Ideological-Based Opposition To Facts

It seems to me….

Science is the father of knowledge, but opinion breeds ignorance.”  ~ Hippocrates[1].

A growing number of scientists, policy makers, and technical specialists both inside and outside the government allege there have been concerted administrative efforts to suppress or distort scientific analyses by federal agencies so as to bring these results in line with administration policies.  There are many political, policy, and cultural issues that divide partisans but scientific truths should not be among them.

Many of our elected politicians are seemingly either under-educated or in denial of basic facts, scientific reality, and objective truth.  Many oppose even the pursuit of facts and attempt to restrict what scientists can research, publish, or even discuss.  Funding is being reduced for research and science education at a time when much of our planet is at risk of widespread habitat loss, pollution, and climate change.  Everyone, not only the scientific community, must defend facts, objectivity, and scientific independence and integrity.  Everyone benefits from investment in scientific research, public education, and infrastructure but our national commitment to those vocations has declined in recent years.

Federal and state governments since the 2016 national elections have increasingly attempted to restrict science research, education, and communication through such means as censorship and funding reductions in an attempt to destroy data, twist studies, and remove scientists from advisory boards[2].  And it is not only politicians, politically conservative media outlets disproportionately amplify opposition opinions selectively chosen to justify their predetermined conclusions ignoring, such as for climate change, 97 percent of inconvenient scientific evidence.  There frequently is an attempt to rely on ideologically based political expediency rather than facts when considering legislation.  Basic facts should never be subject to political interpretation.

While politicians do not necessarily have a sophisticated understanding of science, they should at least make an effort to understand the goals which science pursues though most social effects of technology can never be fully understood until it is widely available – it is a double-edged sword with both beneficial and detrimental effects.  Only those that fully understand the technology, who understand what it can and cannot do, are qualified to make decisions about its larger health and social effects – and that is primarily scientists and technologists.  Technology is beneficial only when subordinated by higher virtues such as those associated with ethics and politics but that is extremely difficult for someone without a background in a field to determine.

Six-in-ten Americans (60 percent) say scientists should play an active role in policy debates about scientific issues[3].  Public confidence in scientists is on par with confidence in the military and exceeds the levels of public confidence in other groups and institutions, including the media, business leaders, and elected officials.  86 percent of Americans say they have at least “a fair amount” of confidence in scientists to act in the public interest.  This includes 35 percent who have “a great deal” of confidence, up from 21 percent in 2016.  Most Democrats (73 percent) believe scientists should take an active role in scientific policy debates.  By contrast, a majority of Republicans (56 percent) say scientists should focus on establishing sound scientific facts and stay out of such policy debates.

Today, only four in 10 (40 percent) people reported a great deal of confidence in the scientific community[4] though most U.S. adults, about seven-in-ten (73 percent) say science has had a positive effect on society; only 3 percent say it has had a negative effect and 23 percent say it has yielded an equal mix of positive and negative effects[5].  Many of those who saw mostly positive effects cited medical advances (56 percent), technology and computerization (23 percent), and environment (14 percent) while those who saw mixed effects mentioned concerns about scientists and scientific theories.  Overall, many people hold skeptical views of climate scientists (39 percent) and genetically modified (GM) food scientists (19 percent) but a larger share expressed trust in information from medical scientists (55 percent) than information from industry leaders, the news media, and elected officials.

People holding anti-scientific views do not accept science as an objective method that can generate universal knowledge.  Generally, the less people know, the more they are opposed to scientific consensus.  The Dunning-Kruger effect states that the less competent a person is at something, the smarter they think they are.

Anti-science positions at the federal level can have far-reaching results as they can affect the way science is taught in schools.  While the formation of curriculum is done at the state and local levels, federally funded programs have the effect of promoting anti-science education and opening critical discussion of accepted scientific conclusions.

Science skeptics understanding of politics and technology frequently leads them to assume that all technology requires some form of regulation and that the introduction of new technologies represent a threat to human dignity, natural limitations, or the things that define us as human[6].  They believe the development and use of technology must be politically regulated, that institutions must be set up that will discriminate between those technological advances that promote human flourishing and those that pose a threat to human dignity and wellbeing.

Skepticism regarding numerous scientific pronouncements is equally prevalent among both liberals and conservatives though each reacts to different issues dependent upon their respective political ideology.  Conservatives in the U.S. seem to be engaged in a war on science and some have recently expressed concern about the rise of populist antagonism influenced by experts.  While conservatives frequently reject well-established findings on climate change or evolution, liberals similarly reject facts regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs), nuclear power, genetic engineering, or evolutionary psychology.  Some from both extremes oppose vaccination.  Regardless of what doubters might believe, opposition stems from politics – not science.

The unfortunate truth about the overall state of science and technology in the U.S. is that it is worse than it appears.  Far fewer college students are choosing to study science, and most advanced degrees in science and engineering are being awarded to foreign-born students.  Sadly, many foreign students now reject U.S. universities as entry into the U.S. became increasingly difficult following 911.  Foreign-born students in the past frequently would decide to stay and start companies here in the U.S. after receiving their degree but that no longer is true.  Many now return home to China, India, or elsewhere as they are discouraged by overly restrictive immigration policies and see greater opportunities for themselves in their home country.

Everyone benefits from investment in scientific research, public education, and infrastructure but our national commitment to those activities has declined in recent years.  Increased research funding is essential but not likely to happen while conservatives are able to block such investment.  Multinational corporations, the real power in Washington, only want to cut taxes on their activities and income.  Without sufficient oversight, so-called “discretionary spending” could be drastically reduced impacting just about everything most people consider vital.

There is no better indication of the U.S. government’s myopia than the decline in funding for research.  A recent report in Science notes that for the first time since World War II, private funding for basic research now exceeds federal funding.  Research and development topped 10 percent of the national budget in the mid-1960s; it is now less than 4 percent.  And the Senate’s version of the tax bill removed a crucial tax credit that has encouraged corporate spending on research, though the House-Senate compromise version will probably retain it.  All this is happening in an environment in which other countries, from South Korea to Germany to China, are ramping up their investments in these areas.  A recent study found that China is on track to surpass the U.S. as the world leader in biomedical research, artificial intelligence, supercomputing, and other vital areas.

Basic innovative research resulting in economic progress is initially largely dependent upon federal funding but that is now endangered by political motivation, the ramifications of which are concerning – increased Congressional protection for scientific integrity is necessary given what has been happening[7].  Federally funded scientific and technological processes must be free from political, ideological, and financial conflict.

In July 1945, Vannevar Bush addressed a report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt arguing that basic research needed to become a priority supported by the federal government.  As an engineer, businessman, and government administrator, Bush recognized that each of three worlds – academia, industry, and government – plays a vital role in promoting scientific innovation.  Crucially, he said, the government’s role should be to provide the guiding vision for basic research, seed the related effort, and sustain its pool of talent.

Bush’s report led to the establishment of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and its legacy ultimately carried over to another federal agency that would become known for innovative research and development: NASA (succeeding the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NACA, in 1958), which landed humans on the Moon.  Following celebration of the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, it is timely to reflect upon the current research landscape and the enduring role of federal support and direction.

Given the prevailing political environment, change will be difficult.  Hopefully, the majority of voters in the 2020 election cycle will be sufficiently aware of the need for change and elect candidates favoring progressive policies.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] Hippocrates of Kos was a Greek physician often referred to as the “Father of Medicine” in recognition of his lasting contributions to the field as the founder of the Hippocratic School of Medicine.

[2] Fischetti, Mark.  Government Attempts To Silence Science Are Revealed In Detail, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/government-attempts-to-silence-science-are-revealed-in-detail/, May 2019, p88.

[3] Funk, Cary, et al.  Trust And Mistrust In Americans’ Views Of Scientific Experts, Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2019/08/02/trust-and-mistrust-in-americans-views-of-scientific-experts/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=8e7813e8d6-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_08_02_03_07&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-8e7813e8d6-400092341, 2 August 2019.

[4] Funk, Cary.  Mixed Messages About Public Trust In Science, Pew Research Center, www.pewinternet.org/2017/12/08/mixed-messages-about-public-trust-in-science/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=af1a7f5267-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_01_09_Internet&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-af1a7f5267-400092341, 8 December 2017.

[5] Thigpen, Cary Lynne, and Cary Funk.  Most Americans Say Science Has Brought Benefits To Society And Expect More To Come, Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/27/most-americans-say-science-has-brought-benefits-to-society-and-expect-more-to-come/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=ff7e544bad-Internet-Science_2019_11_18&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-ff7e544bad-400092341, 27 August 2019.

[6] Tabachnick, David E.  The Politics And Philosophy Of Anti-Science, Nipissing University, https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/SPT/v9n1/tabachnick.html, Fall 2005.

[7] Hagel, Chuck.  Stop Suppressing Science, Scientific American, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-executive-branch-must-stop-suppressing-science/, January 2020, pp11.

About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in Anti-Science, China, China, Denial, Dunning-Kruger, Education, Environment, Germany, Germany, India, NACA, NASA, NASA, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Science, Science Skeptic, South Korea, Technology, Vannevar Bush and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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