What Will the Trump Presidency Mean for Scientific Skepticism?

Trump election results

Donald Trump has now been elected as the next President of the United States and Hillary Clinton has conceded the election to him. He won by an estimated 289 electoral votes to the 218 of Clinton. This might slightly change over the coming days as the vote counting is complete, but it is clear that Trump has won. Most polls and models predicted that Clinton would win by a small margin, but they were mistaken. This is partly because of the flawed methodology and partly because the far right is often underestimated in pre-election polls.

What will this mean for science and scientific skepticism? Two major groups of issues is that Trump is against vaccines and climate change, and has also promoted pseudoscientific bigotry against ethnic minorities, immigrants, women and people with disabilities. This post will examine some of the potential consequences and impacts of a Trump presidency for science and scientific skepticism.

Issues

Here are some of the issues that will face science and scientific skepticism during the Trump presidency. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but it gives a flavor for the breath and depths of some of the problems we are likely to now face.

Vaccines: Trump has stated on numerous occasions that he thinks that vaccines cause autism. In particular, he has regurgitated the myth of “too many, too soon”. This might have implications for how much resources is being spent on vaccine development, distribution and vaccination rates.

Climate change: Trump believes that climate change is just a hoax invented by the Chinese to make American suffer economically. His rejection of climate science can potentially have disastrous consequences, both when it comes to the Paris agreement and our chance at preventing or mitigating climate change consequences.

Renewable energy: Trump has repeated myths against wind turbines, such as overestimating number of birds killed and opposed them in practice. He has even gone on the record in saying that new light bulbs somehow cause cancer. It is unclear what will happen with renewable energy under a Trump presidency.

Environmental regulation: Trump stated previously that he wanted to eliminate the EPA, but he recently claimed that he wanted to refocus the agency on clean air and drinking water. Like climate change, it is probably not a huge surprise that Trump will downplay climate and environmental issues.

Conspiracy-mongering: Trump was a strong supporter of the birther conspiracy theory and he has appeared approvingly on the Alex Jones show. Jones is one of the most well-known and popular promoter of conspiracy theorists in the United States. Thus, this is a huge victory for conspiracy theorists and we can expect that their platform will be strengthened.

Anti-immigration: Trump has tapped in and reinforced anti-immigration misinformation and bigotry, including many talking points directly taken from the white supremacist playbook. He has also ignorantly attacked women and people with disabilities. Anti-immigration sentiments and related pseudosciences are likely to increase.

Education: Trump thinks that the Department of Education should be downsized and that the U. S. is spending too much money on K-12 education. This is a recipe for disaster. We need more education, not less.

Economy and jobs: Around 800 economists (including Nobel Prize winners) declared in a letter that Trump is dangerous and destructive for jobs and the economy because he is wrong on the facts.

LGBT issues: Pence has made several anti-LGBT statements and even opposed an anti-discrimination law that would have made it illegal to discriminate LGBT people in the workplace. Because republicans have secured both the Presidency, the Congress and the Supreme Court, the next four years look bleaker for LGBT people then the past eight years with Obama.

Evolution: Pence is a creationist and has promoted many myths about evolution. We need more information about how Trump will handle education to know how teaching and research on evolution will be impacted.

Embryonic stem cell research: Pence also opposes embryonic stem cell research. Here we also need more information to have a good idea about what the specific consequences will be.

These were some of the issues that will face science and scientific skepticism during a Trump presidency. Right now, it might seem like an impenetrable darkness, but what can we do to defend rational science and critical thinking?

How can we take American back again?

What are some possible solutions that we can use to mitigate these problems? It will not be easy by any means, but here are some preliminary suggestions on a way forward.

Against anti-intellectualism: for decades, there have been a very virulent strain of anti-intellectualism circulating in the United States. The denigration of education and scoffing at thoughtful analysis of reality have been a cultural norm to a certain extent where intellectuals are dismissed as “geeks”, “nerds” or “people with no life”.

Against post-fact politics: this election demonstrated that facts have taken a backseat to rhetoric and flair. People are more convinced about buzzwords than reality. This must change. Everyone must make a conscious effort to counter misinformation on every level at every opportunity. Do not pick your battles and do not only preach to the crowd.

Against media ignorance: media attention means popular attention. The media gave a ton of attention to Trump early on, which meant a lot of free advertisement. This tactic needs to be reconsidered.

Against fake news: the spread of fake news about important issues have clouded the minds of millions of people. This has been reinforced and reinvigorated by social media, where people can closed themselves in a bubble of misinformation because algorithm are intentionally designed to make you see whatever you want to see, rather than see whatever happens to be most accurate. Here, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter has a very large responsibility to tweak their algorithms to defeat falsehoods. People also need to stop sharing crap on social media. At least Facebook and Twitter should provide an option for users to tick when they are sharing fakes stuff.

Against isolating politics from science and rationality: there is an incredibly strong effort to attempt to isolate politics from science and critical thinking. You see this when politicians suggest policies that goes radically goes against science. You see this when people say “I thought this Facebook page was about science? Unsubscribed.” when you discuss anti-science falsehoods promoted by a politicians. Political polices need to be based on science and ideally supported by randomized control trials when that is possible and people need to stop being afraid of bringing the full weight of science and rationality to political issues. When politicians promote pseudoscientific bigotry, their claims are fair game for scientific skeptics to oppose and criticize.

Against bad identity politics: the far right has complained about “identity politics” for years and decried it as irrational pandering to people based on superficial traits. While there may or may not be some merit to this objection, the far right has not repudiated identity politics, but rather taken identity politics to extremist levels, in particular with regards to white supremacism. This malignant form needs to be broken down and replaced with an evidence-based appreciation that it is important to treat people as individuals and not judge them by whatever group we assign them to, but also be mindful of structural discrimination as revealed by scientific research. We must be able to both promote descriptive individualism and oppose structural discrimination. We cannot just pick one of these.

Against two-party polarization: needless to say, a lot of people disliked both Clinton and Trump, but felt that voting for a third-party would be a wasted vote. If we can break down the two-party system, this kind feeling of “plague versus cholera” among the American people might be mitigated in the future. In reality, you would want to have cholera over plague just based on mortality rates, but people should have a realistic shot at not having what they feel is cholera, so to speak.

Against bigotry: scientifically ignorant and harmful bigotry against women, immigrants and ethnic minorities has taken a front seat in this election. It is based on fearmongering, abuse of faulty statistics, and cognitive biases. These are severe problems that must be fought. In the last hours of the election, the alleged “evidence-free leftist identity politics” has not been enough or even that effective. What we need now is a reinforced and scientifically informed assault on bigotry and the pseudoscience that underpins it. In particular, the intellectual pretense and pretensions of the alt right needs to be thoroughly dismantled.

CNN Political commentator Ana Navarro said this morning that “one nightmare is over, another is just beginning”. I think that is an apt description of what is currently happening.

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17 replies

  1. Scientific American published the following article recently: Trump Picks Top Climate Skeptic to Lead EPA Transition:

    Donald Trump has selected one of the best-known climate skeptics to lead his U.S. EPA transition team, according to two sources close to the campaign.

    Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, is spearheading Trump’s transition plans for EPA, the sources said.

    Let us monitor this situation closely as it develops.

  2. Emil,

    Great Job, I really hope the skeptical community is prepared to fight hard. We have our work cut out for us.

    Things are really looking bad right now. I’m going to hate to see what the Trump administration science policies will be.

    I already told you about this on twitter, but I think I might as well post it here in a comment as well, since it is relevant and adds to the point you’re trying to make, and some more of your readers might see it.

    For those who are unaware, Trump appointed Stephen K. Bannon to be his chief strategist. Bannon was in charge of a far right “news” website here in the States known as Brietbart, and based on what he allowed to be posted there, the guy is not exactly the most scientifically literate person.

    10 Headlines About Science and Tech From the White House’s New Chief Strategist
    http://gizmodo.com/10-headlines-from-the-white-houses-new-chief-strategist-1788935071

  3. Emil,

    Here’s more on Trump and climate change, and its not pretty. Look at who he wants to put in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Trump To Appoint Complete Lunatic To Crucial Office

    Here’s their source,

    11 Reasons Why Trump’s Climate-Denying EPA Guy Could Spell Disaster For The Environment : Myron Ebell will help steer federal agencies that address climate and environmental policy.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/myron-ebell-trump-epa_us_582ab3e4e4b0c4b63b0e5577

  4. Emil,

    Trump is also planning to appoint a bunch of bigoted nut jobs to important government positions as well.

    Donald Trump Taps Radical Conspiracy Theorist Frank Gaffney For Transition Team
    http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/donald-trump-taps-radical-conspiracy-theorist-frank-gaffney-for-transition-team/

    Kris Kobach, Architect Of Draconian Anti-Immigrant Policies, Joining Trump’s Transition Team
    http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/kris-kobach-architect-of-draconian-anti-immigrant-policies-joining-trumps-transition-team/

    Religious Right Activist Ken Blackwell Leading Domestic Policy For Trump’s Transition Team
    http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/religious-right-activist-ken-blackwell-leading-domestic-policy-for-trumps-transition-team/

    Come to think of this, this really isn’t surprising coming from someone who would do this.

    Donald Trump Defends 9/11 Celebration Conspiracy Theory On Alex Jones’ Show
    http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/donald-trump-defends-911-celebration-conspiracy-theory-on-alex-jones-show/

    Not to mention called Mexicans, rapists.

    Pence: Yes, Trump called Mexicans rapists and criminals, but you keep forgetting about the other part
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/10/05/pence-yes-trump-called-mexicans-rapists-and-criminals-but-you-keep-forgetting-about-the-other-part/

  5. Emil,

    Trump is also going to be bad when it comes to something else skeptics tend to value. He’s going to be horrible when it comes to issues of secularism, and the separation of church and state.

    Americans United Will Defend Church-State Wall From Attacks By The Donald Trump Administration : President-Elect Trump Has Pledged To Create A Federal School Voucher Scheme, Allow Churches To Endorse Candidates And Undermine LGBTQ Rights
    http://www.au.org/media/press-releases/americans-united-will-defend-church-state-wall-from-attacks-by-the-donald-trump

    Donald Trump Has Been Elected President. What Now?
    http://www.au.org/blogs/wall-of-separation/donald-trump-has-been-elected-president-what-now

    I know we’ve talked a lot about extremists getting elected in Sweden recently, but now I’m not sure if I should envy you or not. At least you won’t have to deal with four years of this guy as your nation’s leader.

  6. Emil,

    And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse,

    Trump Considering Creationist Jerry Falwell Jr. For Position In Department Of Education
    http://au.org/blogs/wall-of-separation/trump-considering-creationist-jerry-falwell-jr-for-position-in-department

  7. Very disturbing developments indeed. I have also been keeping a close eye on the white supremacist movement and how their hate rhetoric has burst into the scene:

    “One wonders if these people are people at all, or instead soulless golem,” Spencer said in a reference to a Jewish fable in a portion of his speech dedicated to criticizing both the media and Jews.

    He also used a Nazi-era propaganda term meaning “lying press” to describe reporters, citing “the mainstream media — or perhaps we should refer to them in the original German, lugenpresse.”

    That we even have to hear this kind of pseudospeciation nonsense is truly terrifying. But the fight against pseudoscientific bigotry continues.

    • Emil,

      I heard. That’s really shocking isn’t it?

      Well there is some good news, Nazis and Klansman may have been emboldened by Trump, and there may have been a subsequent rise in hate crimes, but now this is happening in response.

      Across the country, Americans are standing up against hate : As hate crimes are surging, everyday people are responding.
      https://thinkprogress.org/americans-stand-up-hate-b4a7cab024f5#.e68yhhsk6

      Hopefully they’ll be able to send a message to these wannabe SS rejects, including Richard Spencer, that they are not going to be able to undo the civil rights movement, regardless of Trump.

    • I am all for non-violent protest.

      For completeness, I should note that Snopes has a slightly different take from CNN on the issue: they think he was only talking about the media, but Snopes do use the term white nationalist that CNN was avoiding and acknowledged that he used a lot of antisemitic language typical of Nazis.

  8. Emil,

    Okay, take a look at who Trump has picked for secretary of education

    With DeVos Pick, Trump Declares War on Public Education
    http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/with-devos-pick-trump-declares-war-on-public-education/

    If both Falwell and her are part of the Department of Education under Trump, its going to be really bad. Education in the United States will really suffer.

    Also, although not directly science, or skepticism related, Trump has picked Jeff Sessions to be the next attorney general, which would also be really bad. The man is racist, an opponent of civil rights, and voting rights, homophobic, and has actively lobbied to ban abortions.

    Stop Jeff Sessions from becoming Attorney General. He would be disastrous for civil rights.
    https://www.dailykos.com/campaigns/petitions/stop-jeff-sessions-from-becoming-attorney-general-he-would-be-disastrous-for-civil-rights?

    I already signed the petition, if you happen to know anyone else who is an American citizen, you might want to show that to them.

    Here’s more information on him, in case you don’t know who he is.

    The Signal Sent by Picking Jeff Sessions for Attorney General
    http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/11/the-signal-sent-by-picking-jeff-sessions-for-attorney-general/508301/

    This Is the Only Recent Time Jeff Sessions Voted to Expand Health Care Coverage : It was to cover fetuses at the expense of their mothers.
    http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/11/senator-sessions-voted-expand-health-care-coverage-fetuses

    Donald Trump picks racist antigay Sen. Jeff Sessions for Attorney General
    http://www.lgbtqnation.com/2016/11/donald-trump-picks-racist-antigay-sen-jeff-sessions-attorney-general/

    Be glad that Trump is not president of Sweden Emil. At least your country isn’t going to have to deal with this, anywhere near as much as I am.

    • You are certainly right that Trump is many orders of magnitude worse than what is happening in Sweden.

      However, a party with its roots in Nazism has ~20% or so of votes at the moment, on par with the largest left-leaning and largest right-leaning parties. So realistically, we are looking at (1) parliamentary disarray (if neither left or right can get enough parliamentary votes to push through their prime minister candidate and budget or (2) a right-wing government with active or passive support from anti-immigration forces after 2018 election and whatever negotiating benefits the latter will get for their support.

      Granted, the leader of the right-wing coalition is basically just a slightly more right-wing version of Hillary Clinton and there are basically no religious conservatives in politics (~4% of votes), but the largest concern now is what they have to give up for support from the far right.

      My hope is that after Brexit, Trump victory and upcoming French elections, people will realize that all of that was a terrible mistake. I am cautiously optimistic despite it all and I think we must be.

    • Emil,

      Good point, there’s certainly a problem with the far right where you live as well. Hopefully people will realize supporting them was a mistake soon.

  9. Emil,

    Here’s something else I told you about via twitter, but again, Its also relevant here as well.

    Trump to scrap Nasa climate research in crackdown on ‘politicized science’ : Nasa’s Earth science division is set to be stripped of funding as the president-elect seeks to shift focus away from home in favor of deep space exploration
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/22/nasa-earth-donald-trump-eliminate-climate-change-research?CMP=share_btn_tw

    ———————————————————————————————————————-
    Bob Walker, a senior Trump campaign adviser, said there was no need for Nasa to do what he has previously described as “politically correct environmental monitoring”.

    “We see Nasa in an exploration role, in deep space research,” Walker told the Guardian. “Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission.

    “My guess is that it would be difficult to stop all ongoing Nasa programs but future programs should definitely be placed with other agencies. I believe that climate research is necessary but it has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing. Mr Trump’s decisions will be based upon solid science, not politicized science.”
    ———————————————————————————————————————-

    Its going to be a very long and painful four years for me and my family.

    • There is a good post by Phil Plait about this: Trump’s Plan to Eliminate NASA Climate Research Is Ill-Informed and Dangerous.

      It also seems that Trump is distancing himself just a tiny bit from the hoax claim, saying that some connectivity between humans and climate change.

      At this time, Trump flip-flops and changes his rhetoric so often on so many things that is hard to know what his eventual policy will be. But there are reasons to be severely concerned.

    • Emil,

      Thanks, I like to see what Phil Plait has to say about this. I also heard about him going back on his claim that humans are causing climate change, late last night, but I still don’t know what to make of it. It is a good sign if he’s being honest, and not just saying that to shut up people critical of him on this issue, but to even admit humans may have something to do with climate change will enrage his climate change denialist supporters. Let’s see if he flip flops on climate change again.

Trackbacks

  1. Why Scientific Skepticism Should Be Intellectually Global | Debunking Denialism
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