“If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts”




I’m new to and relatively uninformed in the area of science policy, but as a science enthusiast in a landscape where the very idea of science is under attack, I don’t have much choice but to get involved now, so here I am.

On January 26, I listened to a webinar held by the AAAS on the state of science under the new administration. It featured Dr. Rush Holt, former U.S. Representative for New Jersey and current CEO of the AAAS, and Norman Ornstein, author of The Broken Branch and contributing editor and columnist for the National Journal and The Atlantic.

You can listen for free to the one-hour discussion, which is available online. I also decided to write up a tl;dr version for future reference and post it here. (The conversation did not occur in the exact order presented here; I’ve consolidated ideas for the sake of bullet points.)

The discussion began with a look at the issues facing scientific organizations and individuals under a Congress and White House who seem to value appeasing fringe groups and fossil fuel industries more than supporting valuable scientific research.

  • Dr. Holt opened on a positive note, observing that the current turmoil actually provides a great opportunity for young scientists to become engaged and for scientists to educate the public about important issues.
  • On the roots of current problematic attitudes about science: Ornstein cited polarization and “partisan tribalism” driven by negative information each side puts out about the “other” side. When Barack Obama was in power, conservatives worked to delegitimize the government and the office of the president, and a populist movement was triggered in part by the recession and resulting bailouts. The anti-government side created a public distrust of authority in politics and science, citing overreach by those in power. Essentially, they discredited everyone in power until they found people who agreed with them. (Now that the anti-government faction is in power and Congress seems to be going along with them, it remains to be seen how this will play out going forward.)
  • On the matter of “facts” and “alternative truths”: we’d like to believe that facts are nonpartisan, but of course, facts get misused, and people dismiss or delegitimize facts that are not in line with their own views and goals. On the Internet, there is so much information available that people can seek out sources that reinforce their views. This is a major problem facing the institution of modern science.
  • Ornstein points that the mainstream media plays a role in this, as well. In their efforts to avoid criticism and to get “both sides” of any issue, media outlets invite people with fringe views to take part in interviews and panels. The result is that many viewers come away thinking issues like vaccines and climate change are divisive and controversial, and anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers end up consulting with the White House.
  • Ornstein also says we’re going to see a war on science from this administration, with bans on weather and climate research and attempts to privatize the space program. There will be fewer honest debates about science because so many people begin from an ideological point of view.
  • One thing anti-science crusaders like to do is cherry-pick study titles that sound ridiculous (but make sense when you actually read the data). This contributes to a broad sense that we’re throwing money away on useless studies. Dr. Holt mentioned the Golden Goose award, which recognizes obscure or silly-sounding studies that end up having profound impacts on society. (No discussion of how to remedy this issue, just that it’s one to be aware of.)
  • On the matter of the current administration’s “gag orders” cited by many federal scientists, Ornstein believes such policies won’t last long and won’t hold up under the Freedom of Information Act, as taxpayer-funded research has to be made available to the public. But it’s a troubling sign nonetheless.
  • One coming battle will be over the budget. The GOP will introduce an omnibus bill that will try to block, for example, funding for NASA studies that demonstrate the effects of climate change. Jeff Flake of Arizona has tried to cut all funding for NSF social science programs, including political science research like polling. (Ed. note: I found this doozy of a waste of taxpayer money by googling “Jeff Flake NSF.” The NSF fired back with an 18-page rebuttal.) The GOP may put all discretionary funding into one bill and dare the Democrats to shut down the government. Passing a responsible budget will require a strong effort from the community and a push from science supporters in Congress.

The discussion then shifted to action. How can we support and promote the value of science in practical ways?

  • Scientists need to engage with their own representatives. The chair of the House Science Committee, Lamar Smith, believes that science is not to be trusted and the public should get its news directly from the White House. The other conservatives on the committee have largely failed to try to mitigate or even acknowledge climate change. We need scientists in these districts to communicate with their representatives, to step up and tell them they’re going to hurt their district and their country by not taking science seriously. Dr. Holt pointed out that the AAAS has tools for people to communicate with Congress. The organization offers webinars and in-person programs for a variety of groups.
  • Scientists need to run for office. Bill Foster and Dr. Holt himself are good examples of scientists who have made a difference in government. Dr. Holt notes that it’s difficult to do both science and politics, but it’s possible. It usually requires putting science on hold for a while.
  • There needs to be increased outreach to potential allies. The Department of Defense, for instance, has a stake in climate change because extreme weather affects the way it conducts its business. Many people with anti-science views live in farming and rural communities and actually benefit from studies on meteorology, entomology, and botany, but those people often don’t know about the connection to their own lives. More educational effort is needed to alert these communities and have them talk to their representatives from the grassroots level. Also, the AAAS should open up communications with farm bureaus and small business organizations to have a dialogue about how changes in the federal government will negatively affect their communities.
  • Journalists have a continued role to play. They should not provide equal time to both sides of an issue that is not in fact scientifically divisive, because that creates a confusing false equivalence. Journalists need to be honest, truthful, and more educated about science and have the right context for stories they report on. They should remain vigilant about the steps taken by Congress to discredit science and stifle information.
  • Popular culture can help. The popularity of films like The Martian and Arrival can spur discussion of real science.
  • Scientists need to demonstrate to lawmakers and Cabinet secretaries that science is valuable beyond merely curing diseases: empirical evidence is powerful. In fact, every committee and department uses and oversees science in some way and should be using fact-based evidence in its work. It’s not just for the science committees.
  • For scientists and people who believe in science, this is not a time to retreat to the ivory tower. It is important to stay engaged and to interact with people in office, campaigns, and everyone in the community. Try to call out rumors and factless assertions for what they are without being antagonistic. Even if you live in a supportive community and have representatives already on your side, you should still engage. Get your community to help you with outreach. Keep telling everyone about the dangers presented by anti-science rhetoric and legislation. Give your representatives evidence and anecdotes to share.

You can read more about the AAAS’s efforts to convince the government of the importance of science by checking updates at aaas.org and following the AAAS and American hero Rush Holt on Twitter and Facebook.

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