A War on Science Is a War on Us
We’re in the midst of a major U.S. election, as well as hearings on a Supreme Court vacancy, so people are thinking about litmus tests and single issue voters — the most typical of which is whether someone is “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” Well, I’m a single issue person too; my litmus test is whether someone believes in evolution.
I’m pro-science, and these are scary times.
Within the last week there have been editorials in Scientific American, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Nature — all respected, normally nonpartisan, scientific publications — taking the current Administration to task for its coronavirus response. Each, in its own way, accuses the Administration of letting politics, not science, drive its response.
SA urges voters to “think about voting to protect science instead of destroying it.” They cite, among other examples, Columbia Law School’s Silencing Science Tracker, which “tracks government attempts to restrict or prohibit scientific research, education or discussion, or the publication or use of scientific information, since the November 2016 election.” Their count is over 450 by now, across a broad range of topics in numerous federal agencies on a variety of topics.
The SA authors declare:
Science, built on facts and evidence-based analysis, is fundamental to a safe and fair America. Upholding science is not a Democratic or Republican issue.
Similarly, NEJM fears:
Our current leaders have undercut trust in science and in government,4 causing damage that will certainly outlast them. Instead of relying on expertise, the administration has turned to uninformed “opinion leaders” and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies.
Jeff Tollefson, in Nature, warns:
As he seeks re-election on 3 November, Trump’s actions in the face of COVID-19 are just one example of the damage he has inflicted on science and its institutions over the past four years, with repercussions for lives and livelihoods.
“This is not just ineptitude, it’s sabotage,” Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, told Mr. Tollefson about the Administration’s pandemic efforts. “He has sabotaged efforts to keep people safe.” Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey Governor and EPA head, added: “I’ve never seen such an orchestrated war on the environment or science.”
The Administration likes to tout the admittedly remarkable progress that pharmaceutical companies have made in therapeutics and vaccines — Operation Warp Speed! — but the constant battles with both the FDA and the CDC (EUAs for everything!) have left the American public skeptical of supposed breakthroughs. In the wake of President Trump’s recent embrace of monoclonal antibodies, The Washington Post lamented:
This has been the 2020 pattern: Politics has thoroughly contaminated the scientific process. The result has been an epidemic of distrust, which further undermines the nation’s already chaotic and ineffective response to the coronavirus.
A Pew Research survey found Americans evenly split between those who would definitely/probably get a vaccine as soon as it was available and those who would not — and the percent willing has dropped from 72% in May. Almost 80% fear the approval process will move too fast; in other words, that the science will be trumped by political concerns.
“Warp speed really isn’t something I want from my medications, especially not ones for my children,” one physician told Alexandra Feathers in Slate.
A separate survey, from Axios/Ipsos, found that only 8% of Americans now have a “great deal” of faith in the FDA to look out for their best interests; only slightly more than half even had a fair amount of faith. Trust in the CDC has also fallen.
Science is losing.
As tempting as it is to blame the current Administration for this war on science, it is a symptom of the problem, not the cause. Some examples:
- One in four Americans believe the sun rotates around the earth.
- Depending on how the question is asked, between a fifth and a third of Americans don’t believe in evolution at all, with another third believing in evolution “directed” by God.
- Only three-fourths are Americans believe climate change is happening, with smaller percentages believing any such change is due to human actions.
- Anti-vaccination beliefs had been growing steadily even prior to COVID, for well-understood, highly effective vaccines.
- American school children continue to rank mediocre in science and math; adult Americans get a gentleman’s “D” for their science knowledge.
- Only 73% of Americans think science has, on balance, had a positive impact on society; only 35% have a “great deal” of confidence in scientists to act in the public interest (although 51% had “fair” confidence).
Politicians can get away with downplaying science because we let them; we let them because some of us don’t know enough, and others among us don’t care enough. Anti-vaxxers were initially seen as an aberration, too small to worry about, but became a problem. Now people not getting a COVID vaccine could be the difference between months of pandemic and years of pandemic.
Cultural wars have become wars on science. Experts agree that wearing a mask and social distancing are the keys to our battle against COVID for the next many months, yet to many wearing a mask is a “personal choice” — even when not wearing one is a risk not just for the person not wearing one but to them people around them.
We should listen to the science.
It’s easy to get caught up in partisan politics about all this, but that’s wrong. Science doesn’t care about your politics. COVID doesn’t ask who you’re going to vote for. Climate change doesn’t stop if you refuse to believe in it.
As writer Valorie Clark tweeted:
We should stop allowing candidates to tell us there’s a metaphorical Santa Claus and start demanding fact-based decisions. We should stop thinking science is something only scientists care about and start accepting that our lives depend on science, so we better understand how.
Many might claim they are bad at science, but I think about what mathematician Paul Lockhart wrote many years ago in A Mathematician’s Lament. If music was taught like math (or science) is, few would enjoy listening to it and even fewer would play it. It’s incumbent on scientists and educators to make science more accessible and understandable for the rest of us.
We’ve failed the science test so far when it comes to COVID, and it has literally cost us hundreds of thousands of lives. It’s not the first such test we’ve failed, but we can, should, and must do better — starting now.
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