Now that science denial is coming back into (political) fashion, and indeed, an entire government is going to be built on lies and bad information, I feel like it’s now my duty to combat incorrect information as much as I can. I’m going to start posting frequently on issues where bad information is prevalent. It will be sort of a political myth-busting. The hope is that each piece can be used as a guide to the truth on a particular subject. It may not change many minds, but hopefully will at least help provide an argument for the side of reason.
Many of these pieces will be science-based (although not all of them). Science is a toolset – a framework for understanding the universe. A willingness to absorb and not dismiss new information is paramount. Openness, flexibility, and a thirst for new information are key elements. Trying to squeeze and manipulate a premise around an existing set of beliefs is the opposite of what we want here. Unfortunately, the new administration seems to be leaning away from science, and toward pandering to business interests.
Far too many people distrust science as something nakedly partisan. Indeed, one of the two major American political parties has spent a significant amount of time – especially since the nineties – as the anti-science party. Much effort has been made by Republican public officials, business interests, and media outlets to argue that certain scientific disciplines contain inherent political bias. This attitude now has increased power and influence under Donald Trump.
Writer Chris Mooney has written extensively about this. I highly recommend checking out his works on the topic. He has discussed at length how anti-science attitudes within the Republican Party has allowed the creation of bad laws and has damaged our potential scientific, technological, and even social advancement in the world. Education suffers when science is treated with political suspicion.
The fact that the basic framework for understanding the material world is treated politically is a major problem. We can have reasonable disagreements on taxes, budgets, firearms restrictions, the role of government in regulating business and healthcare, and on and on. There is a spectrum of reasonable positions to be held on these topics. However, the scientific consensus on certain topics should be above politics. There aren’t debates on the Senate floor over whether or not the Earth is the center of the universe, or if germs exist. Why are confirmed facts like anthropogenic climate change, biological evolution, the safety of vaccines (more of a fight on the right, contrary to some pundits), and the failure of abstinence education treated as an ideological litmus test?
Obviously many people don’t have an understanding of what the word “theory” actually means. And “scientific fact” is rarely completely clear-cut. But the following points are as much a scientific truth as germ theory or the heliocentric solar system:
* Anthropogenic climate change is real. I will devote an entire post to this to explore it in greater depth, but suffice to say, the planet IS warming because of human effects. Pretty much all serious climate science has confirmed this.
* The enormous variety of life on earth can best be explained by evolution via mutation, natural selection, and possibly other processes yet understood.
* The Earth is around 4.5 billion years old, and our universe is somewhere around 13 billion years old. The evidence for this is strong and has yet to be successfully refuted by those with religious agendas.
* Genetic research, stem cell development, GMOs, and so on are all vital areas of study, and have done much good for humanity.
* Governments have had a role in funding and administering scientific research for many years and are often best equipped for doing so. By providing government funding for R&D (compared to private research), the profit motive is removed or reduced, and important innovations can be developed that may not reap immediate financial rewards. A great deal of our modern, computer-based technologies can be attributed to government-funded research in pretty much every scientific discipline. NASA alone is responsible for an enormous amount of spin-off technology.
The reasons for Republican hostility to science vary. For many, it’s simply based on greed. I’ve discussed before how opposition to climate change seems to coincide suspiciously with the amount of campaign funding provided by fossil-fuel companies. This is the very definition of corruption, but seems to be shrugged off by climate change deniers. That the Earth is warming is not in doubt. The human impact of that warming is a near-certainty as well. The science is clear, solid, and well-documented. But such scientific stalwarts as NASA, NOAA, and the EPA are all derided as politically biased – by those with their own specific political biases and a minimal sense of irony. Climate change research is likely to take a major hit under the Trump Administration, as Trump insists on staffing his Cabinet with people who make money off releasing carbon into the atmosphere and oceans. The potential for long-term damage to human civilization is horrific, and the Republican Party not only doesn’t care, but actively denies the problem. This issue will be one of the first I plan to discuss in depth, as it may be the greatest long-term threat to humanity. And that threat is exacerbated by the politicization of science.
Religious extremism also comes into play here. Opposition to research on contraception, genetically modified crops, and stem cell development all seem to be prevalent among the Christian Right. Despite the blatant unconstitutionality of making laws based on religious belief, a significant percentage of the Republican contingent in Congress fights against federal funding of certain sciences due to conflict with their religious convictions. Or, more cynically, some may simply be voting in the direction their electoral base might support. Either way, science is cherry-picked for reasons unsuited to running a secular government.
Some of a more libertarian bent simply believe (regardless of opinions on the science itself) that any government investment in scientific fields is a problem. These are the Ayn Rand True Believers who equate any government with tyranny. You know, except for military spending. And corporate welfare. And the drug war. And so on. Fake libertarians like Paul Ryan and Rand Paul who are just as ethically flexible as anyone else.
Science doesn’t become less valid whether or not scientifically illiterate elected officials believe in it or not. Climate change is real and important to combat. It’s actually not just important, but perhaps the greatest long-term existential threat to human society. I know I already said this, but it bears repeating. Pretending (or believing) it isn’t real when it’s HAPPENING RIGHT NOW is frightening.
Hey Republicans, from this liberal independent to all of you: CLIMATE CHANGE ISN’T LIBERAL OR CONSERVATIVE. Just like gravity or microbes aren’t. The apocryphal apple didn’t remain suspended in mid-air over Newton’s head, waiting for Tories to approve.
It becomes a point of faith that certain sciences are liberal hoaxes. Public support for and against these sciences follows predictably partisan lines. And political leadership works hard to reinforce this divide. Meanwhile, scientists of all political ideologies are increasingly aghast at obstruction and denial of reality. The Republican Party will endanger lives and marginalize themselves by fighting against reality. James Inhofe can play with snowballs during sessions of Congress, and meanwhile, the oceans will continue to rise, extreme weather events will occur more frequently, and the most powerful and advanced country on earth will turn a blind eye to the problem.
Increased political polarization and legislative gridlock doesn’t seem to be improving. And with a new Executive Branch set to follow the same science denial as the extreme fringe of the GOP, ideological division isn’t likely to improve. Somehow, science needs to separate from ideology. That’s going to be a difficult task. The human mind is adept at allowing all sorts of biases to cloud our judgement. As long as Barack Obama understands that climate change, evolution, and gravity are all real, there will be a number of people who vehemently insist on the opposite. What will it take to change minds? Will Chesapeake Bay be pooling around James Inhofe’s ankles during his next snowball fight? Will that be enough?
As always, others have said it better. Check these links out for more information: