The focus of this blog is science, and the role of science in medicine, especially veterinary medicine. However, politics, law, and other non-scientific fields are covered from time to time when they impact the core subjects of science and medicine. I have covered more politics than usual in the last year primarily because of the unprecedented attacks against science, and the entire edifice of Enlightenment thinking, that have made modern medicine, and the civilization as we know it, possible. This is a unique and dangerous time here in the United States, and the predominant threat to science and medicine now comes not from post-modernist ideology or the infiltration of faith-based visions of so-called alternative medicine into mainstream medical science, but from the open hostility towards science and the very concepts of facts and truth exhibited by the individuals running much of our national government.
I first wrote about Donald Trump’s anti-science views a little over a year ago, before he was elected president. While all the candidates had some questionable views on at least one scientific topic, Trump set himself apart with his climate change denialism and his embracing of anti-vaccine activists. Andrew Wakefield and several of the most extreme quacks I’ve written about here proudly endorsed him for this.
Since the election, science advocacy groups have highlighted the many ways in which Trump and his administration have led a full assault on science. Six months into his term, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported on the anti-science activities of the administration:
- Sidelining independent science advice. The Trump administration has weakened federal advisory committees that provide scientific advice to the government.
- Appointing conflicted individuals to scientific leadership positions. President Trump has appointed to the highest positions in government individuals with little science background and with strong ties to the industries they are charged with regulating.
- Leaving key science positions vacant. President Trump has taken an unusually long time to fill many high-level science positions, signaling the low priority his administration places on science.
- Revoking science-based safeguards. Aided and abetted by Congress, President Trump has allowed politics to supersede science by signing an unprecedented 13 congressional resolutions rolling back science-based protections, including safe drinking water standards and safeguards to prevent worker exposure to harmful chemicals.
- Misrepresenting climate science and rolling back climate change safeguards. Attacking science-based policies and communications on preparing for and mitigating climate change is a clear focus for the Trump administration. Officials have misrepresented climate science, removed climate-related content from several government communications, and proposed sharp reductions in climate research.
- Weakening science-based pollution standards without scientific justification. The administration has delayed or repealed several science-based pollution standards designed to protect public health, including protections against mercury, air toxics, and coal wastewater, without replacing them with new, scientifically defensible standards.
- Undermining protections from hazards at work and home. The Trump administration has delayed many science-based rules intended to keep communities safe from dangerous chemical spills and to safeguard workers from harmful toxins, with little to support halts except for letters and petitions from companies or industry trade associations.
- Altering scientific content on federal websites. The scientific content of federal agency webpages, including those of the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department, and the Department of Energy, has been altered or deleted since January, particularly in regard to climate change science.
- Reducing public access to data. The Trump administration has reduced public access to scientific data and information. The administration also has stopped collecting certain data for programs that benefit disadvantaged groups. And it has withdrawn requests to industry to supply data that would help inform public health and environmental protections.
- Restricting communication of scientists. The Trump administration is making it more difficult for government scientists to speak publicly about their work, as well as about misconduct within an agency. It has restricted communication with Congress, placed vague gag orders on agency staff, and failed to affirm the ability of scientists to share their expertise publicly.
- Creating a hostile environment for scientific staff. Evidence is growing that a culture of fear is increasing at government agencies, undermining scientific research and communication. Scientists are speaking to the media anonymously out of fear of retaliation; some are afraid to utter the words “climate change.”
Many news organizations have reported on how Trump and his appointees are ignoring and attacking science, including:
The latest article, from the Washington Post, illustrates the administration’s open and clear desire to suppress any scientific research or thought that might conflict with the ideology and agenda of the Trump White House. It also illustrates an Orwellian approach of demeaning the very concept of truth and trying to control language so as to control thought. The following headline should have been from a satirical news source like The Onion, but it is, in fact, a direct report of an actual Trump administration policy:
The full list of words the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are forbidden from using in official documents being prepared for next year’s budget is as follows:
You might have noticed a couple of my favorites on that list. Fortunately, I don’t work for the CDC, so I will continue to talk about “evidence-based” and “science-based” medicine. The fact that anyone could believe it is in the best interests of the public to prevent public health scientists from talking about these subjects, however, is bizarre and terrifying.
All politicians, and really all human beings, will sometimes dismiss or ignore science when it conflicts with their beliefs or ideology. But Donald Trump goes well beyond such normal human failings. He appears to truly believe that suppressing science and destroying confidence in the concepts of objective truth and simple facts is the right thing to do if it gets him what he wants.
What it will really get us, if successful, is a return to the pre-Enlightenment darkness of superstition and faith without reason or true understanding. I have talked about the Age of Endarkenment before, when I was disappointed by the triumph of politics and belief over reason and science. In the past, it was merely a poetic turn of phrase to describe my sense that progress towards ever more accurate and effective science-based understanding of nature, and the application of this understanding in medicine, was less steady than I would like. Now, I have to honestly wonder if it might be a more accurate description of the future of my country than I ever dreamed, even at my most cynical. Certainly, it is a vision some in the government appear to desire rather than fear.
The great science advocate Bill Nye has referred to Trump and his administration as “the last gasp of the anti-science movement.” He seems confident that we are, as a people, not stupid enough to buy the toxic bullshit trump is selling. I can’t say as I share that confidence, but I will try to have hope. I will certainly try to defend science against the latest assault, as I have against less potent ones before, because I believe it is our best bet for understanding the universe and for improving our lot in it.