Trump’s assault on science and technology

On September 13, 2012, Donald Trump sent out a provocative tweet: “Wake Up America!  See article: ‘Israeli Science: Obama Birth Certificate is a Fake.’” Trump’s assertion that President Obama was not born in the United States was bizarre, yet unsurprising. What struck me about his post was its use of (admittedly questionable) science to justify the birther conspiracy theory.

This is particularly intriguing, given the present hostility of the Trump administration toward science. Over the past year, the Trump administration has been attacking pillars of scientific and technological progress in a persistent manner. From the budget to the FCC, public education to climate change denial, this administration’s war on science and technology needs more focus among the general public.

Many critics have focused on climate change denial in the Trump administration–and rightfully so. Donald Trump infamously tweeted, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” (He would later deny having said this.) According to Vox, Trump has posted 115 climate change denying tweets.

It’s not just Trump: the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is also a climate change denier. As such, the EPA has started to roll back punitive measures against polluters. Earlier in the year, the United States announced that it will pull out of the non-binding Paris Agreement–making it the only country in the world to not be a party.

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry backed this move, which is unsurprising: in the past, Rick Perry has attempted to discredit climate science by baselessly claiming widespread corruption amongst climate scientists. Other cabinet members are not much better: Ryan Zinke, Rex Tillerson, Ben Carson, Mike Pompeo, Jeff Sessions, and Tom Price are all climate change deniers.

In fact, research initiates for climate change were slashed in the Trump administration’s budget proposal. As were the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, National Science Foundation, NASA, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the US Geological Survey. Medical research, disease prevention, and climate change investigation are all on the chopping block.

The attacks on modern science are not limited to those on climate change. The nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education worried science teachers at the time–and justifiably so. In nomination hearings, DeVos’ comments “signaled her willingness to open the door to intelligent design creationism.” Normalizing this sort of radical Christianity could have dangerous implications for science in classrooms.

Betsy DeVos’ history of advocacy involves pushing for money to be funneled from public education into religious, parochial schools. Previously, Mother Jones writer Kristina Rizga reported, “Betsy and Dick DeVos have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations seeking to privatize education and blur the separation of church and state.” By using the guise of “school choice,” DeVos seeks to allow government funds to be used to send students to religious schools where creationism, amongst other things, is taught.

In addition to DeVos’ right-wing Christian fundamentalism, Vice President Mike Pence supports “conversion therapy”, a discredited practice of attempting to “convert” gay people into straight people. Donald Trump himself has taken discriminatory positions against transgender people in stark contrast with medical consensus. Ignoring scientific consensus is pervasive in the White House.

On a different front, tech leaders worry that the Trump administration’s stance on net neutrality threatens technological progress. Under current regulations, internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all websites the same; they cannot prioritize one website over another. Big corporations are not allowed to cut deals with ISPs to make their websites load faster than others’. The Trump administration is changing that.

Aside from being more expensive and more complicated for consumers, repealing net neutrality is bad for small businesses, particularly startups. While competing against giant corporations is already daunting enough, imagine a world where smaller companies’ websites will load slower than corporate titans’. These measures could have a chilling effect on smaller technological enterprises.

Why is the Trump administration taking positions that are so bad for science and technology? The answers are not terribly difficult. Climate change denial and repealing net neutrality are the result of corporate lobbying. Betsy DeVos’ views on education is a play to woo Evangelical voters, similar to Trump’s virtue signaling with the White House’s gaudy holiday decorations. This is politics, clear and simple.

I have long argued that people waste time needlessly analyzing Trump, and this is no exception: Trump simply has no interest in listening to experts who many disagree with his preconceived notions. For example, in 2015, Trump argued against exercise, comparing the human body to a battery, saying, “All my friends who work out all the time, they’re going for knee replacements, hip replacements — they’re a disaster.” A 2016 biography of Trump explained, “[Trump] believed the human body was like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only depleted.”

This is not a leader who cares about critical thought or the scientific process. He does not read books. He gets his news from his hand-picked Twitter feed and Fox News. He is a technophobe. He twice a day receives a dossier filled only with positive news about himself. Trump lives in a bubble of confirmation bias. If you are not someone who seeks to learn new things, what reason exists for scientific research or technological innovation?

While this might be discouraging, there are some glimmers of hope. In April, the March For Science drew over one million people worldwide to draw attention to the threats against science and technology. In November, 14 scientists ran campaigns against anti-science conservatives. More recently, perhaps fearful of backlash, the Trump administration allowed a climate change report initiated during the Obama administration to be released. With the midterm elections just around the corners, people who care about science and technology have good reason to hope for a better 2018 if they’re willing to put in the work.

 


In Post Notes, I add some additional thoughts or context to a blog post I’ve previously written. That can be found here.