“People in this country have had enough of experts.”
Thus spake Michael Gove, UK justice secretary and prophet of the eminent Brexit, the great deliverance of the Anglo-English Ubermensch from oppressive EU regulation, immigrants, and their horrid diversity, and any substantial economic, social or scientific progress for the foreseeable future. Across the pond, President Agent Orange’s administration operates under the same mindset. Small Brother (get it? He has small hands and he’s a despot like in 1984) has had gag orders placed on science agencies, made threats to slash EPA employment, signed off on a wall (read: environmental disaster), condoned commissions on autism and vaccines and placed a ban on U.S. funding to international health groups – all actions condemned by the scientific community based on facts and studies.
Trump’s tantrums and tirades on these issues spring fully formed from a prodigiously empty mind, like a sort of anti-Athena. However, this Muse influences more than Steve Bannon’s lap dog. Distrust of science is a systemic issue America faces on both sides of the aisle. Certainly, the fact that polls overwhelmingly failed to predict results of last year’s election erodes trust not only in political polling but in experts in general. When scientists and critical thinkers are perceived as part of the elite, a surprisingly large subset of the U.S. is less likely to believe them. I grew up in Missouri (for our readers from the coasts, Missouri is a state in the Midwest) and I’ve felt this firsthand. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my state – for the things it does right. But far too many people there, and across the country, believe the Earth is 6,000 years old, or that evolution is a myth or that global warming was, to quote our president, “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing jobs non-competitive.” These are notions that are near-unanimously rejected by the scientific community.
When I say the scientific community, I mean a consortium of hundreds of thousands of people across the globe who have dedicated their lives to answering some of the biggest questions facing humanity. Of course, the results of some disciplines are disputed far less than others. Hell, I can tell people there are objects in the universe spinning at one-fourth the speed of light, black holes a thousand times bigger than our solar system and planets that rain sulfuric acid, and it will never evoke as heated a response as when I say there is no substantive objection to evolution.
Why? Many factors come immediately to mind, including religious motivations, lack of STEM education, and misinformation. When a religious leader uses an erroneous 19th-century estimate for the age of the Earth, parishioners are led to believe that it stems from the literal interpretation of the infallible religious text of their choosing. When a monkey never turns into man, many take this to imply evolution is false, without understanding the mechanisms by which animals adapt to survive. Sources such as Fox News have sold themselves as countercurrent news since the 80s, growing ever more sensational and conspiratorial by the year, and, with a large demographic of the U.S. population eating up conspiracies, it’s hard to be a beacon of scientific rationale.
Moreover, the lack of conservatism on college campuses, right or wrong, lends to the impression that campuses (and by extension, the scientists that work therein) are part of a liberal elite bent on dastardly deception. However, the largest contributors to scientific misunderstandings are psychology, statistics, and their interplay.
Here’s what I mean: brains built for tribes of one hundred people or fewer filter the world in ways that are evolutionarily beneficial but scientifically unsound. Prior experience helps one not be eaten, but using personal experiences or anecdotal evidence to interpret a world eight billion people strong and full of infinitely complex human interactions is nonsense. A sample size of one is no sample at all. Moreover, the mind is attracted to conspiratorial notions because they evoke an esoteric sense of being truly in the know. It’s a gnostic drug – an opiate of the masses – to believe that the world isn’t what it says it is. As a scientist, a population that disregards fact is deeply troubling.
So what are we, as scientists, to do? Science has always devoted itself to unbiased, rationalistic, factually driven research, and certainly, that must continue. But now it appears scientists must double down on this pursuit and find corroboration for their research from the wider scientific community. It means scientists must become far more involved in politics at all levels, ensuring that policy is consistent with scientific understanding. In January, I was honored to be part of a delegation from the American Physical Society to the congressional offices of Virginia and Maryland to discuss issues of financing science, infrastructure, and STEM education. Now more than ever, congressional leaders need the input and expertise of the scientific community in passing legislation that reflects the latest science.
Max Planck once claimed, “science advances one funeral at a time.” Hopefully this generation, armed with an ever-growing body of facts and an ever-critical mind, advances science one birth at a time.