Defending Science in the Age of Trump

Democracy means an educated public gets to decide policy issues. But it also requires that people have enough education to understand and evaluate scientific findings.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally, Friday, May 27, 2016 in Fresno, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally, Friday, May 27, 2016 in Fresno, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

"Scientists have been warning for decades that climate change is a threat to the immense tracts of forest that ring the Northern Hemisphere, with rising temperatures, drying trees and earlier melting of snow contributing to a growing number of wildfires. The near-destruction of a Canadian city last week by a fire that sent almost 90,000 people fleeing for their lives is grim proof that the threat to these vast stands of spruce and other resinous trees, collectively known as the boreal forest, is real. And scientists say a large-scale loss of the forest could have profound consequences for efforts to limit the damage from climate change." - The New York Times, May 11, 2016, p. 1.

"Donald J. Trump traveled Thursday to the heart of America's oil and gas boom, where he called for more fossil fuel drilling and fewer environmental regulations while vowing to "cancel the Paris climate agreement," the 2015 accord committing nearly every nation to taking action to curb climate change." - The New York Times, May 27, 2016, p. 1.

This summer the incoming freshman class at Hofstra University is reading Are We All Scientific Experts Now? (Polity Press: Malden MA, 2014) by British sociologist Harry Collins. It is a very timely book. The Republican Party and Donald Trump, its presumptive presidential candidate, have very checkered records when it comes to respecting scientific knowledge. Watch these two videos. One features me from the Hofstra website and the other is from the Jimmy Kimmel Live show. Warning: Kimmel is much funnier.

On a number of occasions, Trump has made it clear that he does not accept the broad, near unanimous, scientific consensus that climate change is caused by human actions, especially industrial pollution and carbon emissions. He has also accepted very dubious claims that childhood vaccines cause autism.

The Republican Party's 2012 presidential platform, his party's program for the United States, demanded a constitutional amendment to define the start of human life as the point of conception and to protect fetal rights. It is unclear whether the party has consulted any zygotes, the cell formed by a "fertilization event" between a female egg and a male sperm, about their opinions. Scientific studies, however, suggest that less than seventy percent of all fertilized eggs implant into a woman's uterus producing pregnancy. In addition, there is another twenty-five to fifty percent chance of spontaneous rejection of an embryo during the initial weeks of pregnancy. But this is all science!

Harry Collins is worried because many people devalue scientific knowledge. According to a 2012 Gallup Poll, about half of Americans, 46%, believe God created humans in one single day about 10,000 years ago. Fewer than one-in-six Americans believed that man evolved without divine assistance. The number of proponents of creationism has actually increased up since Gallup surveys started in 1982. Religious Americans are the group mostly likely to be creationists, and this may be one of the few areas where many Democrats and Republicans agree. Almost 60% of Republicans about 40% believe in the divine creation of the human race. Gallup also found that over 20% of Americans believe in witches and about three-quarters believe in the supernatural or paranormal.

We live in a country where a lot of people think their opinions are equal to those of experts even when they know little about the subject. As a teacher, historian, and as a citizen, one of my concerns during the Presidential debates and primaries was the number of candidates that were prepared to dismiss science, especially climate science, as mere opinion.

I think the public has a basic misunderstanding of what scientists mean by facts and theories. The scientific method offers the best explanation of what we know, but recognizes that new information may change the way we view the world. For scientists, science is not absolute - but it offers our best answers to complex questions and problems. These answers are ignored at great risk.

One problem when discussing "facts" is that the scientific and colloquial meanings are different. In ordinary conversation, a fact is something that is incontrovertible and unchanging. It is supposedly eternal truth. But scientists, as well as historians and social scientists, recognize that what is incontrovertible and unchanging today, may no longer be the case when new evidence is discovered. When I was a high school student "back in the days," scientists knew there were three sub-atomic particles, neutrons, protons, and electrons, and that electrons were the smallest particles. That was indisputable scientific fact. Today we know that there are even smaller particles, including fermians, quarks, leptons, neutrinos, and anti-neutrinos, just to name a few. In an earlier era, it was common knowledge that the sun traveled around the earth. Few of us would accept that as fact today.

In some ways, the scientific notion of fact is closer to the colloquial idea of theory, a strongly held idea supported by extensive evidence. As an historian, I like the scientific idea that "facts" are what we understand to be true at a particular time and that we have to be open to change our minds as new information is uncovered. Neither scientists nor historians know what new discoveries the future holds.

While the future is unknown, there are still rules for establishing scientific knowledge. Scientists cannot make claims that violate the rules or fall outside the boundaries without changing the way the game is played. A group of people could eliminate foul territory in baseball and still play some kind of game, but it would no longer be baseball as we know it. A scientist might not believe in the existence of God, but knows that according to the rules of science, it is impossible to prove that a supreme being, or for that matter unicorns, do not exist.

One of Collins important contributions is the notion that science is messy. He believes scientists share responsibility for public disdain for science because they portrayed their fields and clean and simplistic, and when things turned out messy some in the public were quick to dismiss science altogether.

Something missing in the Collins book is the way religious mysticism has reinforced contempt for science and knowledge in general. Collins sees the war on science rooted in the 1960s, but the religious war on science is definitely much older. Galileo was charged with heresy in the 17th century for arguing that the earth travels around the sun.

In a speech discussing the science of climate change President Obama was at his rhetorical best. He said, "If you go to 100 doctors, and 99 of them tell you have diabetes, you wouldn't say, 'Ah, that's a conspiracy. All 99 doctors got together with Obama to keep me from having bacon and donuts.' You wouldn't do that." But climate change deniers keep looking for the doctor who will let them eat their bacon and donuts.

Democracy means an educated public gets to decide policy issues. But it also requires that people have enough education to understand and evaluate scientific findings. Pride in ignorance, disregard for learning, and promoting mysticism and misinformation are threats to a democratic society.

In an important step, the Portland, Oregon school board recently passed a sweeping "climate justice" resolution. It commits the school district to "abandon the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its roots in human activity." According to the resolution school district will also develop a plan to "address climate change and climate justice in all Portland Public Schools."

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