We can’t afford to assume that reason will triumph over unreason.” We must nurture science and skepticism, he said, and fight for a world in which knowledge prevails over ignorance. He emphasized the word Fight.

 

Mike Schneider is a member of the Thomas Merton Center Editorial Collective.