Friday, February 28, 2020
Feb. 28, 2020

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In Our View: Science is not the enemy; willful ignorance is

The Columbian

With an enclave of scientists gathering next week in Seattle, it is appropriate to reiterate the role of knowledge for creating a prosperous and inhabitable world.

Indeed, the theme of this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is “Envisioning Tomorrow’s Earth.” Geologists, chemists, physicists and other scientists will rub elbows with educators, journalists and additional interested parties from Feb. 13-16 at the organization’s 186th annual meeting, attending seminars at and near the Washington State Convention Center. The convention also will include free public lectures and other low-cost events, including two Family Science Days.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is one of the nation’s oldest scientific societies, adhering to a mission that long has driven humans’ thirst for knowledge: “To cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

That is meaningful in an age when science is increasingly under attack. From vaccine critics to a president who denies the existence of climate change, vast swaths of the populace eschew scientific study in favor of dogma.

As Joel Achenbach wrote in “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?,” an article for National Geographic: “We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretation of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts.”

That trend predates the presidency of Donald Trump; he is merely a symptom of the disease. But the Trump administration has persistently worked to undermine the role of scientific evidence in the making of policy. In December, a New York Times article detailed that: “Political appointees have shut down government studies, reduced the influence of scientists over regulatory decisions and in some cases pressured researchers not to speak publicly. The administration has particularly challenged scientific findings related to the environment and public health opposed by industries such as oil drilling and coal mining. It has also impeded research around human-caused climate change, which President Trump has dismissed despite a global scientific consensus.”

The immediate impact is the halting of studies, such as one examining the effects of chemicals on pregnant women. The administration has long held that pervasive regulations have hampered industries; rather than use evidence to demonstrate regulations are unnecessary, it has simply stopped the quest for knowledge.

The long-term impact is even more insidious, with scores of scientists leaving the administration and creating a brain drain that will take decades to overcome. For example, the abrupt relocation of two agricultural agencies that study the economics of farming led to an exodus of experts.

Trump supporters view this as a feature, not a bug. But the growth of an anti-science ethos in American society has a deleterious effect. Contrary to rhetoric, scientists study an issue to find answers, not push an agenda. Findings are subject to peer review and must be replicable by other researchers. As Achenbach wrote: “Even for scientists, the scientific method is a hard discipline.”

All of that is relevant as Seattle prepares to host thousands of scientists. Americans must celebrate the quest for knowledge rather than believing they have all the answers.