Peggy La Cerra, an evolutionary neuroscientist living in Ojai, found she could not stay silent this spring in the face of a new administration in Washington, D.C., that plans to drastically scale back the role of science in government. Although troubled by the massive budget cuts proposed for scientific agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency, she was especially alarmed by the Trump administration’s advocacy of “alternative facts” over science.
“Science is arguably the pinnacle of [human] decision-making,” she said. “It’s the best way to cull out individual beliefs and get to the truth of something. Right now I think we’re experiencing and beginning to appreciate the dangers of a world in which truth doesn’t matter.”
La Cerra has been working with Ojai Indivisible, a local chapter of a new national organization that sprang up after the election by pledging to defend the Constitution, the environment, immigration and women’s rights, among other values seemingly threatened by the new administration. When she heard about a national March for Science in Washington, D.C., slated for April 22, Earth Day, she decided to organize a similar march on a local scale for Ojai and Ventura County, although she doesn’t want it to be political.
“At an Ojai Indivisible meeting, I mentioned that there was going to be a March for Science. Many of us had attended the women’s march in L.A. or Washington or elsewhere; others said that they wanted to participate but couldn’t take the time to travel. So I suggested that we hold local marches. When that got agreement from the group, I knew I’d be organizing a March for Science here,” she said.
The march will begin at the central fountain in Libbey Park in downtown Ojai at 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 22. La Cerra and many other local scientists and educators will each speak for a few minutes to the crowd. She said she found local scientists eager to make a case for science. Among those slated to speak are Jim Bailey, a biology teacher who leads a new environmentally themed school in Ojai called Rock Tree Sky; James Mallison, a chemistry teacher at Ojai Valley School; Smitty West, a geologist; Michael Lotker, a physicist and rabbi; and Lanny Kaufer, a biology teacher who taught in high school for many years.
With a student from Santa Paula High School, Kaufer composed a rap with a student from Santa Paula to help explain the scientific method.
“Let me hit you with some rhymes about science,” he recited. “What it’s really about is self-reliance. Like knowing how to fix an appliance, or knowing how to figure things out — for yourself. You see that’s what science is about.”
For Lotker, a physicist who also serves as rabbi at Ojai’s Jewish Community Center, fact and science are fundamental to our way of life, as fundamental as politics itself.
“We can have political differences,” he said. “That’s not surprising or a bad thing, but it’s worrisome when people deny science and deny facts, especially if it’s because the science is inconsistent with their political objectives.”
La Cerra argues that science and fact aren’t — or shouldn’t be — divisive, and has tried to keep the focus on the scientific method and the enduring truth it reveals.
“This rally and march for science isn’t meant to be controversial,” she said. “It’s meant to be a celebration of science as a means of getting to the truth.”
La Cerra and her allies have been working hard to publicize the event. The Ojai March for Science is the only such march planned in support of science this Earth Day in Ventura County, and La Cerra hopes all kinds of people — but especially students — will attend.
“I sometimes feel like taking my ukelele to the beach and saying to hell with it,” she said. “Instead I’m going to lead a March for Science in Ojai.”