Donald Trump needs a science education: Bob McDonald

Scientists worry about the impact of Trump's views on everything from climate change to vaccines.

A president wrongly informed about science can take us down a dangerous path

President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, and has just appointed Myron Ebell, a well-known climate skeptic, to his Environmental Protection Agency transition team. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

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Scientists from many disciplines are concerned that Trump's knowledge of science seems to be based on incorrect or outdated information.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.

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.

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.

Smoke billows from smokestacks and a coal-fired generator at a steel factory in the industrial province of Hebei, China. Trump has pledged to end 'the war on coal.' (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

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.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.