One protester stood out among all the others at New York City’s March for Science on Saturday. A middle-aged man, his sunglasses hanging from the collar of his navy sweater, took a wide-legged stance, grinned, and raised two middle fingers in the air as the crowds below marched past his personal stage. He was on the steps of Trump Tower.
The unidentified man was ideally situated to troll the 30,000 science advocates involved with New York’s March for Science, which had assembled one block north of Trump Tower then marched directly past its concrete steps. When Inverse invited the man to have a discussion about science, he started and ended the conversation with four words.
“Science is always wrong!” he yelled, smiling.
Because he was separated from the crowd by several New York City police officers and two sets of metal barricades, it was impossible for anyone to engage him in conversation. Instead, protesters yelled “Not my president!” as they walked by, and he cheerily retorted, “He’s my president!” When they chanted “Shame!” he responded by smiling and flipping them off.
The ideological and physical rift between the Trump Tower Troll and the New York City protesters exemplifies core issues in the so-called “war on science” — namely, the increasing polarization in attitudes toward science and the conflation of those attitudes with personal beliefs.
This polarization is clearly illustrated in a press release the Heartland Institute, a climate denial think tank, released the day before the march. In it, several politicians and other “experts” weigh in on how the March for Science is a thin cover for partisan ideals because the American left has co-opted science. Former Republican congressperson Bette Grande artfully ties identity to politics and science, painting a picture of rural America that only needs certain types of science.
“As we prepare for the celebration of Earth Day, I pause to count the blessings that mother earth provides for us,” Grande writes. “Spring has arrived and the snow is gone, and we are beginning the planting season. So as I travel to the farm in my F-350 truck, I think of how the Earth has provided the energy to work the soil, coal for electricity, oil and gas for the making and use of machinery and fertilizers. We are blessed with the ingenuity to utilize all aspects of the resources provided to us. How wonderful it is to live in the modern industrial era.”
Of course, she’s listing things that are not just scientific, but also strongly tied to her identity as an American living in rural North Dakota. By deliberately choosing which branches of science she supports, Grande makes it clear that she only supports science that fuels the American working class. She’s not convinced that the scientists marching on Saturday care about her community.
As Derek Muller, the co-host of the March for Science in Washington, D.C., explained in a previous interview with Inverse, the reason it’s so hard to convince some people to trust science is not that they’re unintelligent or uneducated — rather, it’s that their personal identity dictates what facts they are willing to accept.
“Maybe in the first place we should try to avoid having identity tied to science so clearly,” he said. How to disentangle the personal and political history of people like the Trump Tower Troll and his beliefs on science, however, is anyone’s guess.
Some people in the crowd jeered “Asshole!” at the man as they walked by. Many of their signs clearly had an anti-Trump slant, despite widespread criticism that the March unjustly turned science into a political issue. Community leaders like Bill Nye and Mutale Nkonde, a co-organizer of the New York City March, have addressed these concerns by arguing that science is political but not partisan, but the interactions at Trump Tower on Saturday suggested that those lines were more easily discussed than drawn.
It’s unclear what the man’s objective was that morning, but he remained outside for over an hour, giving the thumbs up, joking around with guests exiting Trump Tower, and taking videos of himself flipping off the crowd. The crowds were as tireless as he was, marching on even as rain began to fall. All the while, neither side got the chance to converse.