A particularly witty March for Science sign. Image source: @RobertReyes Twitter account.
Should science and politics mix?
In his 2016 book The War on Science, author Shawn Otto writes, “... an observable fact is a political act that either supports or challenges the current power structure. Every time a scientist makes a factual assertion — Earth goes around the sun, there is such as thing as evolution, humans are causing climate change — it either supports or challenges somebody's vested interests.”
Wishing to sidestep the painful moral and ethical parsing that their discoveries sometimes compel, scientists for the last two generations saw their role as the creators of knowledge and believed they should leave the moral, ethical, and political implications to others to sort out. But the practice of science itself cannot possibly be apolitical, because it takes nothing on faith. The very essence of the scientific process is to question long-held assumptions about the nature of the universe, to dream up experiments that test those questions, and, based on the resulting observations, to incrementally build knowledge that is independent of our beliefs, assumptions, and identities, and independently verificable no matter who does the measuring — in other words, that is objective. A scientifically testable claim is transparent and can be shown to be either most probably true, or to be false, whether the claim is made by a king, a president, a prime minister, a pope, or a common citizen. Because it takes nothing on faith, science is inherently antiauthoritarian, and a great equalizer of political power. That is why it is under attack.
Author Shawn Otto speaks April 22, 2017 at the Washington, D.C. March for Science. Video source: Earth Day Network YouTube channel.
Scientific activism is in our nation's political genetic code.
Some of the most prominent leaders of the American Revolution were scientists. Benjamin Franklin, who researched the physics of electricity, wrote in 1734, “A new truth is a truth, an old error is an error.” Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote in 1787, “A patient pursuit of facts, and cautious combination and comparison of them, is the drudgery to which man is subjected by his Maker, if he wishes to attain sure knowledge.” Article I. Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”
In the last century, Manhattan Project scientists, concerned about the consequences of their atomic bomb research, founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Doomsday Clock traces back to their first issue in 1947, when it was seven minutes to Midnight. Today it's 2½ minutes.
The Union of Concerned Scientists formed in 1969 during an era of war and violent civil dissent. “Appalled at how the U.S. government was misusing science, the UCS founders drafted a statement calling for scientific research to be directed away from military technologies and toward solving pressing environmental and social problems,” according to their web site.
At times in our history, scientists have been targeted by those in political power.
In 1925, a Tennessee high school science teacher named John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution. A sensationalist trial, which came to be known as the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” tested a state law prohibiting the teaching of tenets contrary to the Bible. Scopes was found guilty, and the law stood for another 42 years.
During World War II and the subsequent Cold War, founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were targeted by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Frank Malina was harassed by the FBI, suspected of Communist sympathies. Qian Xuesen, born in China but educated in the United States, worked with Malina at the California Institute of Technology. Xuesen also worked on the Manhattan Project. His ties with Malina led to losing his security clearance. In 1955, he returned to China, where he helped start the Communist nation's rocketry program.
In 1953, Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer was falsely accused of being a Soviet spy. His security clearance was revoked. Around the same time, the U.S. Public Health Service began to revoke grants given to scientists who were judged insufficiently loyal to the United States.
The George W. Bush administration actively tried to rewrite or block government reports documenting climate change. The Union of Concerned Scientists in 2005 documented how the Bush administration assigned non-scientists to rewrite science documents to cast doubt on climate change. In January 2007, scientists and advocacy groups testified to Congress that scientists at government agencies were advised not to use the phrases “global warming” or “climate change.”
Let's pause here to note the difference between “global warming” and “climate change.” According to NASA, global warming “refers to the long-term increase in Earth's average temperature.” Climate change “refers to any long-term change in Earth's climate, or in the climate of a region or city. This includes warming, cooling and changes besides temperature.” Climate change is the consequence of global warming.
In 2010, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) called for a criminal investigation of American and British climate change researchers. On February 26, 2015, Senator Inhofe tossed a snowball on the Senate floor, claiming it disproved global warming. According to OpenSecrets.org, Inhofe has received more than $1.8 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry during his political career.
February 26, 2015 ... Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) tosses a snowball on the Senate floor. Video source: C-SPAN YouTube channel.
The science community enjoyed eight years of support from President Barack Obama, but that ended when Donald Trump became President on January 20, 2017.
Four years before he was elected President, Trump claimed that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by China. During his presidential campaign, Trump repeated his claim that global warming is a hoax, but also claimed his China allegation was a joke.
A November 2012 tweet by Donald Trump.
Trump appointed Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt denies that humans contribute to global warming and has called for the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris climate change accord. The Trump administration's proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget would cut the EPA budget by 31%, including a 50% reduction in the agency's research and development office.
The day Trump took office, all references to climate change were deleted from the White House web site.
Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chair of the House Science Committee, is an unabashed climate change denier. Smith falsely claims that climate change scientists ignore the scientific method, and routinely holds hearings to attack climate change science.
According to OpenSecrets.org, the Oil and Gas industry has contributed over $700,000 to Smith's election campaigns since 1998.
A March 29, 2017 House Science Committee attacking climate change scientists chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith.
Attacks on science are not limited to the conservative wing of the political spectrum. In a November 2012 Scientific American column, Shawn Otto writes that some liberals believe that cell phones cause brain cancer, or that vaccines cause autism. In January, vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. said Trump had asked him to head a commission on vaccine safety.
But it was the Trump administration's declared assault on climate change science that motivated the March for Science.
The idea was inspired by the Women's March on Washington, held the day after Trump's inauguration. A Reddit thread began with users urging that science believers needed to rally as well. The March for Science movement eventually aligned with the long-established Earth Day Network, which began on April 22, 1970.
Attendance estimates for these events are always questionable at best. A progressive anti-Trump web site claims 40,000 attended the Washington, D.C. rally, with another 40,000 in Chicago and 20,000 in New York City. According to CNN, more than 600 rallies were held worldwide. Florida Today estimated that “hundreds of attendees” were at the Titusville rally.
The numbers are not as important as the movement demonstrating a sustained ability to pressure politicians to support their cause.
Any President, or member of Congress, won't care about protestors unless it's clear that the politician's re-election is threatened. Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), who represents Brevard County, refuses to attend in-person town halls, relying instead on a “Tele-Town Hall” format. Posey is in a safe Republican district, gerrymandered through at least 2020, so he has no reason to respond to the minority of constituents who object to his vaccine denial and climate change denial.
March 26, 2014 ... Rep. Bill Posey denies climate change. Video source: climatebrad YouTube channel.
Posey has no science background. According to his official biography, his education is limited to a 1969 Associate of Arts degree from Brevard Community College.
A March 2015 Gallup poll found that highly educated Republicans tend to deny human-caused climate change, while highly educated Democrats believe humans are causing the phenomenon.
California experienced five years of drought from 2011 to 2016. During this last winter, heavy rains ended the water deficiency in most regions of the state. If California experiences drought for the next five years, we would say that California's climate is drought, but the weather for the winter of 2016-2017 was rainy. That's the difference between climate and weather.
On April 8, Stanford environmental science student Emma Hutchison wrote in the Peninsula Press:
Extreme weather events, like storms, floods and the California drought, are increasing globally. Understanding the connection between climate change and this extreme weather has become a hot topic for climate researchers and policymakers alike. But now, Columbia University climate expert Park Williams warned in a January talk at Stanford, the way that public figures are talking about the climate change-extreme weather connection may actually be undermining the scientific quest to accurately understand what climate change means for the future of our planet.
The problem, Williams explained, comes in oversimplifying the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events. He pointed to an example in which California Gov. Jerry Brown said that drought conditions were “the new normal” for California: a vision of permanent drought caused by climate change. This sparked pushback from many scientists. The new normal isn’t permanent drought, they said, but rather a whole new weather reality that includes more drought, more rainstorms and flooding, and a great deal of variability or “noise”: “When I see things like [Brown’s statement], I think: that’s inconsistent with my understanding of the climate in California, which is very noisy,” Williams said in his talk.
Brown is certainly not the only public figure to make a broad statement about climate change and extreme weather, but his “new normal” phrase has become a clear example of a common problem. Politicians tend to oversimplify the science, Williams said, because the public is more likely to understand an all-or-nothing story: either climate change caused an event like the drought, or it didn’t.
In May 2014, President Barack Obama suggested that Hurricane Sandy could have been linked to climate change. A year later, he acknowledged that “Climate change didn't cause Hurricane Sandy, but may have made it stronger. In fact, the sea level in New York harbor is about a foot higher than a century ago. It certainly made the storm surge worse.”
My personal opinion is that some of the climate change denial is motivated by an individual's willingness to accept data at face value from authoritative sources.
The Trump campaign at its core appealed to those who resent “elites.” Scientists are “elites” because they have a high degree of expertise and education most people are lacking.
A September 2016 Gallup poll found that 51% of Democrats trust in mass media, but only 14% of Republicans do. (Independents scored at 30%.) An October 2014 Pew Research Center report found that “consistent conservatives” are “tightly clustered around a single news source,” with 47% citing Fox News as their main news source. Those with “consistently liberal views” are “less unified in their media loyalty; they rely on a greater range of news outlets, including some — like NPR and the New York Times — that others use far less.”
Right-wing conspiracy web sites falsely claim a global conspiracy among scientists to falsify climate change data, without offering any actual proof themselves. A common point of contention is the claim that 97% of the scientific community believe in climate change. Conspiracy sites claim the number is phony. Politifact in April 2016 examined a number of studies and concluded, “The studies found that overwhelming majorities of these experts — sometimes, but not always as high as 97 percent — say humans are contributing to global warming.”
Right-wing sites have also claimed that NASA falsified climate data or that NASA has proven global warming doesn't exist. Yet NASA has a web site dedicated to presenting climate change evidence.
A NASA chart showing the increase in carbon dioxide emissions during the Industrial Revolution. Click the image to view at a larger size.
Of particular disappointment to Rep. Posey would be this statement:
The Earth's climate has changed throughout history. Just in the last 650,000 years there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age about 7,000 years ago marking the beginning of the modern climate era — and of human civilization. Most of these climate changes are attributed to very small variations in Earth’s orbit that change the amount of solar energy our planet receives.
The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia.
Up to now, the science community has taken the high road, with few exceptions, trusting that the public will objectively look at the data.
Most of the public won't. They get their news from sources that tend to reinforce their beliefs, or gossip from friends, Twitter and other social media.
With few exceptions, most scientists lack the ability to interpret their findings into simple language that the lay person can understand. They write highly technical papers that must pass peer review. They don't write simple opinion columns for the town paper.
If the March for Science is to sustain itself, it must find ways to plainly communicate to the electorate how science works.
A science advocacy sign at the January 21, 2017 Women's March.
Peer review is a process largely unknown to the public. Partisan political web sites and bloviating politicians aren't subject to peer review. Scientists are.
The University of California Berkeley web site describes the steps of peer review:
1. A group of scientists completes a study and writes it up in the form of an article. They submit it to a journal for publication.
2. The journal's editors send the article to several other scientists who work in the same field (i.e., the "peers" of peer review).
3. Those reviewers provide feedback on the article and tell the editor whether or not they think the study is of high enough quality to be published.
4. The authors may then revise their article and resubmit it for consideration.
5. Only articles that meet good scientific standards (e.g., acknowledge and build upon other work in the field, rely on logical reasoning and well-designed studies, back up claims with evidence, etc.) are accepted for publication.
Science deniers will claim that scientists are unethical and approve each others' work without question, as part of a vast conspiracy to assure they all receive taxpayer funding. They provide no evidence, of course, to support these smears.
Scientists use the scientific method to reach their conclusions. The University of Rochester web site outlines their definition of the scientific method:
1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.
2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation.
3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.
4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.
The article notes, “It is often said in science that theories can never be proved, only disproved. There is always the possibility that a new observation or a new experiment will conflict with a long-standing theory.”
Yes, human beings are fallible. They make mistakes. They introduce biases. The scientific method, coupled with peer review, is designed to be self-correcting.
March for Science must go beyond marches in the streets. Its supporters must attend town halls, speak at rallies, challenge their friends and neighbors who question scientific data. I have done so many times over the years, to the point where certain people know they better not blather about conspiracies in my presence because I'll call them on it.
Many people, I've found, are sincerely interested in knowing why we can believe the data. I explain the scientific method, the peer review process, and the centuries of data gathered by sources such as drilling into polar ice to measure the concentrations of carbon dioxide. (The farther down you go, the less the CO2.)
I'm quite proud of when a skeptic opens his or her mind because I explain not only the science behind the data, but the integrity behind the science.
Skepticism is healthy and should be encouraged. Skepticism is part of peer review. When a skeptic asks me about the science behind climate change, I compliment the person for being a scientist. I explain that's what scientists do. They are skeptics who are always testing and validating.
That's why we know science works.
Letters to your local newspaper are fine, but it's better to directly contact the editor and publisher when a news story misstates scientific evidence. Many reporters are generalists who have little science background. Be polite, not accusatory, and simply explain the science in language the lay person can understand. Most reporters, and most newspaper owners, want to get it right. You can help them.
What is the self-correcting mechanism for politicians who deny science?
The ballot box.
If voters are unwilling to vote out Rep. Bill Posey or Senator James Inhofe for denying climate change and disrespecting science, then we doom ourselves to the consequences of our inaction.
Challenge people to withhold campaign contributions and their vote from any politician who denies the validity of science. Be sure that politician knows it. Contact your local media to urge them to report on a politician's falsehoods. Provide the evidence to support your position. The politician won't have any.
It's not quite as hopeless as you might think.
In February 2017, a bipartisan group of six members of Congress — three Republicans and three Democrats — declared their belief that U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved vaccines are safe.
A bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus has formed in the House of Representatives — 19 Republicans and 19 Democrats — to “explore policy options that address the impacts, causes, and challenges of our changing climate.” According to their web site,“The Caucus will serve as an organization to educate members on economically-viable options to reduce climate risk and protect our nation’s economy, security, infrastructure, agriculture, water supply and public safety.” The site states that they will keep their membership even between Republicans and Democrats.
Three Republicans and two Democrats from Florida are in the caucus. None, of course, are Rep. Posey.
The caucus site has links to ask your member of Congress to join the caucus, and to “tweet your support.”
You may wish to consider supporting these caucus members with a campaign contribution, or at least a letter of support and encouragement.
What will you do to defend science?