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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Will Trump Be a Disaster For Science Policy? Part II

Read part I here.

On certain science policy issues, Trump's critics have overstepped. We covered the most popular examples in part I. Now let's look at a few subjects where Trump may have some explaining to do. A bit later we'll get into the good things Trump is likely to do for science.

Vaccines

On vaccines Trump appears to be truly awful, if his 2012 comments are any indication. Moreover, during the campaign this year, the President-Elect met with prominent anti-vaccine advocates. According to Science, he spoke favorably of the vaccine-autism link and promised to watch some woo-filled documentary about the subject.

There are a few intervening factors that may sway Trump away from pursing policies that are in line with his previous statements about vaccines, however. The first, of course, is that Trump is a good salesman if he's anything at all. And every salesman knows you don't disrespect people whose money and support you're after. Telling the folks from Age of Autism that they're utterly insane would've been an unlikely way to earn their votes.

 Politicians, after all, are known for their duplicity, and I wouldn't put it past Trump to smile, shake someone's hand and promise them what they want, only to ignore them later on down the line. This is usually a downside to the political process. In this case, though, it could mean President Trump stays away from vaccine quackery.

On a related note, politicians sometimes bow to pressure from advisers, bureaucrats, and other powerful interests inside and outside of Washington, even when they truly do support a cause. Trump could do the same, secretly harboring oddball views on vaccines while publicly shelving any policy that could do harm to public health. Just compare Obama's campaign promises to what he did once he took office to see the most recent example of this phenomenon at work.

We'll have a chance to test this possibility, too. As Science points out, Trump will soon have the opportunity to appoint some important public health officials. This is assumed to be a bad thing, since Trump could very well appoint a vaccine denier. But because there are so few qualified physicians and researchers who espouse any degree of skepticism around vaccine efficacy, Trump will be choosing from a pool of mostly pro-science candidates. He would have to go out of his way to appoint a crank of Andrew Wakefield's caliber. None of this is to excuse Trump should he embrace anti-vaccine hysteria in office. That would be shameful on his part, and we should all say so if he does.

GMOs

Crop biotechnology is another subject on which Trump has been ambiguous, but his comments here have been a little clearer and give me some hope that he'll come down on the side of science. The Genetic Literacy Project reported last month that Trump said agricultural policy should be determined largely by the market, and mandatory labels for genetically-modified food have nothing to do with free-market economics. GLP also pointed out that Trump took down a tweet which suggested that GMO corn may cause "issues in the brain." He also told the Iowa Farm Bureau that biotechnology should be used in food production and food labeling rejected.

The potential upsides of Trump's science policy

We've covered the worst examples where Trump has strayed from accepted scientific wisdom. So let's look at a couple of issues where Trump is likely to advance science.

Energy

Trump has made some very encouraging comments about nuclear power, arguing after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan that "[i]f a plane goes down people keep flying. If you get into an auto crash people keep driving.” He has also said that we need to continue developing our ability to produce natural gas. This is the flip side of Trump's climate policy; climate change skepticism typically goes hand-in-hand with a desire to produce more energy, so Trump will very likely pursue policies that make energy production far easier.

Science Funding

There's been much hand wringing over the possibility that Trump will slash science funding because of his comments about climate change. The critics, ironically enough, don't see that they're shooting themselves in the foot. On one hand, they say the science of climate change is settled, and don't you dare question your betters who have studied the subject in great depth, Mr. business mogul man! But they then turn around around and lambaste The Donald for his supposed unwillingness to pursue climate research. These people clearly can't think forward.

But being both a real estate developer and a populist candidate interested in rebuilding the country, it's likely that Trump won't shy away from funding science research, which Republicans are pretty good at historically. And much like Reagan, Trump's skepticism of big government will probably wane when it comes to building infrastructure and investing in basic science projects. Specifically on the question of climate science, there are questions left unresolved and worth researching. The problem, as climatologist Roy Spencer has explained, is that they center around natural climate variability. Those kinds of questions can't be used to justify an expanding EPA and the kinds of wealth-transfer climate change mitigation programs the IPCC is so eager to push.

Summary

What we have in Trump when it comes to science policy seems typical of recent presidents: some good, some bad and a lot of unknowns. Science, sadly, really hasn't been a key issue in any presidential election in recent decades, so we have little more to go on than a handful of public statements and the resulting speculation. We'll just have to see what happens.




Saturday, November 19, 2016

Will Trump Be A Disaster For Science Policy? Part I

It's happened. Americans elected Donald Trump President of the United States. The tears of anguish cried by social justice warriors everywhere is enough to make Trump's victory a positive development, but the scientific community, too, is distraught over the election results. They see Trump's victory as a huge loss for the progress of science in America. Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington, for example, warned that Trump will be “the first anti-science president we have ever had.”

That's an absurd claim considering the track records of just our last two Presidents, but Lubell's comments seem to summarize the perspective of mainstream science at the moment, so let's use that as our starting point and propose a slightly more realistic scenario: Trump is hardly a champion of science. His comments on science policy thus far have been mixed and we don't know yet how he will address certain important issues. That being said, the sky certainly isn't falling and there is hope that Trump could do some good for science in the coming years.

Before we can deal with the potentially positive science developments under the Trump Administration, we have to dispel the hysteria that surrounds this discussion. So let's look at the typical exaggerated claims the anti-Trump crowd has rallied around thus far.

Climate Change

Every year world leaders gather for a climate change meeting known as the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The participants discuss the threat posed by climate change, pledge to combat it with whatever means they can--and ultimately do nothing. The most recent conference in Paris, COP 21, was a terrific waste of time and resources which produced the largely non-binding Paris Agreement. If enforced the Paris Agreement would have a minimal, almost undetectable impact on global temperatures while squandering trillions of dollars the world simply does not have.

Trump has promised to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, to the consternation of every bureaucrat and lobbyist who stands to benefit from its enforcement. Despite his simplistic comments that man-made climate change isn't real, Trump has some scientific justification in pulling US support for the agreement. Dozens of studies published in the last five years have found that the IPCC's climate models are far too sensitive to moderate increases in greenhouse gas emissions, and thus the disaster scenarios projected by these same models are probably unrealistic.

The science world stares at Trump quizzically when he says that we still don't know a lot about the earth's climate; but it's a sentiment echoed by many climatologists and backed up by good data.

Fracking

Affordable energy is an essential part of economic growth. It makes recovery from depressions possible and fuels the third world's progress out of grinding poverty. Fracking has been a key player in this story, and Trump has rightly thrown his support behind the technology. His critics, though, have latched onto his comment that Fracking poses "zero health risks."

Technically, the critics are correct. Fracking does produce some externalities and isn't 100 percent safe. But that didn't stop the EPA from releasing a study last year concluding that fracking, as currently practiced and regulated, doesn't pose a risk to drinking water. Other studies, likewise, have reached the same conclusion. And I'd hardly count the Obama EPA and Yale university as shills for Donald Trump.

So let's add fracking to the long list of imperfect technologies that nonetheless make all of our lives better, things like nuclear power, vaccines and electronic cigarettes--all issues on which the Obama administration has a depressing track record, mind you.

Evolution

Of course, no discussion about a supposedly scientifically illiterate administration would be complete without a few words dedicated to evolution denial. And Mike Pence has indeed burped out a few bromides about the lack of supporting evidence for evolution throughout his career.

So I suppose this could serve as our first example of the Trump Administration's science denial in action. But we've known for years that evolution denial is a bipartisan phenomenon, with as many as 50 percent of Democrat voters claiming that they reject Darwin's theory, as well. This doesn't excuse Pence's ignorance, of course, though it does illustrate that our rejection of established science has deeper sociological roots than "Republicans are dumb and hate science."

The silver lining here is that evolution denial doesn't carry the same policy implication that, say, nuclear energy denial does. Nobody is denied affordable electricity because Darwin offends the religious sentiments of some Americans, for instance.

I'm all too familiar with the argument that rejecting evolution catalyzes science denial of all sorts. But it's not a compelling thesis because science denial tends to follow people's preconceived political views. People deny science inconsistently and only when their pet issues are affected. Greenpeace just love, love, loves! climate science, though they're not so fond of biotechnology. Still, even if Trump and Pence end up backing creationists attempts to get Genesis into the biology classroom, a scenario that seems unlikely, it's not clear how successful they'll be. Creationists lose badly in court and our science educators are really good at disabusing their students of doubts about Darwin.

In part II we'll discuss a few other issues where Trump's views are questionable, then look at some beneficial changes that could arise in the next four years.



Saturday, October 8, 2016

Corporate funding = bad science? Not really

I've long been an advocate of low-carb eating, and there are a few websites I frequent for information on the subject. But every once in a while, even the people you trust make mistakes. The researchers and physicians who promote low-carb and paleo diets usually ground their arguments in good science, though many of them, sadly, also love a good conspiracy.

News recently came to light that the sugar industry paid several researchers, Dr. Fred Stare probably being the most prominent, in the 1960s to minimize the health effects of consuming sugar, and it appears that food companies have had science talent on their payrolls ever since.

Predictable outrage from the low-carb world followed this revelation: a torrent of angry tweets, facebook comments, and blog posts from thinkers I usually respect who were just beside themselves with rage. My two favorites, from Tom Naughton and Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt: "The Harvard scientists were not only whores, they were cheap whores," and "Big Sugar was ... enticing Harvard scientists ... to sell out their independence and conduct its paid research."

This all makes for entertaining reading, but the facts are far less sexy, I'm afraid. Scientists, just like the rest of us, don't work for free, and they have bills to pay, too. So when industry offers to fund their research, they happily accept. This economic reality may be the basis for awful Russell Crowe movies, but it doesn't automatically produce corrupt science, and it often, in fact, produces good science.

"Follow the money" doesn't disqualify scientific research for a variety of reasons, but the most important one is this: science rises and falls on its merits, regardless of who paid for it and how evil they may be. The Nazis, for example. produced some of the earliest studies linking smoking to lung cancer. Yet by the same silly logic used to disqualify sugar industry-funded research, we could ignore German tobacco research from the 1940s, because it was financed by a source we dislike.

Now one could respond to this by arguing that Stare and his Harvard colleagues were ultimately wrong that sugar isn't harmful, while the Nazis were correct about smoking. But that rebuttal misses the point entirely. The quality of your research isn't necessarily an indicator of your integrity. For every widely-accepted scientific theory, there are dozens more that have been discarded. Getting things wrong is just part of science. Stare et al. were wrong, but their work didn't spring into existence when big sugar cut them a check, and we only know they were wrong because better science told us so.

Microbiologist Dr. Alex Berezow adds some weight to this argument with a very important detail. People give money to causes they already support; they don't attempt to buy compliance from people who disagree with them. This is precisely why radical environmentalists donate to left-leaning politicians and trade unions give to senators who represent their members.

 In our current context, this means that big sugar simply went and found scientists who already agreed with them. Fred Stare, for instance, had a reputation as an iconoclast before he co-authored the sugar industry-funded review article. He had it out for advocacy groups who shilled bullshit dietary advice to the public, which probably stemmed from his time working in war-torn Holland following World War II, where starvation was rampant. For my low-carb friends reading, Stare also came to the defense of eggs when mainstream nutritionists began to shriek about the dangers of cholesterol.

But there's another side to this debate that is often overlooked. Disqualifying research based on who funded it could cause you to ignore good science. I'd like to use Dr. Eenfeldt as an example, who sells dieting advice on his website, by the way. Last December he lambasted a meta-analysis which found that diet soda could help obese people lose weight because the soda industry had given grants to the authors.

The article was published in a prestigious medical journal and authored by scientists from impressive schools around the world. The researchers cataloged hundreds of studies, grouped them by study  design (animal study vs human intervention etc.) and reviewed their methods and results in excruciating detail. This would be an excellent starting place for anyone curious about the health effects of artificial sweeteners. Moreover, the article's conclusion mirrors the opinion of scientists I know don't take corporate money. But Eenfeldt's conclusion is that we should dismiss this paper out of hand, because "It’s like reading marketing material for the beverage industry."

Open and honest debate is how we make scientific progress. Heated disagreement, therefore, is a good thing and people are welcome to say that Ancel Keys and Fred Stare were bullshitters, bad scientists or egomaniacs who wouldn't admit they were wrong about heart disease. But, those kinds of comments ought to go hand-in-hand with a thorough debunking of Keys and Stares research. That's not what's happening here.

Moreover, we need to acknowledge that confirmation bias affects everyone, even the scientists who agree with us.So we shouldn't pretend that "it's only the other guy who's greedy" as economist Milton Friedman put it. We can all be greedy, dishonest and otherwise imperfect in pursuit of our goals to make the world healthier and safer. Complaining that people were paid shills after they're long dead and gone and dismissing their work doesn't advance those causes whatsoever.