Science Is Not Two-Sided: Why Critical Analysis is More Important Than Ever

Fake news cemented its position as king as Donald Trump took his oath of office on January 20, 2017 as the 45th President of the United States. From August to November 2016, fake news stories earned more shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook than real news stories. To be clear, fake news is a bipartisan issue, but the president hasn't been shy about perpetuating the fake news trope itself. The propagation of falsehoods and misinformation extends to science. Through his spokespeople, advisors, and even his Twitter handle, President Trump and his team have continued to disseminate "alternative facts," the contents of which are jarring, and somehow, still shocking. As an associate professor of natural and applied sciences, I have seen how this plays out in both the press and in people's beliefs of science and the environment. Whether it's business or public policy, science doesn't tell us what to do, but it can ground those decisions with data. That's why, more than ever, it's vital that we teach students how to be critical in their analysis of facts. The "other side" of science isn't a point-of-view: it's just non-science.

One of the fundamental lessons I teach my students in Science in Environmental Policy is about the importance of evidence-based policy making. As future business leaders, it's imperative that they are science literate and understand how to vet proposals with data and evidence- a lesson which has become even more important following this election. Public policy is made by balancing all kinds of competing interests, from economics to moral principles. But good policy can't be done by ignoring -- or worse, misrepresenting or lying about science. For example, my students work with real data sets, collected by climate scientists, to examine first-hand the relationship between carbon dioxide and global temperatures. It's a simple exercise, steeped in data, that demonstrates complex interactions between humans and our environment. It informs us and arms our analysis with the best information possible.

But science isn't an opinion or a moral judgment. Science can't objectively tell us what to do. None of this is to say that scientists are infallible, that the data are always clear, or that our conclusions are unquestionable. In fact, those are all true - and they actually guide the scientific method. The method exposes our mistakes and demands repeated confirmation. That's the strength of science: it's not two-sided. While we interpret many things, from the ramifications of an economic policy to the impact of sanctions on Iran, policy decisions should not be made by obfuscating or denying facts. Sometimes, facts can speak for themselves. And here are (just some of) the facts:
  • President Trump, who has expressed skepticism about the established science of human-caused climate change, removed almost all mentions of climate change from the White House website.
  • The Trump administration is mandating that any studies or data from scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency undergo review by political appointees before they can be released to the public.
  • For more than 1,100 miles, the border between Mexico and Texas is the Rio Grande River. Building a wall that somehow navigates the river and the border would be incredibly difficult and would have massive environmental implications, including impacting animals' migratory patterns and leading to a surge in greenhouse gas emissions from the concrete needed to build the wall.

Scientific data, unfortunately, often get lost in the shuffle or are portrayed as another "special interest," particularly when the media has rushed to ensure that every debate is two-sided. But an emphasis on portraying every issue as a debate is dangerous, and has made the media complicit in the reality of today, where the average person can't tell fact from fiction. Or science from non-science.

So where do we go from here? How can we support the next generation of leaders, those who are coming of age in the Trump era? It comes down to demanding critical analysis - from our elected leaders as well as our students, and resisting the censure of science. Resisting the temptation to give every debate two sides or giving into demands to disregard data. We need to make sure our students know how to differentiate fact from opinion and understand the value of data-driven, evidence-based policy. After all, they will inherit the world we leave them, so at the very least, we need to give them the tools to make the mark they choose to on their future.