The challenge of creating a public able to parse evidence-free “facts” rests with the press, educators and other thought leaders
Cross-posted at Scientific American
Four years ago in Scientific American, I warned readers of a growing problem in American democracy. The article, entitled “Antiscience Beliefs Jeopardize U.S. Democracy,” charted how it had not only become acceptable, but often required, for politicians to embrace antiscience positions, and how those positions flew in the face of the core principles that the U.S. was founded on: That if anyone could discover the truth of something for him or herself using the tools of science, then no king, no pope and no wealthy lord was more entitled to govern the people than they were themselves. It was self-evident.
In the years since, the situation has gotten worse. We’ve seen the emergence of a “post-fact” politics, which has normalized the denial of scientific evidence that conflicts with the political, religious or economic agendas of authority. Much of this denial centers, now somewhat predictably, around climate change—but not all. If there is a single factor to consider as a barometer that evokes all others in this election, it is the candidates’ attitudes toward science.
Consider, for example, what has been occurring in Congress. Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, is a climate change denier. Smith has used his post to initiate a series of McCarthy-style witch-hunts, issuing subpoenas and demanding private correspondence and testimony from scientists, civil servants, government science agencies, attorneys general and nonprofit organizations whose work shows that global warming is happening, humans are causing it and that—surprise—energy companies sought to sow doubt about this fact.
Smith, who is a Christian Scientist and seems to revel in his role as the science community’s bête noire, is by no means alone. Climate denial has become a virtual Republican Party plank (and rejecting the Paris climate accord a literal one) with a wide majority of Congressional Republicans espousing it. Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas), chairman of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, took time off from his presidential campaign last December to hold hearings during the Paris climate summit showcasing well-known climate deniers repeating scientifically discredited talking points.
The situation around science has grown so partisan that Hillary Clinton turned the phrase “I believe in science” into the largest applause line of her convention speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination. Donald Trump, by contrast, is the first major party presidential nominee who is an outright climate denier, having called climate science a “hoax” numerous times. In his responses to the organization I helped found, ScienceDebate.org, which gets presidential candidates on the record on science, he told us that “there is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of ‘climate change,’” putting the term in scare quotes to cast doubt on its reality. When challenged on his hoax comments, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway affirmed that Trump doesn’t believe climate change is man-made.
Over the last 25 years the political right has largely organized itself along antiscience lines that have become increasingly stark: fundamentalist evangelicals, who reject what the biological sciences have to say about human origins, sexuality and reproduction, serve as willing foot soldiers for moneyed business interests who reject what the environmental sciences have to say about pollution and resource extraction. In 1990, for example, House Democrats scored an average of 68 percent on the League of Conservation Voters National Environmental Scorecard and Republicans scored a respectable 40 percent. But by 2014 Democrats scored 87 percent whereas Republican scores fell to just over 4 percent.
Such rejection is essentially an authoritarian argument that says “I don’t care about the evidence; what I say/what this book says/what my tribe says/what my wallet says goes.” This approach is all too human, and is not necessarily conscious. It is, rather, reflective of the sort of confirmation bias scientists themselves continually guard against. Francis Bacon noted the problem at the beginning of the scientific revolution, observing: “What a man had rather were true he more readily believes.” Conservatives notice that many scientists are, in fact, left-leaning. If one is not a scientist, and is conservative, a shorthand is brought to bear, with suspicion of the science as—rather than an objective statement—being a politically motivated argument from the left.
Those on the left are more inclined to accept the evidentiary conclusions from biological and environmental science but they are not immune to antiscience attitudes themselves. There, scientifically discredited fears that vaccines cause autism have led to a liberal anti-vaccination movement, endangering public health. Fears that GMO (genetically modified) food is unsafe to eat, equally unsupported, propel a national labeling movement. Fears that cell phones cause brain cancer or wi-fi causes health problems or water fluoridation can lower IQ, none supported by science, also largely originate from the political left.
Much of this comes from suspicions of so-called regulatory capture, in which government agencies align themselves with corporate interests, a danger the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, raised in her answer to ScienceDebate.org about vaccination. These suspicions are not always unfounded, and if one can’t trust the impartiality of government safety regulations, the avoidance principle becomes the default position and science is denied on the basis that it’s corporate PR. This was well illustrated by a 2011 battle in San Francisco, where the board of supervisors, all of them Democrats, voted 10–1 to require cell phone shops to warn customers that they may cause brain cancer (an ordinance that was widely criticized and later repealed). The difference is that although those on the left seek to extend regulations based on fears that are not always supported by science, those on the right oppose regulations that are.
Such confirmation bias has been enabled by a generation of university academics who have taught a corrosive brand of postmodernist identity politics that argues truth is relative, and that science is a “meta-narrative”—a story concocted by the ruling white male elite in order to retain power—and therefore suspect. The claims of science, these academics argue, are no more privileged than any other “way of knowing,” such as black truth, female truth or indigenous truth. We can’t know, a Minneapolis professor recently argued, that Earth goes around the sun, for example, because these sorts of worldviews have been dislodged by paradigm shifts throughout history. Thus, each of us constructs our own truth, and the job of an educator or a journalist is to facilitate that process of discovery.
The ideas of postmodernism align well with the identity politics of the left, and they have helped to empower disadvantaged voices, which always adds to the conversation. But what works in this case for political discourse is demonstrably false when applied to science. A scientific statement stands independent of the gender, sexual orientation, ethic background, religion or political identity of the person taking the measurement. That’s the whole point. It’s tied to the object being measured, not the subject doing the measuring.
By undermining science’s claim of objectivity, these postmodernists have unwittingly laid the philosophical foundation for the new rise of authoritarianism. Because if there is no objective evidence that has ultimate credibility, how is one to settle competing claims of truth, such as those made by Trump? Without objective truth, the nattering of warring pundits can go on forever, and can only be settled by those with the biggest stick or the loudest megaphone—in short, by authoritarian assertion, a situation not of postmodernism but of premodernism. Which is exactly what’s happening. And which runs completely counter to the enlightenment ideas of American democracy and the journalism that is supposed to inform it.
The problem is that the dangers science is revealing are real, and the failure to regulate, promoted in the name of free market economics, is itself scientifically unsupported. The exploding human population coupled with expanding technological power is having a profound collective impact on a nonexpanding planet. When Adam Smith first offered the libertarian idea of the self-regulating market’s “invisible hand,” the world was effectively unlimited and relying only on market forces to produce the highest good seemed reasonable because one was never concerned with waste that wouldn’t flow away or resources that wouldn’t replenish.
But the model becomes a problem when the world is limited, population has grown exponentially, we are swimming in waste and facing dwindling resources, and our cumulative exhaust is warming the planet. These are scientific facts, and facing them implies regulation of the free market. It’s no surprise, then, that the science has divided along political lines between those on the left, who favor personal morality and collective responsibility via regulation and those on the right who favor collective morality and personal responsibility through regulation’s removal.
Industry’s war against science isn’t limited to climate change. A host of public relations campaigns over the last five decades have spent billions of dollars with the express purpose of sowing public doubt about science. The techniques are usually the same: highlight cherry-picked facts provided by paid physicians or scientists whose alternative conclusions support your agenda; emphasize the need for healthy debate (when there really is none); attack the integrity of mainstream science and scientists; emphasize the negative consequences of tackling the problem; feed stories to sympathetic journalists (or purchase a news outlet); fund “Astroturf” groups to create the illusion of grassroots support; call for “balance”; and give money to lawmakers who will vote your way.
In the 1960s tobacco, for example, companies mounted a campaign to create public uncertainty about the scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer. The sugar industry funded research at Harvard University for decades to create uncertainty about sugar’s role in heart disease while promoting fat as the real culprit. The chemical industry vilified Rachel Carson to create uncertainty about the environmental problems caused by pesticides. The construction and resource extraction industries paid consultants to help them create uncertainty about the health risks of asbestos, silica and lead. More recently the National Football League used incomplete data and league-affiliated doctors to create uncertainty about the relationship between head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The central message is always: because we can’t be 100 percent certain, we should do nothing.
The partisan split has been exacerbated by these campaigns, and by a news media that has been trained for two generations in the false postmodernist view that there is no such thing as objectivity. Journalism schools teach it; it’s contained in reporter guidelines and repeated by leading journalists. Intended as an admonishment against assuming one’s own reporting is unbiased, the mantra has become so ingrained that reporters rarely challenge those in power on evidentiary grounds, which is one of the main purposes of the fourth estate. David Gregory, NBC News’s chief White House correspondent during the George W. Bush administration, put it quite clearly in his defense of the White House press corps for not pushing Pres. Bush on the lack of credible evidence of Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” before the U.S. invaded Iraq. “I think there are a lot of critics who think that...if we did not stand up and say this is bogus, and you’re a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn’t do our job,” Gregory said. “I respectfully disagree. It’s not our role.”
But if it is not the press’s role, whose is it? Is it partisan to challenge Trump on his false assertions about global warming? How are people to make well-informed decisions about momentous policies or important elections without accurate, reasonably objective information and questioning of the powerful? Instead, journalists often seek to find stand-ins who will provide opposing arguments and create “balance,” so they can appear as neutral arbiters in a playground spat. But the journalistic principle of balance gets into trouble when there is a matter in which significant evidence from science can be brought to bear.
Public relations firms know this and take advantage of it to manipulate journalists. A journalist who dedicates half the story to a scientist who is representing all the knowledge created from tens of thousand of experiments carried out by thousands of scientists (many of whom have risked their careers and sometimes their lives) using billions of data points, on the one hand; and the other half to a passionate advocate with an opposing opinion representing a minority view or from outside of science altogether, is engaging in false balance. Such representations portray the outlier views as if they have the same weight as those of the mainstream science, and thus elevate extreme views (and extreme partisanship) in the national dialogue.
The authoritarian nature of science denial is part and parcel of the rise of a new authoritarian nationalism that is in reaction to the globalization brought about by our postwar scientific success, and is antithetical to science and the scientific process of investigation. Such authoritarians put science in their crosshairs and claim it is a partisan tool, just as they have argued against the “liberal media” to cow journalists from testing claims against evidence. But science is never partisan. To be effective, scientists must be both conservative and progressive: They must survey all the known science on a given topic and at least acknowledge and account for those traditional values if they publish something new on the topic or they risk career suicide.
But they must also be open to new insights and new ways of thinking, because that’s where the frontier is, and to do less is to risk career stagnation, another form of suicide. Science is never partisan but it is inherently political, because its antiauthoritarian, evidence-based conclusions either confirm or challenge somebody’s cherished ideological or economic interests—and that is always political. Considered this way, politics is not a simple left-right continuum; it also has a vertical component between authoritarianism and antiauthoritarianism. Thus there are authoritarians like Mao and Stalin on the left; Hitler and Mussolini on the right, but what they have in common is intolerance to the sort of open exchange that is central to art, science, and human progress.
This vertical tension between experts and authoritarians helps explain what is going on in both the Republican Party and in the European Union with the Brexit vote and the rise of a new authoritarianism, and why it is so corrosive to science. The argument is between antiauthoritarians who support science and evidence, and authoritarians who have had enough of experts.
This problem can be expected to worsen in the coming years, particularly if authoritarian candidates continue to be elected with the aid of a news media that treats any view, no matter how unsupported, as legitimate. We are creating knowledge at 10 times the rate we have in the recent past. All of that new information must be parsed and its implications worked through our moral and ethical discussion, then codified in our legal and regulatory systems, and that is inevitably a fraught and political process. Advances in gene editing are providing increasing control over the process of life design and creation, raising complex ethical and political issues. Advances in neuroscience are increasingly showing the mind to be a construction of the brain.
These insights, combined with advances in pharmaceuticals and computer–brain interface technology, will challenge our ideas about psychology, spirituality and personal responsibility as well as upend our ideas about criminal justice. And yet we are still stuck in a 40-year debate over the evidence that humans are causing global warming.
There are solutions, however. Sciencedebates.org is certainly a start. Evidence shows the public is hungry for such discussion of science-driven issues—which affect voters at least as much as the economics, foreign policy, and faith and values issues candidates traditionally discuss—that afford an opportunity to hold candidates to account on the evidence. Individuals can join and support organizations like ScienceDebate.org or the Union of Concerned Scientists that fight for scientific integrity. Pastors and preachers can certainly do more by staying informed of cutting-edge science and helping their parishioners parse the complex moral and ethical implications of new knowledge instead of rehashing old political divides. Educators can develop model curricula and provide training for science-civics classes at the secondary and postsecondary level so that nonscience students develop an understanding of how science works in public policy as well as how it relates to their daily lives. There are dozens of others. I discuss many of these solutions in my new book, The War on Science.
“Wherever the people are well informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.” We have to develop more robust ways of incorporating rapidly advancing scientific knowledge into our political dialogue, so that voters can continue to guide the democratic process and battle back authoritarianism as we did at our foundation and have done throughout our history. That will require the media to rethink their role in reporting on issues in which scientific knowledge is crucial. Is that idealistic? Yes. But so were America’s founders.