Science is under attack from the White House, but it also seems to be increasingly doubted by wide swathes of society.
Science isn’t obvious. It’s not obvious that the Earth is 4.5 billion years-old, that it’s shape is an oblate-spheroid or that the Sun is a nuclear fusion reactor. It isn’t obvious that a hydrogen atom contains one proton and one electron, anymore than its obvious that one disease is caused by this while another is caused by something else.
The facts of science aren’t obvious, and people doubt them, ignore them, and reason without them, which is exactly what we heard from President Trump when he pulled us out of the Paris Climate Accord.
I was surprised that his speech lacked the usual bad science of climate-denial, like references to data on cooling and temperature moderation; in fact the speech was almost entirely science-free, which is disconcerting in its own way. When climate-deniers use bad science it’s at at least an indication that they feel the need to back up their arguments with some science. Not so with Trump.
The only studies he referenced were biased and misquoted. He used an extreme case from an economic research report produced by a conservative think-tank, and a study on the Paris Climate Accord’s CO2 reduction measures by an MIT research group, which he misinterpreted, according to one of the study’s authors in an interview with Reuters.
Once you understand that the applications of science and mathematics are all around us, that we use them every day, it’s easy to see. We use things that were created in government labs or with government funding or by scientists who went through a government-sponsored science program or made use of a patent that was created in one of those contexts. But that’s not clear at all if you don’t know it. You just don’t think about it, so the fact that there was almost no science involved in Trump’s speech pulling us out of the Paris Accord was not surprising, because there doesn’t seem to be much science involved in the world as Trump sees it.
Certain types of science will not be (or should not be) pursued by private companies. That’s why our government has long supported the sciences in many ways. That support has led to the US’ historic place as a leader in new technology and enabled countless scientists to start (or proceed with) their careers. Science, and government support for science are important. That’s exactly the reason there was an international March for Science in late April this year. At the Philadelphia march thousands turned out under a cold rain to hear distinguished speakers from the scientific community speak about the importance of science, the threats that science faces under the Trump administration, and the need for a strengthening of ties between the government, scientific/academic institutions, and also the public – outside of the laboratories and classrooms.
Dr. Paul Offit, a specialist in infectious disease and immunology, said that so much science, including some of his own groundbreaking research, has been done in government-funded labs, but that scientists have failed to communicate to the people of this country just what it is they get for the tax dollars they send to NIH and other organizations. Stephen S. Tang, President and CEO of the University City Science Center, reminded us that Kevlar and treatments for rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease, among many other things, came out of the kind of research that government support is so crucial for. The speakers collectively rallied the crowd to get involved in elections, to go to school-board meetings, even to run for office. There was a heaviness in the air. As Stephen Tang said, it was sad to be defending science. But there was also a sense of hopeful resolution in the crowd, as they cheered through the rain.
There was a man at the march who stood out. I noticed him during the initial procession down Market street even though he was several blocks away, because he was carrying a large “Trump” flag on a PVC pole. When I caught up with him he was telling a reporter that he felt that the people who came out to ‘march for Science’ were being tricked into attending an anti-Trump event instead of a pro-science one. There were indeed many signs addressing Trump, and a person dressed as a Trump-dinosaur. The politicians who spoke were all Democrats. The partisan bend was undeniable. I checked in with Twitter throughout the day and saw one criticism coming up again and again: that the March for Science is “politicizing science,” which is dangerous, because it could lead to widespread doubt of science-as-opinion.
Was there really a risk that by marching to support science that these people would cause a mass conflation of science with political opinion? Was this just a political march? The lines seem to be getting blurred. The Trump supporter that day at the march signed a petition for clean air and water and was saying he was a science supporter and a Trump supporter. But the problem is, Trump is clearly not a science supporter. So if science has become a dividing issue, it’s tempting to say that it was Trump, or the movement that brought him to power, that made it that way.
That we’re a heavily polarized culture is true, and often discussed. In 2014 the Pew Research Center published a study showing that partisanship had increased and the middle-ground was eroding. (Though from 1994 to 2004 the middle-ground actually grew and partisanship decreased.) In late 2016 a Gallup poll prompted a number of news stories with the finding that 77% of Americans perceive our country to be divided on our important values, up 12% in 20 years. Relevant to this topic, in 2017 a Pew study on support for government science funding indicating that liberals supported more science funding than conservatives, with an uptick in support among liberals recently, meaning that Trump has caused liberal support for science funding to increase, along with the partisan gap on the issue. The AP has a site where you can explore dimensions of the division.
And that partisan divide seems to include science. Its understandable, it seems that the right doesn’t embrace science when it conflicts with the traditional values that make up a major part of their platform. For some people religion and science are mutually-exclusive. Science sometimes reaches conclusions that are inconvenient for people with an absolutist view, including those who have absolutist views on government regulation. So it might seem convenient to think that all of the challenges to science come from Republicans, from Trump — but it doesn’t break cleanly. Science is being doubted and ignored by liberals and conservatives alike. Look at the anti-vaccination movement. This science issue is social, crosses political lines, and really is about issues that aren’t part of political discourse at all. As a nation, we are science-deficient, often ignorant of scientific truth, and living lives that generally make use of the products of scientific endeavor, but do not contain much engagement with that endeavor, unless it happens to be our career. How did we get here? Just a poor education system? No doubt our education system is part of the problem, but some people just don’t like being told what to do or what’s right. It’s a feature of humans. I once knew someone who didn’t believe in evolution. I asked her why she didn’t and she returned the question, asking me why I believe something I’ve never seen or learned for myself, just because people told me it was true. I left it. But if one understands what science is, then you know that you don’t have to go on belief. Its knowledge, that humans have worked to put together over many generations, that we can all make use of and build on. Another reason we live lives devoid of scientific interaction is because those opportunities don’t even exist for many who might want them. How do we science as average people?
Back to the point of the science march, because they may have the prescription we need. The demands of the march organizers were government support for research and educational institutions, preservation of government data sets, expanded access to STEM education, and more community outreach from the scientific world. That last one is the most important here. Science isn’t obvious, but taxes are. As Paul Offit suggested, the scientific community needs to reach out and become more involved with the real world, outside the lab. It would lessen the distance people feel from the scientific world, and could be part of increasing the amount of science people are familiar with. It could be expensive, but it could be as cheap as social media and internet access.
Of course fewer government-funded projects means fewer government-funded scientists able to go live or tweet or post.
Ultimately if science is not a political issue it’s up to voters to prove that by voting for candidates who support science-based policy, not policy-based science.
The stakes could not be higher, and not just because climate change is already flooding our cities, but because the divide isn’t really about science, its just swallowed science up. And science is a pillar of civilization, of the enlightenment. Are we really talking about seeing that slip away?