This past weekend, hundreds of thousands of Americans marched in the streets in support of science. That alone is astonishing. In a nation that has long prided itself on its scientific and technological achievements it is difficult to imagine how it is that the tremendous value of scientific inquiry has come under question, and even assault, by many in our nation’s capital and beyond. America should not need a March for Science, yet here we are, in a political moment where many of those in power simply reject science and seem more than willing to plunge the nation into a new kind of Dark Age, where religious ideology and anti-intellectual fervor dictate our future.
This past weekend’s marchers emphasized that while their message was political, it was non-partisan. But that was, sadly, only partly true, mostly because science has become a sharply partisan issue in America. Polls show that large majorities of Democrats and Independents concur with the scientific consensus on a wide range of issues, from evolution to climate change. Democrats and Independents are indistinguishable in polling when it comes to their scientific understanding and beliefs.
The same cannot be said of Republicans, where the party remains out of step with the rest of the country on the value of science, and who hold very different views from other Americans on a wide range of scientific subjects. With the GOP now in control of the federal government, and with a president whose general understanding of scientific endeavors is shockingly limited, the scientific community justifiably feels under assault. The Trump administration’s proposed budget makes unprecedented cuts in a wide range of scientific research, particularly research into climate change, the environment generally, and public health.
The new president and his supporters in Congress have made their objectives clear. They believe that scientific research is costing America jobs by deepening our understanding of the environmental health hazards posed by toxins emitted by politically-favored industries, the pace of climate change and its myriad of risks, and by bringing to light the destruction of ecological marvels, such as the Great Barrier Reef, which is now dying before our eyes due to the warming of the oceans. Such findings are inconvenient truths to a political establishment bent on returning the country to a 19th Century energy mix dominated by coal and oil and to the “good old days” when rivers could catch fire in the U.S.
In the past, America’s regulatory policies were guided by science, and were continuously adjusted based on new findings and greater understanding. By eliminating funding for such inquiry, the new administration hopes to slow if not halt our expansion of knowledge in such areas, betting that what Americans don’t know won’t hurt them. Just ask the people of Flint, Michigan, how well that idea worked out.
This unprecedented assault on science should have attracted more Americans to the streets. Unfortunately, too few Americans truly understand how science works, and that makes it easier for critics to dismiss scientists as politically motivated. When people hear terms like “scientific consensus,” too many Americans view it in the context of politics, as if it means a thousand scientists sitting in a room agreeing to agree on a set of talking points.
In fact, a scientific consensus takes years to develop and is based not on political pressure or partisan factors, but upon the strength of thousands of individual and independent studies that confirm, reject, or refine what begins as hypothesis and eventually becomes well-documented theory. Even the term “theory” is misunderstood by too many Americans. By the time a scientific concept is described as theory, such as the theory of evolution or the theory of climate change, it must be a well-tested and substantiated, unifying explanation for a broad set of proven facts. Politics has nothing to do with it.
America achieved its preeminence by expanding knowledge and embracing its findings. We will certainly not make America great again by halting the advance of knowledge or putting our scientific community out to pasture.