“Censoring” Science

NOTE: While at first this may not appear to be directly related to the purpose of this blog, once you read it you will see why I think it is.

On Tuesday, 1/24/17, I noticed an increase in tweets from several of the people I follow on twitter. These tweets were all focused on attempts to what I call the “censoring” of science over the last few days. There are probably hundreds of articles available on the internet addressing this problem. Some of the ones that I found most helpful are herehere, here, here, and here.

As you see in the above links, there are a few problems. *Disclaimer: Things are changing so fast that this list could very well be outdated by the time I publish this post. But I can always change it.

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Employees were told to stop issuing press releases, blog updates, or social media posts. Additionally, the Trump administration imposed a freeze on all grants and contracts, with one person referring to this as being in a “holding pattern.” Now there are reports that the EPA website will be cleaned up. An earlier report indicated that the climate science section on the EPA website was to be completely removed. There is some confusion on this at the moment, but considering how drastically the climate change section was changed on the White House website (it’s gone) and Trump’s past comments about climate change, this is definitely a concern. See here and here for responses to some of Trump’s past comments on climate change. Update, 1/25/17, 5:45 pm EST: According to recent reports, academic papers will have to undergo review by political appointees (i.e. not scientists, as in, not the typical peer review process).
  • United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): Scientists and other employees working at the USDA research facility, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), were told to stop publicly sharing things like “news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content” early Tuesday morning. Thankfully, this gag order was rescinded later in the day.
  • National Park Service (NPS): Several tweets from the twitter account of Badlands National Park in South Dakota were deleted because they referenced climate change. This is what started everything for me because messages were flying all over the place encouraging supporters to take screen shots of the tweets and to re-tweet them. An interesting development today is the introduction of an unofficial twitter account to continue tweeting about science. Definitely check it out.

One other thing, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) responded to these developments yesterday afternoon.

Now, to be fair, some have claimed that all of this has been done just because it is a time of transition between the Obama administration and the Trump administration. And things like this have happened before during previous transitions. If that’s the case, one may ask why is everyone freaking out?

It is abundantly clear that Trump’s views on climate change and science in general are anti-science. Several of his cabinet picks have a history of attacking science, especially his pick to lead the EPA, Scott Pruitt. Pruitt has a troubling history with the EPA and his views on climate change are also troubling.

I am not interested in debating the science of climate change or the consensus about climate change. All I will say is that the scientific community’s current understanding of climate change indicates that humans are causing global warming. The consensus on this is overwhelming (between 90% and 100% depending on which study you read with most reporting 97% agreement). If you want to know more, Skeptical Science is a fantastic resource if you want to learn more. RealClimate is another valuable resource. So is the Climate Change Indicators report from the EPA.

One thing I will say about the discussion over climate change is that I think people should really think about what it means to say “climate change is a hoax.” Think about what it would take to make that possible. You’re talking about a scientific field that has been around since the early to mid 1800s. A scientific field that has probably been studied by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of scientists in that time. For this to actually work, pretty much all of those people would have had to come to a secret agreement to lie to the world for 150-200 years. Now, how likely is that?

My Take

These current efforts to undermine the integrity of science are very troubling to me. I’ve talked at length with my wife, friends, and colleagues about these efforts. Personally, I believe that what is currently happening is an attack on our foundation as a society. Additionally, these efforts will not help us as a society. They will not help “make America great again.” The world is using more and more renewable energy. This is a fact. If you look at what the Trump administration says about energy, you will notice that there is no reference to renewable energy. Yet, a majority of Americans want to pursue renewable energy. My question then is how will increasing the focus on drilling for energy resources and lessening the focus on renewable resources make us great? My concern is that as the rest of the world continues to explore renewable energy, our influence in the future of this field will diminish. The new technologies could most likely come from other countries. How is that making America great?

I’m concerned that this ban on communication is just the beginning. I’m worried that if the scientific community continues to feel threatened by the Trump administration and their allies, they may leave the US. If that does happen, our role in the global scientific community will be greatly diminished. That’s troubling to me. It should be troubling to everyone. If you think this is a good idea, just take a look at the device you are reading this on. That device wouldn’t exist without science.

Science is not a belief system. Science is based on evidence. The Trump administration and their supporters can declare they “don’t believe” in climate change all day, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. If the Trump administration and their allies try to censor what is shared with the public, they will do more harm than good. If they think that stopping scientists who work in the United States will stop this field of study, they are very much mistaken. Climate change science is pursued by scientists all over the world from many countries. Simply censoring scientists in our country will not stop the scientific community as a whole.

What Can You Do

First, follow different groups on twitter who promote science (look at the groups linked above in different places). Others to consider are Scientists’ March on Washington and Indivisible Guide. The latter was developed by former progressive congressional staffers. So if you don’t like that it is political, then don’t follow it. But I can tell you that the suggestions they have are good no matter your political views. Second, call your elected officials. Don’t email them, call them. Go here to get their info. It really does make a difference (see here). Third, remember that our elected officials work for us. That’s important. I remind myself of that simply because I truly believe that as a US citizen part of my responsibility is to hold elected officials accountable. Now think what would happen if everyone who cared about science did that. Finally, while looking for information for this post, I found something really interesting: a political action committee was recently launched to help scientists get elected. Check it out!

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