Politicians love a good war. In the past, presidents have declared war on poverty, war on cancer, and war on drugs. And by the estimation of Princeton University neuroscience professor Sam Wang, American society is currently waging war on knowledge. But scientists hope that knowledge, like drugs, poverty, and cancer, will prove difficult to eradicate.
On Saturday, April 22 (which is also Earth Day), scientists all over the country are fighting back by taking to the streets in a “March for Science.” In Princeton the March for Science will begin at 10 a.m. at Hinds Plaza, outside the public library, where several scientists, including Wang, will give speeches. At 11, participants will make their way up Witherspoon Street to Nassau, and over to the Princeton Battle Monument. The rally is not just for scientists, but for science-lovers and concerned citizens. For more information, visit www.marchforscience.com.
Scientists are rarely political, and Wang can’t remember another time in history when it researchers left their classrooms and offices and took to the streets en masse. So what’s special about this year that is causing such an uproar among the lab-coated class?
“We’re at an unusual time in U.S. history,” Wang says. “Science has usually been a nonpartisan affair, and it has been taken for granted as a principal force driving the country forward. There’s something happening right now, which is that the role of knowledge in society is more and more fragile.”
The rise of the Trump administration, which coined the term “alternative facts,” and has proposed cuts to federal scientific research, is only part of the story. Wang sees a wider assault on science and knowledge in general, with the two most glaring examples being the changing attitudes towards public health and the environment.
“It used to be that doctors were regarded as experts, and people in public health were regarded as protective of the public good,” Wang says. Improvements in medicine led to a dramatic increase in lifespan during the 20th century, and no single improvement did more good than vaccines. Vaccination campaigns wiped out diseases that used to kill millions of people.
But declining vaccination rates have led to outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles, and even the deaths of children. Wang believes an increasing distrust of expert knowledge is fueling this trend. Ironically, the availability of information over the Internet has contributed to the erosion of respect for knowledge. “The experts are now called into question by people who believe they know better by doing a web search,” Wang says. “One difficulty is that information is so easy to come by that people take knowledge like vaccine safety into their own hands. “
Another scientist participating in the march, Princeton physics professor Robert Goldston, also cited public attitudes towards vaccination as a reason for marching in defense of science. He says he was recently reading an autobiography written by his great uncle, who was a pediatrician in Boston in the first part of the 20th century, before vaccination campaigns knocked back polio, smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, and other scourges. “He dealt with all these plagues and tremendous outbreaks of childhood diseases. They’d take kids on ships and isolate them from everybody else,” he says. “It’s just a very different world today, and it’s significantly because of science.”
Goldston, a former director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, says that it’s true that scientists often disagree with each other, and that individual scientists are wrong about things for various reasons. But the process of science is designed to allow scientists to critique each other’s work and, in the end, the ideas with the best supporting evidence prevail.
“People are frightened that maybe their kids will get some disease from the vaccine, and this is a complicated problem because on some level, there is some tiny risk. So it’s in your interest for everybody else to be vaccinated, but not you. But that’s an unstable situation, and it’s not going to work,” Goldston says. Vaccination risks are minuscule, and complications are far less likely than other risks you let your kids take every day. “That has to be documented and shown to people.”
Another issue on the medical front is the Food and Drug Administration. Republicans have long pushed to change the FDA process so that drugs no longer have to be tested for effectiveness, only safety. “Even releasing some medicine that hasn’t been shown to be effective may divert people from a medicine that is effective, even if it has some nasty side effects. It’s a tough and complicated balance, but the answer is always more understanding, not less.”
The second area where scientists see politicians headed down the wrong track is climate change. The consensus of the scientific community is that man-made greenhouse gas emissions, mainly carbon dioxide, are responsible for global warming. “It’s as true as anything we know about climate science,” Wang says. “And this basic scientific fact is rejected by a large segment of the public. These are examples where knowledge is being rejected, and scientists should probably not be silent on this.”
While the right wing is currently in power and is most susceptible to rejecting scientific knowledge on vaccines and climate change, there are other areas where liberal politicians tend to ignore scientific knowledge. For example, Bernie Sanders made scientifically ill-informed statements on genetically modified food and nuclear power during his campaign.
“Everyone from any ideology, right or left, is capable of rejecting knowledge when it does not suit them,” Wang says. “It’s called motivated reasoning. Whether it’s nuclear power, GMOs, whether it’s the fact that carbon dioxide causes climate change —- all these things are facts that various people might find disagreeable because of their own political beliefs. It is essential to shape policies that acknowledge the facts. In each of those cases, there is factual knowledge that should be central in any intelligent conversation about what to do.”
Scientists are not marching for any particular political outcome, only that the best knowledge be considered during decision making — an assumption that was taken for granted in the past.
“Something like this hasn’t happened in the U.S. before. It’s part of a stress test of democracy, and we’re going to find out how our institutions respond to these upheavals,” Wang says “I hope that I’m part of an intelligent response by the scientific community and that we’re up to the challenge.”