Demeaning Sound Science Harms Public Policy And Education


Sam Cooke’s 1960 hit song – What A Wonderful World – starts with a series of disclaimers, including these: “…Don’t know much biology; Don’t know much about a science book…Don’t know much trigonometry; Don’t know much about algebra…”  As has been proved billions of times, kindling romance does not require a science text or the periodic table.  But nearly every endeavor in our lives relies upon scientific principles and knowledge for making rational, intelligent, and sensible choices.

Across American schools, an essential and highly touted initiative is the emphasis on STEM education.  Understanding the concepts and utilizing the tools of these subjects contributes to intellectual development, professional performance, and economic competitiveness and leadership.  Our incredible national capacity for research and development is evident from the macro of space exploration to the micro of nanotechnology and gene splicing.  Our private and public research institutions are wonders of the modern world.  Our cohorts of researchers, theorists, and instructors are beyond remarkable.

What could possibly go wrong then?  Well, how about too much political calculation replacing the scientific method?  Republicans and Democrats have polar views on what science is telling us; they each are guilty of undermining the credibility of science by misapplying it.  Republicans shunt aside ecological principles, while Democrats do the same to economic principles.  Granted, there has never been a big, beautiful wall built between science and politics.  President John F. Kennedy had decidedly political motives when he announced the mission to the moon.  That program and others sparked national curiosity and propelled renewed energy into the sciences, research, funding, and instruction.

Nowadays, we again worry that other nations are eclipsing us in the realms of science and technology.  The politicization of science is working against our competitive needs.  Leading in exploring the universe is impressive, but becomes less so when we are managing so poorly here on earth.

Our nation suffers manifold points of conflict and contradiction.  We regard science instruction as essential, but then treat learned scientific input into public policy as insidious meddling.

Over the decades, science advisory committees were formed in agencies across the federal government to better inform decisionmaking.  An executive order intends to whack these committees, which number more than a thousand across health and safety responsibilities.  That is quite a valuable infrastructure of talent and knowledge and experience, not the sort of asset customarily treated as dispensable and disposable.  When an administration is racking up trillion-dollar annual deficits, the argument that saving nickels and dimes on science is necessary is a microscopic fig leaf of justification.  The real effect is to diminish public involvement and contrarian comment.

This rise of science encountered entrenched resistance when laws and regulations were seen as driving up costs and limiting property rights.  Special interest groups funded research that cherry-picked and manipulated data to support false conclusions.  There is no better example of how an alarming rogue study can spread fear, gain adherents, and have long-term consequences than the anti-vax movement.

Manufactured science, with data constructed to reach preordained conclusions, has grown.  The purpose is to muddy and obfuscate.  Profit takes priority over progress.  The other side sins by using scare science and visions of imminent environmental apocalypse to insist on laws, regulations, and mandates of inestimable cost and undetectable practical benefit.

Science denial is toxic to prudent policymaking.  Counter evidence may consist of a simple declaratory statement: “I don’t believe it.”  Ever try that answer in math or chemistry class?  The less scientific knowledge and influence inside government, the more we are at the mercy of self-interested pseudo-science piped in from the outside.  Meanwhile, reports from government agencies are being blocked when they give lie to political pronouncements.

How do we convince people that real science is fundamental to our lives when severe weather warning maps are altered with a sharpie?  How do we encourage students to consider a career in the sciences when science is derided and scientists disparaged?

Many people ask: Can we trust scientists when we are constantly confronted with contradictory claims and conclusions on things as basic as diet?  The answer is: If science did not constantly test assumptions and adapt to reflect new methods, new discoveries, and new results, navigators would still be constrained by flat earth fears and doctors would still be bleeding patients to death.  Readers of my generation will recall Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Every administration, Republican and Democrat, has been guilty of plowing ahead with policy and leaving science to catch up.  But now it seems we are waging a war on science, as opposed to declaring war on crime and poverty and drugs.  Those were fighting serious national problems; this is fabricating one.

The previous administration used science as the pretext for overreaching government control of the environmental arena.  Executive orders can run in both directions.  The unconventional tools of presidential power employed to advance an agenda can easily overturn those same dictates.  The prudent remedy would be a reset, not an outright repeal.  Whether it is air and water quality, or wetlands and tidal basins salvation, or habitat and wildlife protection, or ecosystems preservation, it does have to be all or nothing.  Without the underpinnings of sound science, risks of harm and potential for catastrophic consequences rise.

It is up to states to boost science education and restore for science a pivotal seat at the policy table.  Of course, it is typically Pennsylvania that we trail other states in revamping science instruction standards.  44 states have advanced theirs since our commonwealth last upgraded.  When last done, there was not much contemplation of artificial intelligence or CRISPR.  Presumably experience elsewhere provides enough verifiable data to compel our moving forward.

Fortunately, state educators have been directed to update science standards.  If we adopt a solid set of standards, follow through with the resources to ensure that instructional talent and research capabilities are widely available, accelerate the push for STEM education and science proficiency by graduates, and demonstrate how science properly applied builds a foundation for problem-solving, we better position Pennsylvania.  Still, the best educational standards are not as viable without public buy-in and trust.  The public needs reassured this is not another battle of philosophy such as evolution versus creationism.  Faith and science need not be in irreconcilable collision.

The implications scientific illiteracy, ignorance, and distortion have for the economy and the workplace are frightful.  A recent projection by Verizon holds that millions of jobs requiring STEM skills could go unfilled if we fail to pick up the pace.  Warnings have been issued that accepting mediocrity in mathematics on the part of too many students is compromising their prospects and undermining our scientific prowess.

When all else fails, resisters allege bias.  Politicians increasingly revile scientists as self-interested elitists produced and employed by those supposed bastions of liberalism and socialism run amok, our colleges and universities.  But those are the places where the crucial instruction is provided to prepare individuals for the laboratories of tomorrow.  Watch what takes place in the labs and technology rooms, and it is hard to find political gamesmanship amidst the intensive research and experimentation.

A balance must be struck.  Every generation worries about science and technology being misapplied for sinister purposes.  Invoking the pitchforks and torches used against Frankenstein’s monster is not going to stop genetic research and DNA mapping.  True, overreliance on evolving science can be as risky as underreliance on generally accepted, peer reviewed principles.  While it is unrealistic to insist that science be politics free, it is foolhardy to try to make governance science free.

Too much policy is guided by short-term cost considerations.  We cannot begin to tote up the long-term costs of the anti-intellectualism, the anti-institutionalism, and the willful ignorance that are driving the war on science.  If there were ever a case where disarmament and pulling out the troops was an advisable strategy, the assault on sound science is it.

David A. Atkinson is a Research Associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies


Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.


The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Susquehanna Valley Center.