Austin’s March For Science (UPDATED)

I Have Arrived
Upon my arrival at the Texas Capitol on Saturday morning, I snapped a rare selfie to document my appearance at the event.
(Copyright © 2017 by Wil C. Fry.)

On Earth Day 2017, I attended the March For Science in Austin, Texas — the closest of about 600 worldwide satellite marches (the primary march was held in Washington D.C.) To be clear, I didn’t “march”. I observed, photographed, and talked to people. I met science teachers, a couple of actual scientists, college students, a local TV camera operator (who filmed most of the footage seen here), and others.

It was encouraging to see so many — about 5,000 by my count, though some estimated the number as high as 6,000 — come out to support the sciences. One part of my brain is still stunned that in the 21st Century so many feel the need to “stand up for science”; it seems like such a 1700s thing to do. But the informed, rational part of me recognizes that there are still significant and powerful forces at work to ignore, or in some cases eradicate, science.

The march was billed as “nonpartisan”, and for the most part I didn’t see references to one political party or another — which is fairly difficult when only one party in the U.S. regularly attempts to defund scientific research, ignores scientific findings, and actively works to reduce the world to flaming rubble. I did notice that the only political party that showed up to support the March was a local chapter of the Democratic Party. There were a handful of anti-Trump signs and at least one that bashed local anti-science moron Lamar Smith. But by and large, the great majority of the signs, buttons, T-shirts, bumper stickers, flyers, etc., were about science.

Without counting and categorizing messages on all the signs, I would guess that a few topics got more coverage than others. Climate change was probably the most-commonly mentioned subject, which brightened my day a bit, because it’s a favorite topic of mine.

Regular Or Extra Crispy?
The sign at left in this image was one of hundreds that referenced climate change or global warming.
(Copyright © 2017 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

While Texans know that Austin itself leans liberal(ish) on most political topics, I want to note two things. First, science itself is not liberal, conservative, or otherwise. Science is a method, a way of understanding and documenting the way the universe works. Science collects and organizes information. Science forms hypotheses, thinks up tests, observes test results and natural processes, and seeks to understand them. Science is why we have lasers, computers, electricity, and dental floss. Science is how we know the age of the Earth and how life developed on it. It doesn’t seek to pass legislation or encourage/discourage one lifestyle or another. Secondly, not everyone at this march was from Austin. There were people from all the surrounding towns and cities, including Killeen, Waco, Round Rock, etc.

Also, there were some decidedly non-liberals in attendance. I met one man (whose name I have forgotten) who showed up wearing a red T-shirt; on the front, it said boldly “Trump Is My President” — of course, if you’re a U.S.ian, Trump is your president — and on the back it advertised for the conspiracy-theory website “InfoWars”. He had a firearm on his right hip, worn openly (which is now legal here, if you have a license to carry). I asked him if I could get a photo, and he said “sure”, but wanted to know why. I told him: “Well, you kind of stand out. You’re the first person I’ve seen here wearing a Trump shirt.” I didn’t mention the semi-automatic handgun. He then asked me what the crowd was gathered for — which surprised me because I had been assuming he was there purposefully. I told him: “It’s a March For Science; they’re protesting in support of science.” He responded, weirdly: “Like, all the science, or just some of it?” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but responded that I think they support all the branches of science. He seemed relieved. I got a photo of him and then bid him good day. At no point did I feel threatened by his presence or mannerisms.

The Lone Trump Guy
This was the only person in attendance at Austin’s March For Science that seemed to support Donald Trump in any way. I don’t think he stayed long. He didn’t say he was in any way against any science, and in fact seemed relieved when I told him what the rally was about.
(Copyright © 2017 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

The event began long before I arrived at 10:55 (by my phone’s clock), with booths set up on the capitol’s south lawn, but the speakers didn’t take the microphone until around 11:30. There were three or four speakers, most of whom I couldn’t hear well as I meandered through the crowd getting photos — because I’m most comfortable in a crowd when being a photographer. There was a rock band that played one or two songs — I didn’t catch the name of the band (though it might be “The Wyles”; I think I recognized one of the musicians).

The actual march began at 12:46 (according to the interior clock in my Canon 60D), with the crowd flowing southward from the capitol toward Congress Avenue and then eastward on 11th Street. Knowing the route in advance, I (and a few other photographers) had already staked out a spot on 11th Street. Had I known more about Austin in advance, I think I would have gone farther east. As it was, many of my march photos show empty road in the background, due to being so close to the start of the route. Had I gone just one more block eastward, I would have been over a hill and so marchers would have gone all the way back in my background. Oh well.

People squeezed past, 10 or 20 abreast, for twenty-two minutes. And then it was over for me. (The marchers continued on to an Earth Day event at the end of the march.) I found lunch in downtown Austin and then (with the help of GPS) found my way out of the city.

Does This Crowd Make My Street Look Small?
Trying to show the size of a crowd with a still-frame camera was a challenge. This photo shows foreground marchers passing me on 11th Street. In the background, more of the crowd is still waiting to exit the capitol building’s south lawn
(Copyright © 2017 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

Pre-March Rally
This photo, made with my Motorola Droid Turbo phone, shows part of the crowd prior to the march. At lower left is a camera operator for KEYE, the local CBS affiliate.
(Copyright © 2017 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

Science Rules
A young woman holds a “Science Rules” sign, with a picture of Bill Nye The Science Guy on it. Mr. Nye couldn’t make it to the Austin march, since he was participating in the March For Science in Washington D.C.
(Copyright © 2017 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

What did the marchers hope to accomplish? I don’t think they can claim they were “raising awareness for science”, since pretty much everyone on the planet over the age of five is aware of science (yes, I know there are exceptions). I also don’t organizers had specific legislative agendas in mind either; at least none were mentioned beyond the very general “science needs to be funded”. Even if there had been a specific bill or law in question here, there were no legislators on hand to hear the marchers’ pleas. Local and national media paid minimal lip service to the science marches.

People who didn’t attend have wondered aloud: “What was the need for this? Who is against science?” But their questions are insincere. You see, the same question could be asked of the anti-child-abuse march held earlier in the day (which got even less press coverage). Of course no one’s in favor of child abuse, right? Then why did they march? Because child abuse still happens with frightening frequency.

Defend It
This poster, though by far not the most interesting of those I saw, perhaps best encapsulated the thrust of the entire March for Science.
(Copyright © 2017 by Wil C. Fry.)

It’s the same for science. You can joke all day about how no one is against science, yet here we are. We elected a president who publicly insists climate change is a “hoax”. We elected a vice president who won’t admit to believing in evolution, insists smoking isn’t dangerous, and also doesn’t believe in global warming. We have oil-funded senators on the highest science-related committees in Congress who think that holding snowballs disproves global warming (I’m looking at you, Oklahoma).

We live in a country that has now elected an implicitly anti-science party into power in a majority of states and all three branches of the federal government.

Personally, I worry that more states will do what Louisiana has already done: legislatively inject fables into the science classroom. Many states and the federal government have already moved to cut higher education funding, even as public school funding heads toward the chopping block as well. What does this portend for our future?

We can each envision multiple scenarios, but one of the worst is surely what our country will be like after years (or decades) of defunded scientific research, poorly funded public education, and a curb on university learning. It’s bad enough that a quarter of Americans don’t know that the Earth goes around the Sun, but we’re also fast approaching a time in which that same number don’t think vaccines are healthy.

Check out the existing gap between what science says and what Americans believe, and then multiply that by several years with fewer research grants, slashed budgets at NASA, NIH, NOAA, etc., combined with tax money spent to send children to private religious schools and fewer grants and loans to send anyone to college.

I don’t know if rallies or marches for science will help with any of this. And I certainly don’t think it will help in Texas, where our representatives won’t meet with us or even take our calls and our governor thinks God wants us to check genitals in bathrooms. But if nothing else, attending such an event was encouraging — each of us got to see that other people felt the same way. And perhaps some of us, through our words, photos, and videos, can help convince one or two others.

Republican Presidents
The only verifiable Republican at the march was Honest Abe, carrying a decidedly partisan sign. Also, he’s much shorter in person.
(Copyright © 2017 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

To see ALL the photos (and one video) I made at the Austin March For Science, click here.

Clarification, 2017.05.04: The start time (12:46) I listed for the march is from the EXIF/IPTC metadata of the first photo I shot, as the crowd poured off the Capitol grounds and onto 11th street. I check my camera’s interior clock periodically, and it’s never more than a minute or two off of the self-correcting clocks in my phone and PC.

My crowd-size estimate of “about 5,000” is based on the number of marchers, not the number of people on the Capitol grounds. I sampled several photos for the average number of people walking abreast, and combined that with a 10-second video I made of people walking past me — to get a “person-per-minute” average, and then used the total time of people walking past me (22 minutes) to arrive at a rough estimate. I don’t know how other people arrived at their estimates, including the “6,000” estimated by KEYE, the local CBS station that I cited above.

The reason I mention these two items is because yesterday (2017.05.03), I was contacted by the March For Science Austin’s Twitter account, asking for a “correction” on the start time, duration time, and crowd size. In private messages on Twitter, the anonymous person using that account said “Facts matter”, and was very insistent that the start time of the march was 12:25 and that it lasted 20 minutes (rather than 22). They said that both “APD” (Austin police, I assume) and the Austin newspaper estimated the crowd size at 10,000 people.

I explained briefly that a “correction” wasn’t needed because my facts were accurate, but offered a clarification. In journalism, the two terms are very different. One corrects statements that were untrue; the other explains why the statements were true or offers additional background information. The latter is clearly what was required here, because (1) the time I stated was indeed the time that I first saw marchers on 11th Street, and (2) it is a fact that I estimated the crowd size at about 5,000 and others estimated it at 6,000.

But more than that, I was surprised that 11 days after the march, the organizers of the event would take such a hardline stance against my blog entry, rather than offer a simple: “thanks for the coverage” or (even more likely) not say anything to me at all, which is what usually happens. For some inexplicable reason, it was VERY important to them that the time be listed as “12:25” and the crowd size estimate be stated as “10,000” (actually “10k” is what they typed).

When I responded that I’d updated this entry with a clarification (now replaced by this one), they immediately began tweeting publicly that I was wrong and went straight to “fake news”. This was startling, to say the least. What they couldn’t have known is that I was at Dairy Queen when they began messaging me, treating my children and wife to chilly treats on a hot day, and that immediately afterward, I was engaged in directing toy-pickup activities, getting children ready for bed, brewing coffee, washing dishes, and hoping to sit down for a movie with my wife. In other words, I simply didn’t have the time to argue over semantics with an anonymous person who clearly doesn’t understand the difference between a correction and a clarification.

I ended up blocking the account on Twitter, just so the notifications would shut up and so their tweets wouldn’t be associated with my timeline. By that point, I’d begun to suspect that their account had been hacked by a Trump supporter with the intent of pissing off supporters. I couldn’t think of a legitimate reason for a science-minded organization to start chiding supporters with “facts matter” and repeatedly tweeting at me about “fake news” and crowd-size estimates. To my knowledge, only Donald Trump and his fanboys are that concerned about convincing people of their crowd sizes.

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