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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Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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