Debate: Donald Trump’s war on science and its long-lasting consequences

President Donald Trump shakes the hand of EPA chief Scott Pruitt after he announcing the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement on June 1, 2017. Pruitt submitted his resignation in July 2018 after a series of scandals. Win McNamee/AFP

Two years ago, a piece in The Conversation predicted that a new breed of science war, not between two cultures this time, but instead between opposed political factions in the United States. In the war, science would be taken hostage by the so-called reproducibility crisis, potentially jeopardising its quest for solutions.

Sectors of the US conservative establishment have tried for decades to attack regulators such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with various forms of weaponised transparency, e.g., the request that all regulatory science be accessible, from medical records to mathematical models. This strategy has historically been coupled with the standard practice to inflate uncertainty as to make regulations impossible.

Now the same actors take advantage of science reproducibility crisis to say that non-reproducible science cannot be used to regulate, that a failure of scientific peer review implies discarding the IPCC’s work, and that the crisis is due to the progressive assault on higher education by ideologies such as neo-Marxism and post-modernism.

While this was to be expected, what is discomforting is the reaction of large sectors of the scientific community and institutions: to deny the crisis altogether, and to label those who say otherwise as enemies of science, corruptors of the youth by way of fostering cynicism and indifference, or otherwise “partisans”, thus assimilating those who intend to map the crisis and its possible remedies to their political adversaries.

A bit of history

The weaponisation of transparency had an important step in the US Data Quality Act, passed in 2001, to “ensuring and maximising the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information”, while in fact being used by industry groups to undercut scientific reports on everything, from federal report on global warming to the World Health Organisation’s low-sugar dietary guidelines.

The inflation of uncertainty as an anti-regulatory strategy has a likewise long history, famously championed by tobacco companies for whom, in a tobacco industry memo of 1969, “doubt is our product […] also as means of establishing a controversy” on the dangerousness of smoking. Today corporate power blames the dramatic decline in entomofauna – including pollinators, on everything, including climate change, to exculpate pesticides.

Doubt is also spread by generous funding of research, e.g. in the case of tobacco company by funding studies on others cancerogenic agents, in the case of sugar by funding research on cholesterol, and so on. The older book on the “regulation game” instructs lobbyists on how to enroll scientists “with a modicum of finesse”, lest they “recognise that they have lost their objectivity and freedom of action”.

Today in the US corporate interest can spend on lobbying $34 for each dollar spent by diffuse interest and unions combined, and for scholars in both US and Europe a salient aspect of this power is lobbyists’ access to more and better disseminated science, creating a perverse asymmetry in the use of evidence for policy. For some observers this would need urgent remedial action to give citizen some structured mechanism of access to independent scientific evidence.

The contention accelerates

Since science’s crisis made it to the headlines thanks to a cover of The Economist in October 2013 and based on previous works John P.A. Ioannidis, it was only a matter of time before the crisis become enrolled in this long-standing fight between regulators and the regulated.

Thus, few were surprised when recently the EPA proposed new rules this April for transparency meant to fight “secret science” and simultaneously the NAS – not the National Academy of Science but the National Association of Scholars [sic] – published a report on science’s “irreproducibility”, urging remedial action including:

  • Congress should pass an expanded Secret Science Reform Act to prevent government agencies from making regulations based on irreproducible research.

  • Congress should require government agencies to adopt strict reproducibility standards by measures that include strengthening the Information Quality Act.

The report blames the crisis on the “progressive left” and its attack on higher education with “neo-Marxism, radical feminism, historicism, post-colonialism, deconstructionism, post-modernism, liberation theology, and a host of other ideologies”.

Science fights back… or not?

The reticence of science institutions – especially those charged of science for policy, to even mention the existence of a crisis has been already discussed on this journal. This new phase though sees science coming out to deny its existence altogether.

For Naomi Oreskes writing on Nature the true science’s crisis is its instrumental use by corporate interests, not reproducibility. For Kathleen Hall Jamieson, writing on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in March this year, the “science is broken” narrative is a histrionic, unwarranted generalisations. She warns “partisans” against fuelling dangerous narratives, lest these undermine science, and censors the media for their style of reporting of the crisis.

For Daniele Fanelli writing on the same journal science is not facing a reproducibility crisis. For Fanelli, a scholar who is well known for his work on the topic, there is little evidence of an increase in the prevalence of misconduct and growing retractions are mostly a good sign, implying better governance and more empowerment of scientists, while in a previous work he concedes that there are important differences in performance across disciplines. Fanelli also denies the existence of a problem with statistical testing procedures, which is at odds with statisticians’ own concern on misuse and abuse of statistical tests in recent years, and their quest for what to do about it.

In a more recent paper written with Ioannidis Fanelli maps the magnitude of the overestimation of effects (an ingredient of the replicability issue) across fields, and identifies factors of risk for producing unreliable results, such as early-career status, isolation, and lack of scientific integrity. Crisis or no crisis then? The last word goes to Ioannidis:

“Even well-intentioned academics, perceiving an attack on science, may be tempted to take an unproductive, hand-waving defensive position: ‘We have no problem with reproducibility’, ‘everything is fine’, ‘science is making progress’.”

The crux of the matter

Progressives see the crisis as due to postmodern philosophers, oil friendly politicians, and other enemies of reason. Conservatives blame it on radical feminism, neo-Marxism, liberation theology, and yes, postmodern philosophers again. Scientists caught in the crossfire retrench behind a “Crisis, what crisis?”

Perhaps some reading of postmodern philosophers would benefit all contenders. Scientists in particular could try to feed into today’s more urgent debate, one which sees an unreflective version of modernity contrasted with more measured understanding of our dominant narratives and of their dangers for man survival. Many have started to consider a different story, one where the crisis, besides being political and institutional, is also methodological, cultural, ethical, and philosophical. Hopefully, a movement of critical resistance is in the making.

Note: An extended essay version of this work is to appear on the journal FUTURES.