23 July 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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UNITED STATES
The new merchants of doubt are waging war on science
It’s a terrifying time to be an American who believes in scientific fact. Given that the White House, in their first news conference, lied to the American people about something as inconsequential and easily disprovable as the crowd size on Inauguration Day, hopes are not high that we will not be lied to about issues far more important than those related to Donald Trump’s longstanding insecurities over size: such as the safety of our water supplies; the existence of weapons of mass destruction in foreign lands; or the reality of climate change.

On the day of Trump’s inauguration, the White House webpage on climate change vanished. Memos were then sent to agencies focused on environmental protection and scientific research – including the departments of the Interior, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency – to not create or post new web content, nor speak to the press.

The Environmental Protection Agency or EPA was also ordered to freeze its grant programme, which funds scientific research and monitoring and is the basis of much of the EPA’s work. The Trump administration will now review all communications of the EPA – including their scientific studies and their data itself – before deciding on whether to approve their release to the public.

A major concern of all of these actions is that the Trump administration may be launching a broad attack against federal environmental protection and scientific research. Trump and his team seem eager to attack and censor, to change facts to ‘alternative facts’ – in other words, to lie. How will this affect agencies like the EPA and the scientific knowledge it has produced?

Misinformation

Americans know from decades of experience with the tobacco and fossil fuel industries that when inconvenient science conflicts with powerful interests, those with power work to undermine the credibility of science by spreading doubt and misinformation.

Their intent is to mislead the public: to make us confused, overwhelmed, unsure and passive; encouraging us to keep our voices silent while tragedy looms and justice is subdued.

Indeed, as the tobacco industry lied and made huge profits, they hindered and shortened the lives of many. Similarly, the fossil fuel industry made their obscene profits at the cost of hurting the most vulnerable communities as well as the planet. Today, the war on facts is emerging blatantly and broadly from the highest office in America, with the goal of concentrating wealth in the hands of a few while harming the greater public.

In the face of the Trump administration, what we need – now more than ever – is to embrace and protect both science and democracy. Both science and democracy depend on the same shared values of reason, transparency, openness to criticism, scepticism, respect for evidence, honesty, doubt, accountability, tolerance and interest in opposing points of view.

Protecting one protects the other – good science is built on free speech, respectful deliberation and the openness of data. Good science is democratic. Similarly, a strong democracy is strengthened by science when science speaks truth to power.

Inconvenient truths

Luckily, civil society seems to be reawakening in America, as evidenced from events such as the Women’s March and last weekend’s protests against Trump’s new immigration policies. A March for Science is already scheduled in Washington for the spring.

But as scientists and concerned citizens, we need to do more than march. We need to defend truth in all the ways we can: from meeting with our elected officials to disseminating the scientific information we study and produce, not just densely in obscure scientific journals but in communications to the greater public and policy-makers as well. Now, more than ever, we need to make our voices heard and not surrender to attempts by this administration to belittle or silence us.

We need to be louder than ever, and believe in and promote our hard-won discovery of facts, even when they create inconvenient truths for our new government. If we do not, obscene wealth will continue to be collected by the few, the most vulnerable will continue to suffer, catastrophic climate change will only speed up and our very democracy may falter.

Libby Blanchard is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, UK, and was a former director of farmer development programmes in the US. Her research, supported by a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, focuses on policy processes and climate change mitigation strategies.

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