Rutlanders turn out for New England science marches

Hundreds of people rallied at Vermont's state capitol building as part of marches in support of science across New England. Stefan Hard / Staff Photo

A small group practiced their chants outside the Rutland Free Library before marching down West Street. While one of those chants had started as an Internet joke (“What do we want? Evidence-based science! When do we want it? After peer review!”), the event was serious — Rutland’s entry in the March for Science, which more than 600 cities participated Saturday. About 70 people gathered in the library for the talks that preceeded the march. Carol Ballou opened the event by talking about some of the scientific advances that everyone takes for granted. “When my grandmother was born, there was no radio,” she said. “When my mother was born, there was no TV. When I was born, there was no computer. ... I suspect there are quite a few computers in this room at the moment.” She compared those computers — the smart phones that most people in the audience held up when prompted — to the first computer, which she said weighed 50 tons. “Science certainly has made a dent on our lives and is important to us,” she said. Subsequent talks would delve into the ways in which science is important, from a detailed explanation of the workings of the city’s wastewater treatment plant to a look at how to combat climate change. The latter, delivered by local science writer Alan Betts, noted how China’s greenhouse gas emissions skyrocketed through the ‘00s during the country’s coal-fueled industrial expansion, with urban pollution and health issues resulting. Since, he said, it has leveled off because China is shutting down its coal plants and building hundreds of gigawatts of solar capacity. “India is trying to follow suit because they have the same problems with coal,” he said. On the local level, Betts said Vermont was on track to shift its power grid to renewable energy, but had not tackled transportation. “Ninety-something percent of the cars driving on Vermont roads have a single occupant and they’re inefficient cars,” he said. Betts said the problems before the world can be solved, but a positive attitude has to be part of the solution. “You have to deal with these things from a perspective of hope,” he said. “You have to put your will and your energy into these things, because we create the future.” In the field of climate change, Betts noted resitance to science sprang from profit motive — there remains a great deal of money to be made from unearthing fossil fuels. The next speaker, Dr. Marvin Malek of Springfield Hospital, looked at how both profit motive and religion attacked science from different fronts in medicine. Malek cited Hobby Lobby’s refusal to allow its employees’ health plans to cover birth control. “We have done reasonably good scientific work, a body of research supporting contraception for women and now the religious fantasies of people are going to trump that,” he said. “Science, as it’s been applied in medicine, should’ve counted for a lot more.” Meanwhile, he said, the pharmaceutical industry performs property scientific studies, but will suppress results they won’t like and market drugs in a way that encourages the continued overuse of antibiotics, destroying their effectiveness in the long term. Both subversions of sceince, he said, are enabled by the Republican Party’s “uncomfortable coalition” between religious zealots and free market zealots — the latter small in number but heavily funded by large corporations. He said he wished the Democrats were “standing up more squarely” for science. “Unfortunately, to keep this kind of talk apolitical — I can’t do it,” he said. “This is intensely political.”

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