Of all the memorable lines from this year’s election, the one I keep returning to months later—for self-interested reasons—is from Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. “And I believe in science,” she said, as she pivoted to climate change. She giggled. The crowd roared.
It wasn’t just her remark that struck me but also the response. I’m a journalist who writes about science, so my Twitter feed that night was full of scientists and writers who had waited long to see science on the political stage: Isn’t it absurd she had to say she believed in science? I can’t believe 2016. And most smug of all: Hillary, science is not a belief.
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Donald Trump will be president in two months. He’s so far said very little about science—the notable exception, of course, being his loud rejection of climate change. His advisors, though, are relishing the end of all earth science research at NASA, and scientists have worried a Trump administration will slash funding for other areas of research.
But this narrow framing around what Trump means for science—will he fund it or won’t he?—misses another question: How will Trump and his supporters end up using science to further their political goals?
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!
The morning after the election, Nathan Jurgenson also wrote, independently it seems and in less absurdist terms than Colbert, about factiness on the left:
Factiness is the taste for the feel and aesthetic of “facts,” often at the expense of missing the truth. From silly self-help-y TED talks to bad NPR-style neuroscience science updates to wrapping ourselves in the misleading scientism of Fivethirtyeight statistics, factiness is obsessing over and covering ourselves in fact after fact while still missing bigger truths.
I’ll suggest that factiness doesn’t actually cleave neatly across the left and the right. It’s an outgrowth of our cognitive biases. We often make decisions emotionally, sometimes based on tribal affiliations; then we marshall the facts that prove us right while discarding the ones that prove us wrong.
As such, throwing more facts at climate deniers hasn’t convinced them. When Yale law professor Dan Kahan surveyed 1,540 adults about climate change, he found that scientific literacy did not correlate with perceiving climate change as a greater risk. Rather, higher scientific literacy made people more extreme in how they viewed climate change—on both sides. Expressing a view on climate change is often a statement of identity, more than anything else.
Factiness is why using the veneer of science to rationalize an idea is dangerous, making the idea appear more justified than it really is. It is pro-science in appearance, but anti-science in spirit.
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That brings to me a troubling response I saw to Clinton’s DNC speech, that “science is not a belief.” In theory, science provides an objective framework for finding truths about the world. I think that’s what these responses were getting at. But in practice, science is conducted by humans with biases, often blind to them. To ignore how the practice of science is intertwined with politics is to be blind, in turn, to the coming changes. As a President Trump pulls the discourse in his direction, the ground will shift slowly but surely shift underneath our feet.
Consider the Bush administration’s torture program in the early 2000s. In a 542-page report last year, an independent review laid out how the American Psychological Association gave torture scientific credibility. The Department of Defense is one of the country’s largest employers of psychologists, and the APA wanted to curry favor. A former APA president told the CIA that sleep deprivation did not constitute torture, and the association loosened ethics rules to allow psychologists to participate in interrogations.
Perhaps the most damning detail is how eager the psychologists in the APA were to work with the DoD because of their professional rivalry with psychiatrists. Collaborating with the DoD would mean more jobs and a higher status in the DoD for psychologists (who are Ph.D.’s), rather than psychiatrists (MD’s). It doesn’t even take malice.
The early 2000s was a different time. The U.S. had just begun a war; the memory of September 11th was still fresh. Psychologists and physicians alike are now horrified about their role in giving the U.S.’s torture programs any semblance of scientific credibility. The APA’s complicity in torture is of course easy to condemn in retrospect. It’s harder to recognize in the very beginning, when the ground has only shifted ever so slightly.
I won’t pretend to know exactly what to watch for in a Trump administration. I worry about the resurgence of interest in race and genetics among white supremacists. A historian who specializes in the history of eugenics recently told me that the language about immigrants that fueled eugenics in the early 20th century is startlingly similar to Trump’s language. Back then it was about Italians and Poles taking over the country; now it’s about Mexicans and Muslims. But eugenics is such a third rail—for now.
Trump’s campaign has also emboldened law enforcement, and his incoming justice department shows no inclination to go after racial bias in the criminal justice system of states. Science could get further entangled here, as research into neuroscience and social science filters into the court room. In May, ProPublica reported on an algorithm used to sentence criminals that was biased against African Americans. Factiness can give cover to policies that are racist without explicitly seeming to.
Even less controversial parts of science will have the imprint of politics. Trump’s plan to refocus NASA on planetary exploration, for example, is as much as about boosting American exceptionalism as it is about doing science—much like the first space race. And the rhetoric around rugged space heroes in a hostile land is all too similar to old rhetoric around manifest destiny. Writing in Fusion, Danielle Lee has considered some of the political questions that colonizing Mars would pose, “Who will be the individuals selected to colonize other planets? Will the Mars emigrants extract life-supporting resources from Earth to make life on humanity’s new home possible? How will these extractions impact life back home? Who will do this heavy and potentially dangerous work?” A Trump administration will surely not have to answer all these questions, but the political movements he’s invigorated will shape future discussions about who gets to benefit from space exploration.
If Clinton can make appeals to science and President Obama can ingratiate himself with tech, then so too can a future President Trump. Science still has social and political currency; it’s now a matter of who gets to spend it and how.