55 Pages Posted: 4 Sep 2020 Last revised: 4 Jan 2021
Date Written: September 3, 2020
Political attacks against scientists and scientific research are nothing new, though the Trump Administration appears to have increased both the breadth and the depth of such attacks. What is new, it seems, are attacks on science that are not in service of protecting any regulated industry that can provide political benefits. Under the Trump Administration, the attacks on science are more systemic, and aimed more at reducing scientific capacity in the federal government, rather than mere one-off policy interventions.
The essay suggests that the Trump Administration, more than previous administrations, has sought to use science as part of a political culture war, reviving a populist suspicion of intellectuals that has a long and cyclical history in American culture. This current episode of anti-intellectualism, while targeting the social sciences as past episodes have, has also uniquely targeted the biological and physical sciences, the difference being that findings in these fields are more firmly grounded in empirical fact than in the social sciences. The Trump Administration's attacks on science, writ larger, are non-epistemic in nature, seeking to build an ideology of hostility to science. This strategy builds upon a decades-long and continuing misinformation campaign to discredit climate scientists, but goes further, seeking to portray scientists as part of the "deep state" that is conspiring to victimize Americans.
To be sure, federal funding for most research unrelated to industry regulation remains robust, even higher in some programs. But a manufactured suspicion of "regulatory science" (relating to industry regulation) has begun to bleed ominously over into policy arenas completely outside of regulation. The Trump Administration's policy meanderings to deal with the covid-19 crisis are emblematic of a growing and systemic subjugation of science to political objectives, ones that can be bizarrely unscientific. A number of cultural, political, and economic factors contribute to this latest resurgence of anti-intellectualism, one with a unique animus towards the hard sciences. A restoration of endangered and broken societal norms governing the advancement of science will require vigorous enforcement of federal administrative laws, but will also require the development of government policies that address the cultural, political, and economic roots of this latest crisis of science.
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