When Ideology Trumps Evidence, Governments Fail Their Citizens

(Guest Column submitted to Herald-Times by Steve Vigdor, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Indiana University, on March 30, 2017 – published April 6, 2017)

Effective governments foresee problems that threaten the quality of citizens’ lives and develop acceptable solutions to mitigate their effects.  The mitigation is challenging even with the best available information, as complex problems usually defy simple solutions.  Healthy democratic debate over priorities should be fueled by evidence gained from scientific research, economic forecasting, intelligence gathering and credible investigative journalism – all avenues the present U.S. administration seeks to discredit.

When some politicians fear facing problems and choosing among possibly distasteful solutions, they deny or suppress evidence, labeling it a “hoax” or “fake news.” They eliminate funding for research that underpins it.  They substitute “alternative facts,” based on their own ideology, greed, donor demands, or resentment of “elites.”  History teaches us, repeatedly, that citizens pay the hefty price for their politicians’ willful ignorance.

An egregious example occurred when Joseph Stalin deemed genetics a “bourgeois pseudoscience” incompatible with Communist ideology.  He promoted a scientist of peasant stock, Trofim Lysenko, who shared Stalin’s disdain, while firing and imprisoning a generation of Soviet geneticists, sending Lysenko’s former mentor Nikolai Vavilov to the gulag.  Lysenko promised dramatic, “truly communist,” agricultural advances, based on irreproducible claims that southern plants could be trained to grow in the north, grains could be transformed into other species, and other unsubstantiated ideas.  Lysenko’s unscientific methods produced chronic crop failures and innumerable starvation deaths, including Vavilov’s.  The political elite survived. 

Many U.S. politicians seem poised to augment this sorry history by unilaterally dismissing climate science.  Reproducible measurements have established irrefutably that global temperatures, atmospheric carbon dioxide and sea levels have all risen at unusually high rates over recent decades.  Ice core samples reveal a strong correlation between carbon dioxide levels and surface temperatures, going back nearly a million years. 

These data are cause for serious concern.  Earth’s climate is a complex system with many natural, as well as human-induced, drivers.  But the natural drivers have quite different characteristic time scales, much shorter or very much longer than the recently observed changes.  Climate change skeptics often ignore or confuse these time scale differences.  

Worrisome projections of Earth’s future climate evolution admittedly have modeling uncertainties, as do predictions of the future paths of severe hurricanes.  Scientists seek to reduce these uncertainties by improving the models and constraining them better with new measurements, so they form an even more robust basis for policy discussions. 

In contrast, the President’s budget proposal eliminates funding for most of this research, with the apparent rationale: “The science is unsettled.  Therefore, the last thing we need is further evidence to settle the science.”  This is rather like advising people within a hurricane’s projected path to stay put because, after all, the projection has some uncertainty.  Among other losses, the denial by the administration makes it likely that other countries will reap most of the rapid job gains anticipated in the renewable energy sector.  The government sets misguided policy, but citizens are left with the risks.

Research establishing climate change, but essentially none of the skeptics’ erroneous claims, has passed rigorous peer review.  Lamar Smith, House Science Committee Chair, offers a chilling response to this embarrassing fact.  He promises legislation to establish “government standards for peer review” and punish scientific journals for publishing research that the government doesn’t approve.  When politicians with no science background aim to intervene in standard-setting for research reviews, the scientific method, evidence-based decision-making and citizens’ well-being are in serious jeopardy.

We invite you to join Concerned Scientists @ IU, our community of scholars and citizens committed to defending the integrity of the scientific process.  Send an email to csiu-l-subscribe@indiana.edu.

CSIU Legislative Action Team Meets with Senator Donnelly's Staff

A CSIU legislative action team meeting with Brandon Herget, Deputy State Director in the office of Senator Joe Donnelly to discuss concerns over executive and congressional actions that threaten the health and independence of scientific research in the United States. The broad-ranging discussion explored issues of administrative appointments related to science, failure to consider scientific research in critical policy decisions, interference in the conduct of independent research, and threats to science funding. The team used the opportunity to introduce the Senator's staff to the CSIU organization and explored specific areas of potential collaboration.

Left to right, Michael Hamburger, Brandon Herget, David Kehoe, Patricia Foster, and Steven Vigdor.

Left to right, Michael Hamburger, Brandon Herget, David Kehoe, Patricia Foster, and Steven Vigdor.

Kimberley McCoy wins Melba Phillips Award for Women in Science, trip to March for Science

“Women’s March on Washington Indiana (WMWIN) is pleased to announce that Kimberly McCoy is the winner of the Melba Phillips Award for Women in Science! WMWIN will cover the cost for Kimberly to attend the March for Science this weekend in Washington, DC.

Kimberly is a graduate student in the Chemistry Department at Indiana University and a regular contributor to the science blog ScIU: Conversations in Science at Indiana University. We were impressed by her proposal to bring her experience of the march back to us in Indiana. She plans to participate in the Week of Science Action following the march, to write a blog post about her experience, and to speak with WMWIN members when she returns.

Please join us in congratulating Kimberly! Thank you for representing Indiana women at the March for Science!”

Stand Up For Science: Press Release

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Leading up to the national March for Science, a newly formed group of Indiana University faculty, staff and students -- Concerned Scientists @ IU -- is organizing a campus-community forum, Stand Up for Science.

The event will take place from 5:30 to 7 p.m. April 20 in Hodge Hall Room 2075 on the IU Bloomington campus.

Hosted by Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton and IU Vice Provost for Research Rick Van Kooten, the forum will feature presentations by IU faculty and students and a keynote talk by Michael Halpern, associate director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

The center was organized as a policy think tank focused on defending science, ensuring scientific integrity, strengthening science-based health, safety and environmental laws, and defending scientists who are targeted by political attacks. It also undertakes educational efforts to highlight the role of science in solving critical societal problems.

With increasing national attention on the status of scientific research in the U.S., IU faculty, students and staff are organizing to advocate for "the essential role of science and evidence-based decision making." The mission statement of Concerned Scientists @ IU says they will:

  • Promote the accurate representation of science in the media, in education and in the design of legislation.
  • Engage with the public to communicate science, especially as it relates to core issues influenced by public policy.
  • Promote the participation of scientists in policy-making processes.
  • Support continued federal funding for independent scientific research and defending research from politically motivated attacks.

Organized over the past two months, the group has grown from an informal discussion of faculty to an active community of nearly 400 participants from the IU and Bloomington communities. Planning for the March for Science and organization of the April 20 forum have been its key efforts. Additional upcoming events include workshops for scientists on improved communication with the media, community educational efforts, and meetings with state and federal legislators.

"American science, including research done on our campus, is essential for the prosperity and health of the nation, and it is important that we actively celebrate the positive impact that science has on our everyday lives," Van Kooten said.

The April 20 forum will highlight the goals of the group, offer opportunities for members of the campus and community to become involved in science advocacy efforts and organize for participation in the April 22 marches in Washington and Indianapolis.

For additional information, contact Tim Londergan, tlonderg@indiana.edu; Steven Vigdor, vigdor@indiana.edu; or Siddharth Bhaskar, skbhaska@iu.edu.