Bad science is everywhere and people are buying it
© Pixabay

When America’s top scientific body posed 20 questions to the four presidential candidates to gauge their views on key science policies issues, they found Donald Trump proudly quipping that “science is science and facts are facts.” This despite the Donald claiming in the same survey that the evidence on climate change just isn’t “in yet.”

Trump’s contradictory musings provide food for thought, because his is the hallmark example of how a few well-placed and ill-intentioned individuals propagating the notion that there is some sort of debate. In this case, it’s within the scientific community over changing weather patterns) where there really should not be one.

ADVERTISEMENT

Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate Senate Republicans air complaints to Trump administration on trade deal Senate passes Armenian genocide resolution MORE once proudly tore down the president of the Sierra Club by subjecting him to a barrage of questions attempting to cast doubts on the credentials of the 97 percent of scientists who have proven that anthropogenic climate change is real. Neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz, for the record, are scientists.

While debates over science policy have been grossly overlooked on the campaign trail, Trump knows he is hitting a nerve by calling out the “Ivory Tower” scientific establishment.

As the climate change debate shows, a small minority of researchers can hijack the political agenda with chilling consequences. These outliers can, at a minimum, change the tone of the narrative. When they find a voice as powerful and as aggressive as that of Donald Trump, those messages can be easily projected to the country at large.

That the scientific community seems to be in crisis is only aggravating its loss of authority. According to a survey in Nature, 90 percent of researchers judged published research to be unreproducible. In an academic culture characterized by a “publish or perish” credo, incentives such as“career advancement, grant funding and possible financial conflicts of interest” are playing an important role in scientific misconduct, especially when corporate financing is involved.

The strategy of undermining the scientific consensus is a tried and tested political strategy, but the activists that often find themselves on the other side of the debate have been getting in on the act as well. On practically every major scientific issue with important political implications, special interests have been actively working behind the scenes to manipulate research in their favor, while politicians and activists cherry-pick evidence to advance their own agendas.

The unfortunate political consequences can be seen, for example, in the debate over glyphosate, a key ingredient in the world's most widely used pesticide.

The controversy stems from a 2015 assessment by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that glyphosate "probably" causes cancer in humans, even though the outlier decision stood in stark contrast to research by practically all of the world's other leading organizations on the subject. Even as recently as September 16, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)reconfirmed its original conclusion that glyphosate is “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.

In Europe, Green Party members and activists have been very open about exploiting the review process to trip up the pesticide’s makers and put pressure on the members of regulatory bodies charged with carrying out reviews. Given the discord between IARC and its partners, there are now suspicions that the anti-glyphosate campaign has allies inside the body who might have tilted the balance toward a negative finding.

When queried on the topic through a Freedom of Information Act request, the US government agencies whose employees took part in the IARC review refused to release any related emails.

The problem goes far beyond an individual pesticide, though. The anti-vaccination movement, for example, is creating an entirely manmade public health crisis. Although vaccines have been shown to be up to 99 percent effective and safe, unfounded skepticism (including from Donald Trump) about a connection between vaccination and conditions like autism in children are rising — regardless of how many times the pseudoscientific claims are debunked.

The California measles outbreak of 2014 helped show just how far the anti-vaccine fad has gone in undoing our collective immunity (known as “herd immunity”) to deadly diseases we thought we were rid of. Incidents like that outbreak also sparked a panicked political response that further politicized the debate.

In this case, the problem is not that Americans are turning against science. Vaccination skeptics do not dismiss the scientific consensus. The real issue is that mistrust of the scientific community has been steadily increasing.

Sociologist Gordon Gauchat writes that multiple groups are now presenting themselves as their own subject experts in opposition to established cultures of knowledge, thereby “generating their own knowledge base that is often in conflict with the cultural authority of the scientific community.” As such, they do not dismiss the authority of science itself, but they dismiss the authority of the scientific establishment. They are fine with science, but only if it is their science.

These “anti-expert” movements might be growing fast on a grassroots level, but having someone like Donald Trump parroting the same conspiracy theories from the Oval Office could be catastrophic.

Rush Holt, who heads the American Association for the Advancement of Science, may have put it best when he warned, “sometimes politicians think science issues are limited to simply things like the budget for NASA or NIH… a President’s attitude toward and decisions about science and research affect the public wellbeing, from the growth of our economy, to education, to public health.”

The President helps decide what children are taught, whether new treatments and technologies are developed, and the country takes on the challenges of the future.

By lending climate change denial and the anti-vaccine movement the authority and the legitimacy of his office, President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Trump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed MORE could essentially make pseudoscience the law of the land.

Samuel Guzman is a policy analyst based in Washington, DC 

 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.