Gagging Science

A couple of recent pieces, one an editorial in the New York Times and another at Vox, argue there is a “war on science” (to use the Times’s hackneyed phrase). First, let’s drop the “war” stuff.  Ever since Fox News went on the “War on Christmas” path, that terminology is meaningless short of armed soldiers killing scientists.

But what we are seeing is incredible. From the disbanding of scientific review panels to the placement of political appointees in the grants cycle to the gagging of scientists employed by the government to the cessation of collections of scientific data to the elevation of a contrarian rear-guard to equal or greater levels of influence with overwhelming scientific consensus in making regulatory decisions, it is abundantly clear that the Trump administration, rather than simply ignoring science, intends to silence science. This is not bulldozing partisan opposition; this is overlooking reality. Given their outlook, we might expect DDT to return to store shelves next to leaded paint.

This is ignorant bullshit. But before all the conservatives get hot under the collar and the liberals give each other high-fives, keep in mind that this game is not being played solely by the right.

Here in Boulder there is a vast expanse of cropland under the control of the county.  The purpose was to retain open space and maintain a rural barrier between Boulder and neighboring towns. Because the land is owned by the county, it can make rules about what happens when it leases the land to farmers. And one of those rules they’ve decided to implement–over the objections of the farmers working those lands–is to remove GMOs from county farmlands. As a five-part series of op-eds in the Daily Camera points out, this decision flies in the face of established science. One can spend hours reading the various letters to the editor, the position papers submitted to the Board of Supervisors, the various blog posts, etc. And it is almost as enlightening as the corners of the internet dedicated to showing that climate change isn’t real; GG earlier termed many of these kinds of arguments policy proxies: you use them as cudgels against actions you dislike (for instance, some GMO opponents seem to hate Monsanto as a corporate monstrosity; some GMO supporters point out that Whole Foods is a far bigger concern directly invested in the “organic = good” mindset; neither argument bears on the safety or efficacy of GMOs in agriculture). About the closest non-crop scientists can get to the science without going nuts might be the National Academy’s report from 2016.  Which really doesn’t support wholesale dismissal of GMOs.

Now the county can do whatever it wants in this regard; there is no law saying that land management has to be scientifically defensible. It is less clear that such an argument can defend the EPA’s removal of scientific review panels, but the mindset that science is a tool to be employed as a partisan weapon seems to be growing more common.  Instead of using scientific inquiry to resolve disputes that are grounded in reality, science is being selectively harvested to support one’s preexisting views.

Science is ideally a tool we use to avoid fooling ourselves.  We have to be open to discovering we are wrong, which is one of the hardest things for many of us to admit. But those who would overturn scientific consensus have to recognize that you don’t overturn such consensus on the basis of a small amount of information. For instance, evolution is observationally confirmed by thousands up thousands of studies of faunal successions in rock strata. Finding a T-Rex tooth in a 10,000 year old human campfire isn’t going to overturn evolution. Anthropogenic climate change at this point is supported by so many observations in so many ways that the possibility that it is an artifact of some other misunderstanding is vanishingly small.  GMO safety is well supported (but not to the degree climate change is; note this is not considering the economics of GMOs). There are many things we can act on now with a pretty solid assurance we won’t be mistaken; on other aspects, we should fund the science.

When making policy these days, it is incumbent on government to at least hear the scientific consensus and know where the edge of that consensus lies. For instance, global warming is caused by burning fossil fuels. Ice sheets will retreat, oceans are much warmer and more acidic, storms can be far wetter, droughts can be much drier, heat waves will be hotter are all so directly supported by simple physics, observation, and numerical simulation that all these can be acted upon without further inquiry. More difficult and unclear are things like the net precipitation budget over years-long time frames in regions of the U.S., the intensity of winter storms, or changes in the frequency of tornados; many such topics deserve continued inquiry.

But what we cannot do is simply pooh-pooh the science we don’t like. Or pretend it doesn’t exist.

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