President-elect Donald Trump believes climate change is a hoax and that vaccines cause autism. He is wrong on both counts. It is time for scientists to raise their voices to ensure the new U.S. administration is properly informed and secure the safety of future scientific research.
Scientists from many disciplines are concerned that Trump's knowledge of science seems to be based on incorrect or outdated information. The supposed link between autism and vaccines, for example, is based on one flawed report that has since been disproved by the Centres for Disease Control. Yet this misinformation is still in the public mind, causing an increase in infections such as measles because children are not receiving vaccinations.
Lots of autism and vaccine response. Stop these massive doses immediately. Go back to single, spread out shots! What do we have to lose.— @realDonaldTrump
In his first 100-day plan, Trump has said he would return to coal and shale oil for energy production and withdraw billions of dollars from UN climate change programs. He has pledged to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, and he just appointed Myron Ebell, a well-known climate skeptic, to his Environmental Protection Agency transition team. This has climate scientists worried that efforts to move forward on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and keeping climate warming below two degrees Celsius will be thwarted by these actions.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.— @realDonaldTrump
These anti-science attitudes can affect the future of scientific research, so it is time for scientists to speak up and set the record straight. Traditionally, scientists are not very good at that. There is often a reluctance to speak out against government policies because much of their scientific funding comes from government sources.
One exception to that was the "Death of Evidence" movement in Canada, where federal scientists, especially those working on the environment, were muzzled by former prime minister Stephen Harper's government. In response, they staged protests to protect their right to talk freely about their scientific findings. Thankfully, the current government lifted those restrictions.
Fake news travels fast
Organizations that spread misinformation about climate change, or notions that the Earth was created only 6,000 years ago, or conspiracy theorists who believe the moon landings were faked, are much better at getting public attention than scientists are. They can plant seeds of doubt in the public mind deeply enough to make their ideas seem as credible as the real science. And once those ideas are out there, they take on a life of their own, right up to the political level.
Science looks at the world in exquisite detail. It is a tool that figures out how nature works, and more importantly, sees patterns and connections — between the atmosphere and the oceans, the web of life, and the impact of human activity on the planet as a whole.
When scientific eyes are closed for the sake of industries and profit, we can head down dangerous roads, such as the one that led to the whole climate change issue in the first place. We warmed the planet by ignoring the effect of exhaust gases spewing out of tailpipes and smoke stacks.
But in the same way that science can point out problems such as environmental damage, it can also point to sensible solutions — other ways of keeping ourselves warm and moving from place to place that do not change the climate. That's why scientific research is important. Not to mention the benefits that come from asking basic questions about the nature of the universe. Historically, most great leaps of thought have come from asking fundamental questions.
But science can only go so far. It is up to politicians and decision-makers to take that knowledge and put legislation in place that leads to real change. But if the politicians do not understand the science, or refuse to listen to it, decisions can be made that may not be the best in the long term.
So it is time for a stronger scientific voice of reason to speak up and defend the right to understand the world around us. It is in everyone's best interest.