As president, Trump will be appointing people to head the EPA, CDC, NASA, USDA—to name just a few of the federal agencies that employ physicians and scientists—and these agencies will keep churning out official reports.
Trump has shifted the bounds of public discourse as a candidate, and he will continue to do so as president. We have a president-elect who appears to believe in his genetic superiority, with a chief strategist who has been reported to believe the same. We have a president-elect with an affinity for torture. It’s an open question as to whether Trump will bring these views into the White House, pulling them back into mainstream discussions by dint of his high office. And it’s not clear how else he might use scientists to burnish his agenda. In the Bush administration, for instance, psychologists lent the gravitas of science to torture. What will scientists be asked to support under Trump?
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So here is why I’ve been thinking, again, about Clinton’s appeal to science as a partisan rallying cry way back in July. It was clearly in response to the mockery of Trump and his supporters as “anti-science.” But “anti-science” is a dangerously simplistic label.
Science isn’t a monolith. Trump may deride NASA’s climate science research, but he also gave an astronaut a primetime speaking spot at the Republican National Convention. He could dismiss the evidence for childhood vaccines in one breath and call for more anti-addiction drugs for the opioid crisis in another. Rather than despair that all science is dead in Trump’s America, we have to look at specific scientific fields to see how they are becoming entangled with politics.
Politicians have real incentives to appeal to science. Even if you do talk generically about science, American’s views on it are overwhelmingly positive. In a Pew report last year, 79 percent of adults agreed that science has made life easier; more than 70 percent said that government investment in research pays off in the long run.
In fact, the right and so-called alt-right is happy to appeal to science’s prestige when pushing their own views. The head of Trump’s EPA transition team, prominent climate change denier Myron Ebell, is comfortable expounding on carbon dioxide levels and the Little Ice Age. His pick for health secretary, Tom Price, is a surgeon endorsed by the American Medical Association, who also belongs to a conservative doctor’s group whose journal has criticized the consensus on climate change and the “gay male lifestyle.” White supremacists are obsessed with genetic tests.
The trappings of science can be decoupled from the actual rigor of science. In a post-fact, post-expert world, science still holds currency. It just has to be your facts and your experts.
Stephen Colbert, who famously coined “truthiness,” less famously also came up with “factiness.” If “truthiness” is a feeling of truth with a disregard for the facts, then “factiness” is using actual facts to paint a misleading truth. “It is also a fact that Mr. Obama is a carbon-based life form, just like Osama bin Laden,” said Colbert, going for the absurd, “If Obama really wanted to separate himself from our enemies, wouldn’t he try to be one those sulfur-based tube worms that live in the volcanic vents off the coast of Chile?” So many science words! Such gobbledygook!