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.”

New Scientist doesn't like The Donald either

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.


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.


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.

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