The White House is said to be considering re-imposing a national mask mandate, following several local governments that have already acted. Some say the science requires it. Scientific information should drive policy on complex issues, say many officials.
The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics reports that America spends more than $650 billion a year on scientific research and development, up 50 percent in the last decade. At least $138 billion of that is federally financed. When I was in elementary school, the entire federal budget was less than that, including the military, the space program, and all the “Great Society” entitlements.
For many, science offers more important solutions to world problems than any military, thus the dramatic growth in spending. It is no coincidence that the highest paid federal employee is not the president, but the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. But there is also a troubling irony in this increased emphasis on science. Namely, a vast and growing number of Americans distrust the scientific information they pay for.
Indeed, the scientific sector is worried about the growing distrust of millions. Scientific organizations are commissioning polls, hosting conferences, and publishing dozens of papers, trying to determine why skepticism is growing.
One survey found only 37 percent of Americans trust genetically modified foods, while 88 percent of scientists do. Similarly, a CBS poll found that while 55 percent of Americans are now vaccinated, nearly a third of unvaccinated people say they don’t trust the science behind the vaccines. Of those skeptics, almost two-thirds say scientists and medical experts have often been wrong about COVID-19.
Science is constantly re-evaluating, analyzing new data, and learning. That’s what science is. Then why are so many people unwilling to give scientists the benefit of that learning process? I once thought I “knew” all sorts of things that I now know were wrong. Why aren’t scientists also allowed to be wrong, and then “evolve” in their thinking after they learn more?
One theory is that science is getting more complex, harder for most of us to understand. Not even a scientist can be an expert in all aspects, even in his own field. Two centuries ago, it was possible for one super-educated person, such as Jefferson, to know most of what mankind knew — from history, philosophy, and mathematics to architecture, the fine arts, and biology. Today nobody can know all, even about a very narrow subject, such as immunology, nutrition, or climatology.
Does inability to digest complicated information explain why some people flatly reject anthropogenic climate change, or think genetically modified food is dangerous, or think vaccines cause autism? Some scientists think so. The head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science says “science is being trumped” by a lack of understanding, and by people’s religious and political views. In context, he thinks religious conservatives are the most distrusting of science (which is not supported by polling data), because they are too simple to understand it.
Maybe, but I have a different theory about public skepticism of science. It is true that scientists have often been wrong, sometimes egregiously. Perhaps that’s why more than a third of Americans now think science has had a negative impact on food and the environment. But what has put off even more people is the behavior of a handful of scientists with political agendas — which is OK — insisting that they are entitled to dictate public policy — which is not OK. They are undoubtedly a miniscule minority, but they are science’s worst enemies.
Some scientists have used data dishonestly, such as when the “climategate” emails revealed an incredible conspiracy (their own word) on the part of some IPCC climate officials. Does that disqualify all scientific research on that subject? Of course not. My grandparents were fond of the saying, “Figures don’t lie, but liars do figure.” Most scientists are not liars. What they are is human. They have opinions, including political opinions.
The CBS poll showed that many conservatives think scientists should stay out of politics. I disagree. Active engagement in public affairs is a duty of all citizens. No college degree exempts a citizen from that duty. But it also does not mean their political views trump yours.
On climate change, nutrition, or vaccines, scientists are as entitled to their opinions as anyone. Just remember, the fact that an opinion is held by a scientist does not necessarily make it science. Nor is it law, until a democratic society decides it is.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.