Advertisements

Why politicians think they know better than scientists – and why that’s so dangerous

The ConversationMaking a point at a Washington, D.C. protest in January.
stephenmelkisethian/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Elizabeth Suhay, American University

One of the most unexpected political developments in recent months has been the political awakening of scientists in the United States.

A normally reticent group (at least when it comes to politics), scientists are speaking out, organizing a major march and planning to run for public office. There is a growing sense that the danger posed by the Trump administration to evidence-based policy, and perhaps science itself, is unprecedented. I share this concern. The Trump administration’s actions and rhetoric appear to signal an acceleration of Republican skepticism toward scientific research carried out in the public interest.

This said, what is keeping political scientists, particularly those like me who study political psychology, up at night is not the Trump administration’s ideologically driven science bias. Rather, it is the fact that Trump himself exhibits an authoritarian style of motivated reasoning that appears to be intended (consciously or not) to consolidate his power.

This combination – institutional challenges to the scientific integrity of government employees and Trump’s willingness to disregard evidence on a variety of matters – has broad and ominous implications beyond how science informs national policies.

Science as political target

Politically motivated skepticism of science is certainly not new. As I have argued elsewhere, science is consistently a political target precisely because of its political power.

Science has “epistemic authority,” meaning it is the best method humans have available to understand what is true about the world. For this reason, policy decisions are expected to be based in large part on scientific conclusions. And as the size and scope of the federal government has increased, so has the use of scientific research in government decision-making, making it an even bigger target.

Scott Pruitt, a skeptic of well-established climate science and ally of the fossil fuel industry, will head the EPA, an agency charged with protecting the environment and health.
gageskidmore/flickr, CC BY-SA

A number of actions taken so far by the Trump administration seem to portend hostility to government-sponsored science and science-backed policy. Many were alarmed by orders during the administration’s first week in office that government agencies cease all communications with the public.

But likely more indicative of the administration’s attitude toward government-sponsored research are Trump’s nominees to head Cabinet-level agencies. These individuals have less relevant expertise than previous administrations, and Trump’s Cabinet is the first in recent memory to include no one with a Ph.D. The nominee to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has questioned well-accepted climate science and worked closely with energy companies to undermine the agency he is to head.

In addition, Trump’s choice for OMB director, Mick Mulvaney, has taken a similar tack with respect to government-sponsored science aimed at protecting the public’s health. The two scientists said to be under consideration for science advisor both happen to be far outside the mainstream on climate science (neither is a climate scientist).

‘Bending’ science for political reasons

It is important to recognize that scientific evidence is not the only legitimate consideration underlying a policy decision. There may be larger ideological commitments at stake or constituents to please or (less justifiably) more strategic political considerations.

The problem for science and evidence-based policy comes when politicians and other political actors decide to discredit the science on which a conclusion is based or bend the science to support their policy position. Call it “policy-based evidence” as opposed to “evidence-based policy.”

Such bending of science comes in a variety of forms: cherry-picking studies and experts that support your perspective; harassing government-sponsored scientists – via cuts in funding or investigations – whose conclusions weigh against policies you prefer; forcing government scientists to change the language of reports for political reasons.

John Marburger was science advisor to George W. Bush, whose administration was criticized for manipulating how science was used in policy decisions.
Brookhaven National Laboratory

Science bias in and of itself is not conservative or liberal, and one can find it on both sides of the political spectrum. However, if we are to avoid false equivalence, we must admit that most of the anti-science bias coming from politicians in recent decades has been from the Republican Party. This bias has been documented extensively. (One can also check out the two parties’ 2016 party platforms.)

There is a straightforward reason for this partisan difference: Much contemporary government-sponsored research is in service of a growing regulatory state. Republicans tend to oppose federal government regulation because of their longstanding representation of business interests and commitment to states’ rights. In recent decades, the Republican Party also has become the political home to religious conservatives, many of whom distrust science because it challenges biblical authority, particularly with respect to evolution.

The George W. Bush administration was arguably the heyday for ideologically driven interference in government-produced science, something well-documented in two reports by the Union of Concerned Scientists. In response to this, the Obama administration put in place various institutional safeguards to protect the integrity of science, and Congress strengthened its protection of federal whistleblowers.

But Trump’s rhetoric and actions – both before and after assuming the presidency – seem to foreshadow a return to Bush-era tactics. Trump’s Cabinet choices exhibit an unusual fixation on deregulation, particularly in the arena of energy and the environment. And both Trump and his powerful vice president have a history of making statements that are ignorant and mistrustful of science.

Danger in the rhetoric

Unfortunately, there is reason to suspect that Trump’s disdain for scientific research is not only driven by political ideology and the interests he represents. Trump clearly chafes against anyone or anything that challenges his power, including empirical reality.

Trump’s constant efforts to aggrandize himself are plain to see. In the past, Donald Trump lied about everything from the size of his home to his donations to charity. In service of whipping up a crowd, Trump has been willing to scapegoat entire minority groups and falsely question a president’s citizenship.

So far, President Trump has focused mainly on crowd sizes, poll numbers and the merits of comedians’ performances. Many Americans are tempted to not take these distortions of seemingly trivial topics seriously. But this is authoritarian rhetoric.

As with all presidents, Trump will eventually face data that reflect poorly on some aspects of his job performance: for example, pollution levels, disease rates, disappointing jobs figures, etc. He has been so consistent in his dissembling to protect his reputation that it would be surprising if this behavior did not continue in the face of more serious threats. Scholars are already speculating that Trump may employ Nixonian efforts to doctor official government statistics or discourage critical scholarly study of society under his administration by eliminating NSF social and economic science funding.

Between his executive power and the power of the bully pulpit, President Trump has considerable ability to harm the scientific enterprise and quite possibly democratic institutions as well. This is a time, in my view, for scientists, and experts more generally, to mobilize. As Jack Goldsmith of Harvard Law School argues, experts play a critical role at moments like this as a “synopticon” – a large collective closely monitoring the actions of our political leaders.

Elizabeth Suhay, Assistant Professor of Government, American University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2017 Media Bias/Fact Check

Advertisements

Follow Blog via Email

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

4 Comments on Why politicians think they know better than scientists – and why that’s so dangerous

  1. science has been corrupted by politics forever, Andrew Mellon fraudulently sold us fluoridation Major stockholder of ALCOA and in charge of the Public Health Service. U of Rochester has always been used to support corporate interests. Science is for sale to the highest bidder. Maybe T has it right!

  2. check out Burt Rutan’s take on climate change.

  3. The root of the problems doesn’t start from the government. For a person to become a part of the government, he/she needs a lot of finance, and this won’t come from the regular people.

    The best backers for politicians are the wealthiest corporations, such as pharmaceutical companies, electrical and oil companies and similar giants in their industries.

    What the backer asks in return is complete protection and clearance for every crime against humanity they intend to commit

    These lies are impregnated in the fabric of society on a daily basis. The government chooses the education, the media, the social media, science and everything you can think of.

  4. Reason and ethics should determine who the people put in offices. It’s time to restore real elections.

    There is a vitally important issue which must be addressed to stop the subjugation of Americans by those who despise and exploit them.

    Blackbox electronic “voting” is the digital death of democratic representation in government.

    The Russians and/or who knows who all else just took advantage of an easy opportunity, much as car thieves who can’t resist stealing luxury vehicles left unlocked with keys in their ignitions.

    Things which should be known beyond all doubt:

    How many eligible electors were removed from the electronic database rolls? Who were they, and who removed them?

    For the massive majorities of electors forced to use paperless DREs, ballot opscans, polling precinct communications computers, and central tabulators built by foreigners and owned/operated by private corporations, exactly what hardware, firmware, and software – including backdoors – were involved? Exactly what chain of custody existed, if any, for all devices and removable media used on those devices?

    What security measures were implemented, if any, to the modem transmissions of data sent from polling precincts to county elections officials?

    If these things can not be known beyond all doubt, the results of any “election” are invalid.

    At least paper ballots counted by hand can be observed throughout the process.

    Any American who appreciates the ideals on which the USA was originally based would fight to the death for representation in government, as this nation’s founders were willing to do. If this “election” were legit there would be nothing to fear for the status quo, but if not it would signal a clear call for the restoration/implementation of genuine democratic processes in this republic.

    Questioning the blackbox is totally appropriate.

    The rigged “voting” systems don’t allow for valid recounts or audits.

    Too many vital states use completely inappropriate electronic “voting” systems. Florida uses paperless and other suspect equipment in its major population areas. Michigan uses paper ballots but they are “counted” with opscans shown to be subject to tampering. Wisconsin is worse, with some paperless systems even more easily manipulated with no hope of recounts. Pennsylvania is by far one of the worst examples of a state forced into use of a totally paperless DRE-based system allowing for no valid counts or recounts. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, as numerous other states, replaced real voting by the use of antiquated Asian mystery hardware/firmware/software accessible by myriad entities including but not limited to felons, rabid partisans, traitors, and foreigners such as Chinese and Russian hackers. There are touchscreens subject to various types of tampering including backdoors and simply applying viscous substances to the screens. Pedro Cortés illegally stopped PA citizens from demanding that the “voting” systems be examined by experts because he knows they’re defective and easy to rig.

    People in most states have to wait in long lines to try to use such unreliable machines when using paper would be much faster and more convenient. You can’t expect valid elections when you outsource them rather than making sure they’d involve ballots and counts made in the USA.

    In strategic population centers of over 40 states, actual counts of real ballots have been replaced by the use of foreign-built devices owned by unaccountable corporations. These electronic systems are proprietary and of undisclosed design, build, programming, and operation. They are vulnerable to easily-concealed manipulations and known to lose, switch, and fake votes. Even mailed, absentee, and other handwritten ballots are manually fed into hackable opscans, and the central tabulators are particularly problematic. They were unsecured and obsolete when new and that was over a decade ago now. Thus democracy dies via digital disenfranchisement.

    Some wonder why more tech savvy young people don’t turn out to vote. Those young people wonder why they try to call it that.

    https://www.brennancenter.org/press-release/new-study-voting-machines-risk-ahead-2016-election

    https://www.cnet.com/news/hack-the-vote-could-cyberattackers-disrupt-the-election/

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/11/1101_041101_election_voting.html

    http://electiondefensealliance.org/?q=2007/06/the_case_for_hand_counted_paper_ballots

    http://www.thelandesreport.com/votingmachinecompanies.htm

    http://www.votersunite.org/takeaction/handcounted.asp

    http://www.notablesoftware.com/RMstatement.html

    http://www.handcountedpaperballots.org/

    http://www.wheresthepaper.org/

    A very partial list of computer experts who have pointed out the problems includes, but is not remotely limited to:

    Aviel Rubin, PhD, Professor of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University
    Edward Felten, PhD, Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer for The White House, formerly Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University
    Michael Fischer, PhD, Professor of Computer Science at Yale University
    David Dill, PhD, Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University
    Rebecca Mercuri, PhD, Computer Security Forensics Consultant, former Fellow, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
    Douglas Jones, PhD, Professor of Computer Science, University of Iowa
    Herbert Thompson, PhD, Adjunct Professor of Computer Science, Columbia University

    See also:

    http://www.gregpalast.com/election-stolen-heres/

    Watch this video for an excellent summary:

Leave a Reply