Recently, there has been a mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which seems to have given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence. The March for Science on Saturday in Washington, D.C., was planned to emphasize that scientific findings should not be ignored by policy makers.
Scientists’ findings deserve respect because they follow procedures that should ensure neutrality. Even if researchers would prefer a specific outcome, those adhering to the scientific method do not change their results to fit their preferences. Their ethics and professional standards require them to be honest to have credibility in their field. (This is not to deny that there are occasional dishonest practitioners.)
Partisanship, politics, and religious beliefs should not affect the methodology followed and results obtained by well-trained, ethical scientists. They may be Republicans, Democrats, Independents, or have no party affiliation, but results should come out the same. The scientific method, properly applied, minimizes the role of bias in research. Good science is the foundation for sound public policies, based on evidence rather than opinion.
Many in the general public don’t understand fundamental science and may deny findings of legitimate research because the findings don’t agree with their beliefs or opinions. There are major differences between scientists and the general public on various science and technology issues. Scientists have a higher regard than the public for what science has accomplished, with 92 percent of the scientists agreeing that scientific achievements in the United States are either the best in the world (45 percent) or above average (47 percent). However, only 54 percent of the public considers scientific achievements in the U.S. either to be the best in the world (15 percent) or above average (39 percent).
Is this because scientists are overly egotistical, or because the general public is less well informed on the issue? Scientists have traditionally been very bad at public relations — conveying their results to the public and explaining their importance. I hope this is changing.
We should also acknowledge that people’s hesitation to accept scientific findings may come from not only lack of knowledge about the research, but from confusion about the level of uncertainty in science. Uncertainty has been exploited by various industries and politicians to confuse the public about scientific knowledge, as demonstrated by the tobacco companies’ propaganda throughout several decades, during which time thousands of people died of tobacco-related illnesses. The same phenomenon goes on in the field of climate science; the climate deniers and petrochemical industries learned from the tobacco companies.
In his second week in office, Donald Trump issued an executive order that for any new regulation to take effect, two or more existing public protections would have to be eliminated. This means the elimination of existing rules (that were developed based on science) to offset costs of new rules (while ignoring their benefits) even if the existing rules are entirely unrelated. The executive order makes it nearly impossible for the government to carry out its duties under laws like the Clean Air Act, the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The order will mean more contaminated food, more dirty air and water, more toxic chemicals, and an accelerated rush to climate catastrophe.
Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, not only doubts that humans and CO2 cause climate change, he also has rejected the advice of his scientific staff about the risks caused by the pesticide chlorpyrifos. (The Office of Pesticide Programs of the E.P.A. is very conservative and reluctant to ban a chemical — so there must be overwhelming evidence of neurological damage in young children from chlorpyrifos.)
The administration’s proposed budget has severe cuts to environmental research programs at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the E.P.A., and moderate cuts in the National Institutes of Health budget that funds biomedical research. Naturally, scientists are unhappy about cuts in funding for research, but these funds are not meant to line our pockets, but to improve public health, strengthen national security, protect the environment, and provide safety from natural hazards such as hurricanes.
The concern is not limited to a single appointment or budget decision, but to the whole tone of the administration. Most positions in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (the president’s science adviser) have not been filled, and it is doubtful they will be.
Here on the East End, science is critical for sound coastal management and protection. NOAA, which runs the Coastal Zone Management Program, is slated for extensive budget cuts. NOAA is the home of Sea Grant, which is set to be phased out altogether, and the National Hurricane Center, with satellites and forecasters — important for people who have waited to see where a hurricane was going to make landfall. Science seeks solutions to problems.
Most of the debate in Washington is based on opinions. Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but opinions won’t solve pressing problems. Coastal communities facing sea level rise, pollution, loss of sea grasses and/or marshes, or approaching hurricanes need facts, not opinions. Ignoring scientific findings can be dangerous, and politicians must not benefit from ignoring or distorting science.
Public awareness and action should translate into support for public officials who want to support science, and the public should inform other politicians that they are paying attention to their actions.
Judith S. Weis is professor emerita in the department of biological sciences at Rutgers University in Newark. She has a house in Springs.