On Earth Day, April 22, a hundred thousand people marched all across the world for science. Tens of thousands demonstrated in Los Angeles and London, while 200 people marched 200 miles north of the Arctic circle in Norway. In 600 cities on every continent, citizens and scientists carried signs like “Fund science, not walls” and “Science trumps alternative facts”.
In Washington, DC, the biggest crowd protested Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts to scientific research in public health and climate.
Trump is carrying out normal Republican politics. None of the many Republican candidates for President in 2016 thought evolution should be taught in public schools. A majority of Republican voters believe in creationism.
The issue of climate change shows the influence of political ideology on attitudes toward science. A Pew poll found that only 15% of conservative Republicans believe “the earth is warming mostly due to human activity”, 34% of moderate Republicans, 63% of moderate Democrats, and 79% of liberal Democrats. A majority of conservative Republicans believes that climate scientists are influenced by desire to advance their careers and political ideology, not by scientific evidence or public interest. To put it simply, conservatives don’t believe in science or scientists, if it’s inconvenient.
Here’s how science denial works in real life. Lots of private websites offer their version of science, paid for by private money which they don’t disclose, using clever tactics to pretend to search for truth. An example is the Heartland Institute, which has been denying the existence of warming for decades.
On the other side is “Understanding Science”, a public project of the University of California at Berkeley, funded by the federal National Science Foundation. This step-by-easy-step primer offers a balanced and authentic understanding of “how science REALLY works”. But those who automatically accuse both government and the nation’s best universities of politicized scientific fraud would dismiss this site as propaganda. So they won’t learn from it how our scientific community does a far better job of policing high standards for honesty and frankness than either politicians or corporations.
And they won’t think about who pays for science: “Most scientific research is funded by government grants (e.g., from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, etc.), companies doing research and development, and non-profit foundations.” Public and private sources have different priorities for funding scientific research. My nephew works on the development of a drug to stop Alzheimer’s for a biotechnology company formed by scientists and venture capitalists. Their research is motivated both to find better medicines for our collective health and to make money. As I approach 70, the prospect of preventing brain degeneration before it hits me is exciting. Their profit might extend my useful life.
Some privately funded scientific research is not in the public interest at all, such as the tobacco companies’ effort to deny the link to cancer, funneled through sciency-sounding propaganda organizations like the Heartland Institute.
The Republicans in Congress are not waging a war on all science; they quote from Heartland’s fake science. They attack government-supported science because it might lead to government spending. For example, the discovery of lead in Flint’s water meant that old pipes must be replaced on 17,000 homes at an estimated cost of $7500 each, totaling $127,500,000. Government-paid scientific research documented how lead affects babies’ brains, supported the creation of regulations which forced industry to stop using lead, compared the levels of lead in Flint’s water to experimental evidence on poisoning, and thus demonstrated the need for federal intervention.
Republicans in the Senate voted overwhelmingly to deny funding to deal with Flint’s crisis, but that effort lost by one vote. Congress authorized $170 million for Flint.
In the words of “Understanding Science”, “Science affects your life everyday in all sorts of different ways.” Good public science saves lives and serves the public interest through government spending and government regulation. But those are Republican curse words. That is the deep secret behind the anti-science policies of Republicans in Congress and the White House. If they want to shrink government, they have to slow down or even stop science. They use tactics of obfuscation and delay. House Science Committee chair Lamar Smith attacked a 2015 NOAA study showing rising global temperatures. He used his old tactics, honed over decades in Congress: he demanded thousands of e-mails and other documents in search of malfeasance, misspent funds, or corruption. He has never found any of those things. But he slowed down science he doesn’t like.
This is not in our national interest. If we don’t prepare for the world’s new climate, if we don’t prevent health crises through regulation of pollutants, if we don’t spend now on inconvenient science, we will have to spend much more later in economic and social costs. Peter Muennig, professor of public health at Columbia University, estimates that the two fewer healthy years of the 8000 Flint children exposed to lead might cost American society $400 million.
The astrophysicist and TV explainer of science Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe it.”
The bad thing about Republican science politics is that our children and grandchildren will pay the price. Without science, it’s just fiction.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, Wednesday, May 3, 2017