Potowmack the Trickster would have enjoyed last Saturday’s March for Science on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall. He would have particularly liked the signs, with their crude jokes and sly displays of erudition.
He also would have liked the marchers. Although self-professed seekers of truth, they were no zealots, tight-lipped and scowling. Despite the cold and the rain, they laughed and joked even as they chanted.
The Trickster would surely have appreciated the ironies as well. Here were thousands of people with PhDs and published papers happily doing what people have done since ancient times, when truth and facts were indistinguishable from superstition and myth.
The science marchers were not merely celebrating science. If that were the case, they would have carried posters with the image of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Instead, many of their posters bore photos and cartoons of Donald Trump, the very personification of arrogance and willful ignorance.
It’s a time-tested strategy: Cast the other group as irredeemable villains—deplorables, even—and by this means strengthen your own cohesion and capacity for collective action. So it has been with the highland tribe against the lowland tribe, the Romans against the Gauls, the Cowboys vs. the Redskins. And now the champions of science here on the Mall mobilizing to battle the science deniers.
The Trickster would have loved all of this. In fact, I’ll bet he was there, perhaps in the poster of Trump with a cork in his mouth.
He even found time to infiltrate the “DNC War Room” in the form of a (probably) young and well-meaning Democratic staffer. While the marchers were brandishing their signs, the staffer was sending out a fund-raising appeal with the tag line, “Add your name if you believe in science.” She might have had a vague feeling that maybe using the word “believe” would give the scientific enterprise the factual equivalency of homeopathic medicine and tooth fairies. But in the end she hit the send button.
Sensible shoes. I felt my first rush of collective solidarity when I boarded the metro in the Maryland suburbs to head downtown. Instead of the usual tourists from the nation’s heartland, with their sports jerseys and supersize drinks, the seats were occupied by people like me, dressed in earth-colored clothing and shoes that could withstand the cold and the rain and mud down on the Mall. They spoke quietly among themselves.
Arriving at Metro Center the trickle of marchers emerging from the escalator joined the stream heading down the sidewalk toward the Mall. As we crossed Pennsylvania Avenue we were joined by many more like ourselves, and our stream became a river that emptied into a sea of marchers gathered by the Washington Monument. In one hand they held umbrellas, in the other they held signs.
A bounty of signs. These weren’t the kind of signs passed out by union organizers in the morning and collected again in the afternoon. Each sign was a personal expression. Some were original, often using scientific archanery to make their points. Others merely repeated current slogans. “There is no planet B” was one of the favorites. Original or not, the sentiments were authentic. For a sampling of my favorites go to “Scientists with Sharpies.”
Some of the signs were the product of an evening hunched over a poster board with a box of sharpies. Others were just a scrawl on a piece of paper. Elaborate or humble, the rain fell equally on all and made them glisten.
I’m sure there is some (fact-based) study out there that analyzes why people post their feelings on signboards, or car bumpers, or on buttons they wear on their shirt or blouse, rather than as an anonymous tweet. I’d guess that the sign carrier wants to personally and physically identify with the idea, not merely promote it.
The marchers were proud of their signs. When I pointed a camera their way they would snap to a pose. “Can you also take a picture of the back side?” the man asked as he pivoted himself and his sign.
‘Eppur si. . . what? I admit it—I didn’t carry a sign. But I did have an idea for one whose cleverness and erudition made me flush with pride. It almost certainly would have been unique. Or so I thought.
My sign would have read, “Eppur si muove [It moves nevertheless],” which was the phrase Galileo was supposed to have uttered after being forced to retract his claim that the earth moves around the sun, and not the other way around as was maintained by 18th century astronomy deniers.
But I never made my sign. I wanted my hands free to take pictures. I’ve always been the picture taker.
It was just as well. As I was leaving I spotted the words “Eppur si. . .” on a piece of cardboard stuck under a man’s arm. He shrugged as he showed me his sign. “I didn’t think anyone here would know what it meant,” he said.