17 August 2016 (Scientific American) – Four years ago in these pages, writer Shawn Otto warned our readers of the danger of a growing antiscience current in American politics. “By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation's founders,” Otto wrote, “the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before.”
Otto wrote those words in the heat of a presidential election race that now seems quaint by comparison to the one the nation now finds itself in. As if to prove his point, one of the two major party candidates for the highest office in the land has repeatedly and resoundingly demonstrated a disregard, if not outright contempt, for science. Donald Trump also has shown an authoritarian tendency to base policy arguments on questionable assertions of fact and a cult of personality.
Americans have long prided themselves on their ability to see the world for what it is, as opposed to what someone says it is or what most people happen to believe. In one of the most powerful lines in American literature, Huck Finn says: “It warn't so. I tried it.” A respect for evidence is not just a part of the national character. It goes to the heart of the country's particular brand of democratic government. When the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, scientist and inventor, wrote arguably the most important line in the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—they were asserting the fledgling nation's grounding in the primacy of reason based on evidence.
Scientific American is not in the business of endorsing political candidates. But we do take a stand for science—the most reliable path to objective knowledge the world has seen—and the Enlightenment values that gave rise to it. For more than 170 years we have documented, for better and for worse, the rise of science and technology and their impact on the nation and the world. We have strived to assert in our reporting, writing and editing the principle that decision making in the sphere of public policy should accept the conclusions that evidence, gathered in the spirit and with the methods of science, tells us to be true.
It won't come as a surprise to anyone who pays even superficial attention to politics that over the past few decades facts have become an undervalued commodity. Many politicians are hostile to science, on both sides of the political aisle. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has a routine practice of meddling in petty science-funding matters to score political points. Science has not played nearly as prominent a role as it should in informing debates over the labeling of genetically modified foods, end of life care and energy policy, among many issues.
The current presidential race, however, is something special. It takes antiscience to previously unexplored terrain. When the major Republican candidate for president has tweeted that global warming is a Chinese plot, threatens to dismantle a climate agreement 20 years in the making and to eliminate an agency that enforces clean air and water regulations, and speaks passionately about a link between vaccines and autism that was utterly discredited years ago, we can only hope that there is nowhere to go but up.
In October, as we did four years previously, we will assemble answers from the campaigns of the Democratic and Republican nominees on the public policy questions that touch on science, technology and public health and then publish them online. We will support ScienceDebate.org's efforts to persuade moderators to ask important science-related questions during the presidential debates. We encourage the nation's political leaders to demonstrate a respect for scientific truths in word and deed. And we urge the people who vote to hold them to that standard.