Pursuing Pluralism to Promote Science-Based Policy

On Saturday, after celebrating Earth Day at my local Hindu mandir in Troy, I stopped in Midland, MI to participate in the March for Science, en route to a another destination. My mother – the biologist – asked me why I took a detour to attend the Midland March. This set my thoughts on a journey to explain…. After all, I have resisted participating in any marches or movements since the Nov. 2016 election, not even the Women’s March, even though I know many people who have taken part or have even organized activities. But I finally felt it was time to find out how others in my beautiful Great Lakes State felt – surrounded as we are by nature and the strong desire of most Michiganders to preserve its beauty, through effective policy and perhaps even policing of the environment.  As my colleague and Hindu American Foundation Education Director Murali Balaji saidI too “believe that science should not be subjected to polemics by non-scientists.” I was curious whether there were people outside of my metro area were as concerned about the policies being introduced, and their impact on our natural environment and if there was something I could contribute on Earth Day to the conversation in Midland, given my rather enthusiastic pursuit of pluralism.

The Midland March for Science was a very well attended gathering of like-minded people. My husband and I got there a few minutes before the festivities began and the crowd was humming with energy; there were puppets, wonderfully worded signs and wearable artwork. Nicole Graziano, the Assistant Art Gallery Director at Central Michigan University, led the puppet workshop, so it wasn’t just scientists that helped put the event together. The speakers were (in order of appearance):  Matt Vannette, Ph.D. and the Chair of the Physics Dept. at Saginaw Valley State University, who was on the event’s steering committee; Sven Morgan, Ph.D. and a geology professor at Central Michigan University; Heather Cleland, M.S. in Physics; and Jim Crissman, Ph.D. and veterinary pathologist.  Amy Rogers (another non-scientist) was responsible for communications and publicity/PR, and provided me many of these details. From my experiences in Troy and metro-Detroit, I know how challenging it is to organize a grassroots effort.  It was obvious that this Midland group had quite a number of very dedicated volunteers.

Several hundred people showed up, many of them wearing T-shirts about Earth Day, others wearing shirts that reflected a progressive outlook, still others wearing shirts that reflected a partisan outlook. This along with the words of the physicist Matt Vanette, stayed with me as the key reasons I attended the march.

Policy that balances the needs of all is a lot like like peace amongst the religions. It can only happen if we have a pluralistic approach. Approaching this from a Republican/ Democrat divide won’t work if we want to have effective policies that balance science, economics and social issues – yet it does not mean staying silent in the face of sheer ignorance. A binary approach that “Otherizes” those who don’t agree with us does not lead to effective dialogue. And dialogue is critical as Matt Vanette pointed out in his call to action: each of us at the March needs to go find someone who does not agree with our views on policy or politics, or simply someone who did not attend the March. We need to engage them on the value of science-based policy, listen to why they don’t agree or why didn’t attend. By listening, not only do we learn about their reasoning, but find ways to help them to understand why we did. Bridging that gap, building those relationships, by understanding those with different perspectives, is what leads to effective political partnerships and policy which comprehends and encompasses all of those it affects. Effective science-based policy must be built through a large consensus – so it behoves us to bring together those who are knowledgeable about both science and democracy – even if we don’t always agree on all of the issues.

Perhaps participating in an activity such as marching with several hundred like-minded people who believe in an effective science-based approach to public policy is like preaching to the choir. The old saying “preaching to the choir makes them sing louder” should not make it cacophonous or hurt one’s ear drums. It should not simply strengthen the voices and pit those at the March against those who weren’t. Instead, it should strengthen the internal resolve of the participants to take up this call to action and engage in ways to engage. They were probably people who were afraid to come to the March, people who were indifferent, and people who were in opposition to the perspectives of those who attended.  

Those of us who marched should take the opportunity to be strengthened by the camaraderie that we had on that beautiful Earth Day. We now know that we are part of a collective, of those who believe science-based policy is critical to each of us and to our planet. We need to take more steps, many more steps than that brief March, to encourage those who were not with us to at least appreciate our viewpoint if not agree completely. Quoting the words of a poster carried by a young Michigan marcher, it’s about about science, not silence. That is the real journey to pluralism.

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