Ever since Donald Trump became US president, certain sectors of American society have felt particularly embattled. His statements on Mexicans and Muslims are notorious, but there is another community, less heard about, that has also been sent reeling: scientists.
If politics has never been a world that is overly respectful to empirical research, Trump’s victory exploited a growing popular suspicion of expertise, and a tendency to seek out alternative narratives to fact-based analysis. Conspiracy theories, anti-vaccination campaigns and climate change deniers have all traded on this rejection of science, and their voices have all been heard, to differing degrees, in the new administration. But for the science community perhaps the most provocative act so far of Trump’s short time in office was the appointment of Scott Pruitt, a Republican lawyer and climate change sceptic, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“I’d say a lot of Trump’s cabinet picks are not ideal,” says Shaughnessy Naughton, of the science activist group 314 Action. “But Pruitt is really an offence to the organisation. He’s spent his career suing the EPA. He’s for state rights when it’s for polluters and against state rights when it’s for conservation or protecting the environment.”
Naughton is the founder of 314 Action, which seeks to promote Stem – science, technology, engineering and maths – education and help scientists become politicians. The name refers to the first three digits of the mathematical ratio pi, a scientific imprint that occurs everywhere in life. But too often, Naughton believes, science has remained aloof from politics, while politics has grown less troubled about getting involved in science.
Pruitt is perhaps the most conspicuous example of this development. As attorney general for Oklahoma, he frequently sued the EPA in alliance with oil and gas lobbyists. Since taking over at the EPA, he has promised to weaken regulation of carbon emissions from cars and power plants, and has withdrawn requests for information on industrial production of methane.
A leading EPA official called Mustafa Ali, who is involved in environmental justice, recently resigned from the agency, complaining that there has been a “concerted effort to roll back the positive steps that many, many people have worked on through all the previous administrations”.
There is a place for questioning. That’s important. But at a certain point, opinion is not as relevant as the facts.Shaughnessy Naughton, 314 Action
“Science is under attack,” says Naughton, “and this administration is an example of that. If you look at the science committee in the House [of Representatives], it’s clearly hostile to empirical evidence. We are not going to win this battle by signing polite letters. We are going to win by getting a seat at the table. That means getting people that have pro-science agendas and scientific backgrounds elected at all level of government.”
A former chemist who has worked in cancer research, Naughton has twice run for Congress, both times losing out in the Democratic primaries. She knows from experience a lot about the pitfalls and demands of American politics, particularly the vital role played by donors.
Though it has only existed since the end of last year, 314 Action has already had more than 3,000 scientists and people from scientific backgrounds sign up for training. One of them is Brian Johnson, a 32-year-old nuclear engineer. Johnson doesn’t have much of a political history. He was an active supporter of the independent Ron Paul in the 2012 presidential elections, but that’s about it. Now he’s aiming to run for Congress in the 2018 elections. “The more I look into it,” he says, “the more I realise it really is a huge commitment. I will probably have to resign from my job in order to campaign.”
He will run as a Democrat. Isn’t that a long way, politically speaking, from the libertarian Ron Paul? Johnson insists that, on all the critical issues, he supports the party line. But it is striking that his political stance is largely about what he is against rather than what he is for. And first and foremost he’s against Trump.
Johnson says he waited to see if Trump would honour his campaign commitment to appoint the best people. When that didn’t happen, Johnson got angry.
“He appointed Rick Perry to be in charge of the Department of Energy,” he says. “He’s not exactly a nuclear engineer. He’s been looking to defund data collection on global warming. He’s just protecting his interest in fossil fuels, not serving the American people.”
Perry, a former governor of Texas, is an enthusiast for extracting fossil fuels, does not believe that the human effect on climate change is a proven case, and is on record as wanting to scrap the Department of Energy, which is largely devoted to nuclear energy and its applications.
“You know Donald Trump’s views are not founded in evidence,” says Johnson. “They are founded in whatever feelings he’s got. He doesn’t really care if there’s evidence for what he’s doing.”
Not all scientists agree with Johnson and Naughton. For instance, William Happer, the distinguished professor of physics at Princeton University, argues that global warming is not a problem, that climate science is a “so-called science”, that climate scientists are a “glassy-eyed cult”, and that increased C02 emissions are beneficial, because they are a “boon to plant life”.
Naughton laughs when I mention Happer’s name. “That’s like talking about Andrew Wakefield,” she says, referring to the British medical researcher, now based in America, who maintains, despite a wealth of contrary evidence, that the MMR vaccination is a cause of autism.
It would be wrong to compare Happer to the thoroughly discredited Wakefield, but it’s no coincidence that he has been touted as Trump’s chief science adviser. It’s as if the president is not interested in mainstream scientists who are proponents of widely accepted theories.
Enraged by the administration’s appointments and Trump’s immigration policy, Brian Johnson turned to 314 Action. But if he thought that his scientific background and opposition to Trump was enough, he soon began to realise what running for office in America involves. He discovered that a deep knowledge of nuclear fusion came a poor second to the ability to fundraise.
“314 Action told me the steps I would have to take, how I would fundraise, who I would talk to, and the networks I needed to tap into,” he says. “I’ve learned how to make myself a viable candidate that can run a serious campaign.”
Some of what Trump and his cohort say can make the scientific establishment sound like a bastion of political correctness. But science is not only under threat from the right. For many years now the postmodern strand of leftwing thought has tended to view science as a social construct.
This outlook, exposed by Alan Sokal’s notorious 1996 hoax (in which a spoof scholarly article was published by an academic journal) has often dismissed emphases on empirical research as “scientism”, in other words as just another belief system.
Indeed, in some cases science has been accused of being simply a cultural pillar of western ideological hegemony. Perhaps the most notorious example of this kind of thinking saw the South African leader Thabo Mbeki reject the orthodox scientific thesis on HIV-Aids as a product of “centuries-old white racist beliefs”.
In such cases science is understood not as a neutral, or unbiased means of analytical observation and prediction, but instead as a deeply ideological interpretation of events. Both political extremes, for different reasons, have a history of questioning the science establishment’s political underpinning.
And both have employed the same method to discredit mainstream science: promoting the dissenting voice. Trump seeks out climate change deniers to support his agenda, just as Mbeke made use of the molecular biologist Peter Duesberg’s controversial, and now discredited, theory that HIV did not cause Aids. Mbeke’s stance is estimated to have cost more than 300,000 South African lives.
That took place in a pre-internet age. Now the wonders of technology have made it even easier to disseminate an anti-science message through a medium – the web – that serves to flatten out hierarchies of empirical truth.
Naughton is familiar with the tactic of digging out heterodox opinions to justify bad policies. “What I find completely remarkable,” she says, “are the people who reject all the experts and find an outlier with a PhD who says something that confirms their belief. It doesn’t make any sense. There is a place for questioning everything. That’s important. But we do need experts, we do need to accept facts. Gravity is not something we debate. At a certain point, your opinion is not as relevant as the facts.”
But of course it’s not always easy to distinguish opinion from fact, especially when accusations and counter-accusations of fake news dominate the debate. Scientists are used to a long process of peer review. That’s not how it works in politics.
“Politics is much more emotional and volatile than science,” says Molly Sheehan, a bioengineer, who is considering whether to enter the congressional race in the Philadelphia area. “It moves a lot faster.”
She too is using the know-how provided by 314 Action to inform her preparation. Although she is a longstanding political activist, she says it was Trump’s election that galvanised her to look at becoming a politician. “It went from a hobby to the feeling of ‘I need to do everything in my power to ensure our country comes back to paying attention to reality and paying attention to fact’.”
Sheehan says the kind of scientific belief and optimism that America experienced under JFK in the 1960s has been replaced by apathy and cynicism. She believes that the US has been growing more anti-science for many years. It’s just that Trump has made the drift definitive.
“People don’t remember how bad diseases were,” she says “They don’t remember polio, or measles or mumps. They don’t realise that medical science has had a huge impact on child mortality and morbidity. People don’t have the emotional connection to science that they had in the 1960s.”
But can scientists create that connection by becoming politicians? President Kennedy, after all, was not a scientist, but the space race he launched captured the public imagination. What can scientists bring to the political scene?
“First of all,” says Johnson, “I think a scientist can really understand technical issues, whether it’s climate change or cyber security. Politicians like Trump make a decision and then go out and find the science to support it. If I were in Congress I would want to seek out the science first, and then have that inform my policies.”
It’s an admirable ambition, but is it one that will inspire the public? One of the criticisms that has been launched at politicians, not just in America but in the UK and Europe too, is that they have become too technocratic. Which is to say that instead of viewing issues from a personalised emotive basis, they are more likely to be dry utilitarians, allowing research to show the sensible policy.
The triumph of Trump was to portray that kind of politics as divorced from people’s reality and therefore insular, and most likely corrupt. It worked. But how long will it last? On the whole people tend to prefer trained pilots flying planes and experienced surgeons carrying out serious operations. In other words, when it really matters, we want expertise.
The question is whether the experts are the best people to argue for expertise. Scientists are good at winning the argument, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are good at winning over the people.
Sheehan sees the Trump election as an opportunity for scientists to reassert themselves. For while his presidency may at first be a backward step, Sheehan believes it will provide the impetus to force science back on to the national agenda. “It might be the wake-up call that’s needed for the pendulum to swing back the other way,” she says.
The European temptation to look down on America and its more garish habits has proven particularly irresistible in recent months, but there remains an energy and optimism in the country that should not be underestimated. 314 Action is a fine example of a spirit that doesn’t dwell in defeat but instead looks at practical ways of putting things right.
Trump should beware. The scientific revolution starts here.