A Cooling Climate for U.S. Science

by James Morris

Science is a powerful tool for understanding the world and solving problems, but today it is often met with skepticism, even denial.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is the unifying idea of biology. It explains both the unity and the diversity of life. And it has many practical applications, helping us to account for the emergence of antibiotic resistance and predict patterns of seasonal flu outbreaks, for example. Yet a recent Gallup Poll reports that fewer than half of Americans “believe” in evolution. And research suggests that 60% of teachers shy away from teaching the subject.

Vaccinations were one of the great public-health triumphs of the 20th century. Now fewer parents are having their children vaccinated, and illnesses vaccinations protect against are spreading. In the spring of 2017, a single measles outbreak in Minnesota resulted in more measles cases than occurred in the entire United States in 2016. In Europe, measles cases are at a record high this year, including 37 deaths.

Equally concerning are the potential consequences of climate change. In spite of decades of research and a preponderance of evidence, many people don’t think climate change is real. Some who concede it’s real believe it to be a natural phenomenon not caused by human activities. Still others call the climate change issue a “controversy” (fueled by different yet equally valid opinions), similar to the evolution “controversy” we hear so much about.

These days, instead of science helping to dictate sound, reasoned policy, politics is shaping science. The federal budget proposed last May by the Trump administration made significant cuts to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among other agencies. If such a budget were approved, basic science, medical research, and disease prevention would all be negatively affected.

As the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted, “I dream of a world where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true.”

What’s going on? And what can we do about it?

Science is often debated and being skeptical of new findings is a healthy part of the process. Therefore, having a debate about science seems, on the surface, quite reasonable, even productive.

But debates about evolution, vaccines, and climate change are not scientific debates. In all three cases, the science is clear and there is strong consensus among scientists. As George H. W. Bush said, “We cannot allow a question like climate change to be characterized as a debate. To say this issue has sides is about as productive as saying the world is flat.”

What look like debates are really smoke screens: We are witnessing what happens when scientific findings challenge economic interests, political views, or personal beliefs. The theory of evolution runs up against some religious beliefs. Vaccinations tap into a mistrust of medicine and parental fears about neurological and developmental conditions not fully understood, such as autism. Potential solutions to climate change threaten fossil-fuel industries.

For years, the tobacco industry leveraged uncertainty in science as a way to deny that smoking is linked to lung cancer, respiratory illness, and heart disease. Similar tactics were used when science revealed other “inconvenient truths,” such as the effects of DDT, acid rain, and ozone depletion.

Smoke-screen debates are intended to sow doubt and confusion, as argued by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in Merchants of Doubt. They also tap into other anxieties, such as fears of big government, regulations, and outside influence.

Scientific debates are waged with information, facts, and evidence. In smoke-screen debates, evidence seems to do very little, if anything, to move the needle of public understanding. In fact, presenting evidence that challenges strongly held views often has the counterintuitive effect of making people hold on to their ideas even more tightly.

Finding common ground is often not possible. Where, for example, is the common ground between concerned citizens and fossil-fuel companies that put profits above the health of the planet and the organisms – including humans – who inhabit it? Where is the common ground between those who make decisions based on facts and evidence, and those who don’t?

In other cases, we may be able to find common ground and therefore move toward solutions. In his book “The Creation,” biologist E.O. Wilson wrote a series of imagined letters between him and his pastor, arguing for common ground between science and religion. Whether you believe life on Earth evolved over billions of years or was created by God in its present form, we can all agree it’s worth saving.

Climate opinion maps from Yale University indicate that if you ask people if humans cause climate change, there is widespread skepticism. But, if you ask these same people if they are in support of clean energy, there is broad support.

Another common sense solution is to invoke the precautionary principle, which simply says that, in cases of uncertainty but great risks, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

Or, consider the recent advice of Harrison Ford, who exclaimed, “stop giving power to people who don’t believe in science” or those who “pretend they don’t believe in science for their own self-interest.” After all, it’s not that (most) politicians don’t understand science or what it’s telling us; it’s that they intentionally sow confusion for power or profits.

Comedian Tina Fey has offered her own advice on what we should do when confronted with something that affronts us: “I don’t like Chinese food,” she says, “but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.”

We must support science and its findings, as the #letsciencespeak movement powerfully argues. And we must continue to find solutions if we want to address some of our most pressing problems.

© James Morris 2018

3 thoughts on “A Cooling Climate for U.S. Science

  1. Sam Richardson

    Thanks for this post. You make an important point – there is a very short line between not believing in science and not believing in facts.

  2. Andy Extance

    My understanding is that scientists continue to be one of the most trusted professions, second behind doctors. The problems you highlight therefore pose a bit of a paradox. My feeling is that they’re not entirely new, but that we’re becoming more aware of them, which can only be a good thing.

    1. James Morris Post author

      That’s an interesting observation. I agree that scientists are widely respected, as long as their results do not challenge other strongly held beliefs or interests.


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