Do popular movements matter? Can the immediate excitement of a march be turned into something longer lasting?
With the March for Science and the Peoples Climate March occurring one week after the other, and with both stressing the importance of science in general and of using the best scientific evidence available to shape public policy, we have an opportunity to see if the energy present in those events can be harnessed to impact electoral politics.
The most immediate opportunity offers a striking test. On 25 May there will be a special election to fill the sole House of Representatives seat in Montana. (The seat came open when Ryan Zinke resigned to accept the position of Interior Secretary.)
The Republican candidate in this deeply red state is a millionaire who is apparently a young Earth creationist, someone who believes that the planet was created about 6,000 years ago. Indeed, Greg Gianforte, has made donations worth upwards of $300,000 to a creationist museum in Montana that promotes the idea that humans and dinosaurs coexisted in the recent past.
Why does this matter?
It matters because Gianforte’s position evidences a mindset that permits him to pick and choose the parts of science he likes and dismiss the parts he personally doesn’t favor.
It matters because Gianforte’s position is consistent with the behavior of those who form their conclusions first and then look for data to support those conclusions.
It matters because Gianforte’s position is at odds with every piece of data and with the views of every one of the world’s major scientific societies.
It also matters because evolution is central to much of science. Dismiss the basic tenets of evolutionary theory and much of our current understanding of anthropology, archeology, biology, chemistry, ecology, geology, linguistics, paleontology, physics and psychology would fall by the wayside.
Some argue that this isn’t a scientific issue but a religious one. But the vast majority of religious leaders disagree. Virtually every major religious denomination has issued a statement in support of evolution, recognizing that accepting the clear findings of science need not pose a threat to their spiritual beliefs. The Clergy Letter Project, an organization of more than 14,500 religious leaders, has made this point very clearly. The Christian Clergy Letter states unequivocally:
“We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.”
Gianforte’s opponent, Rob Quist, takes a very different perspective. A spokesperson for Quist recently told HuffPost that “Rob Quist believes in evolution and science. As a product of public schools, Rob supports evolution being taught in schools as part of the science curriculum.”
With five satellite Marches for Science having taken place in the state (in Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena and Missoula) and three satellite Climate Marches scheduled (in Bozeman, Missoula, and Glacier National Park), Montanans have clearly embraced the message that science is important. They also seem to have grasped the point that facts and opinions are very different things and that pointing to “alternative facts” is simply a way of lying.
So the question is, will voters in Montana care about science? Or will they vote for someone who sides with the Flintstones rather than members of the National Academies of Science?
We’ll see what sort of energy can be mustered over the next month and we’ll see how the results turn out on election day.