Science at twilight: Reasserting our democratic responsibility

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Malachi Sheahan III

Thomas Jefferson sat alone in a Philadelphia boarding house. He was nervous; much was riding on the words he would now write. The sovereignty of a nation, the coming war, and, perhaps most important to Jefferson, his own life.

Ostensibly, he was writing to King George III, but the fighting had already begun, and he knew that cretin was beyond reason. He was writing to inspire Americans to rise up as a nation, but he knew in his heart that would not be enough. The audience Jefferson needed to reach consisted of European leaders. France, Spain, the Netherlands, maybe even Russia. Without their support, the rebellion would be short-lived, and Jefferson would be executed as a traitor to the crown. He would center his appeal around a tenet: Wherever men can use reason and science to establish the truth of something, no monarch had any greater authority to rule.

Jefferson, after all, was a scientist. He referred to his appointment as president of the American Philosophical Society as “the most flattering incident of my life,” despite already serving as vice president of the United States. Jefferson loved to observe nature in all forms; he even kept a detailed log of the weather. One day, he recorded the outside conditions at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 9 p.m. Maybe not so unusual, but that day was July 4, 1776. Science became a core component in the framework of our government. In the very first State of the Union address, George Washington told Congress, “There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of science and literature.”

As the election nears, most of you identify as Democrat or Republican. Without abandoning your core beliefs, I would ask you to consider another affiliation—that of a scientist. Scientists can be progressive or conservative. Their one shared political principle is anti-authoritarianism. Tyrants have taken many roles: dictator, pope and king. Regardless of the form, eventually he (it is usually he) needs to tear down the truth. And it is science that stands in the way.

HERESY

In 1591, Giordano Bruno moved to Padua, presumably to apply for the vacant chair of mathematics at the esteemed local university. Bruno was a scientist and philosopher who held many views that were incongruous with the tenets of the Catholic Church. Bruno lost the mathematics appointment to fellow scientist Galileo Galilei, so he returned to Venice to continue his research and teachings. Bruno spoke freely about his theories. The world was changing. Venice was a liberal state, a Protestant sat on the French throne, and the extremist Pope Sixtus V had died the year before. The Roman Inquisition appeared to be ending.

Nevertheless, Bruno’s confidence was ill-founded. He was arrested and tried for heresy. Initially, Bruno’s trial in Venice seemed to be going well, but he was suddenly deported to Rome and imprisoned for seven years. The Church offered Bruno a chance to fully recant his theories, but he refused. Bruno stated that he didn’t even know what he was supposed to recant. Bruno was confident though, even as his death sentence was delivered. He told the court, “Perhaps your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it.” Again though, he had misplaced his faith in the seeming enlightenment that was starting in Europe. Shortly after, he was taken to the Campo de’ Fiori and burned alive.

Thirty-three years later, Galileo, the winner of the mathematics chair Bruno coveted, was also arrested for heresy. The Catholic Church still maintained a geocentric model of the universe with a stationary Earth at the center. Galileo recanted his heliocentric teachings, although he is said to have muttered, “and yet it moves,” immediately afterward. Despite his recant, Galileo spent the rest of his life in prison.

Galileo and Bruno are, of course, earlier examples of the clashes between authoritarians and scientists. More recently, Albert Einstein fled Hitler’s Germany, Enrico Fermi escaped Mussolini, and famed biologist Nikolai Vavilov was murdered by Stalin. Authoritarians require control over everything for success, even the truth.

SCIENTIFIC VITALITY

The framers of our constitution saw scientists as leaders, integral to democratic rule. Over the years, we have abdicated this responsibility. Our government representatives are now mainly lawyers, politicians and bureaucrats. Industry and religion have far more prominent voices in policy decisions. Why did Jefferson and Washington consider science to be vital to our nation? It has to do with how we think and reason—the scientific method.

The scientific method involves observation, skepticism about these observations, formulating hypotheses, then testing and refining these hypotheses. In the absence of scientists, the majority of our government employs what can be called the judicial method. The judicial method works backward, starting with a thesis (e.g. my client is innocent). Then all data which support this thesis are presented, while those which dispute it are omitted. Of course, scientists have another name for this approach: confirmation bias. The goal of the scientific method is to find the truth. The purpose of the judicial method is often to create doubt. In pursuing the truth, scientists are loathe to claim certainty. In that gray area, the judicial method thrives.

You’ve often heard that not all scientists believe in anthropological climate change; therefore, the “jury is still out.” A 2015 study found that of 69,406 published climate scientists, only four did not believe that climate change was driven by man. Consensus has been achieved. It has been achieved for decades. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.” Many groups fear scientific agreement because consensus endorses action. The playbook is to create doubt and confusion. There is no need to attack the evidence directly, just build uncertainty and prolong the argument. The oil and tobacco industries perfected this tactic decades ago. As one cigarette executive said to author David Michaels, “Doubt is our product.”

Other factors also allow misinformation to spread in our country. Jefferson strongly believed that the freedom of the press was crucial to democracy. He wrote, “Wherever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” However, journalists are now taught that impartiality in reporting is impossible. Lies are treated as opinions, as alternate facts. Statements from every side of an issue are often presented without judgment of their accuracy. To avoid more politics, I’ll use two examples from my household.

Scenario one:

Luke (age 7): There is a monster under my bed.

Me: Go to bed. There is no such thing as monsters.

Luke: There is, too. His name is Jeebus.

Sheahan Family Gazette:

“Differing opinions arise on the threat posed by Jeebus”

Scenario two:

Me: We just got a credit alert for a $7,000 charge.

Claudie (wife): I bought some shoes.

Me: We can’t afford that kind of cost.

Claudie: It’s not a cost, it’s an investment. Besides, I’m going to win Powerball this week.

Sheahan Family Gazette:

“Pessimists clash with optimists over household economic future”

Humans are also conditioned to infer causality. Event A happened, then event B; so A caused B. Rising lung cancer rates in the 1950s were attributed to the tar used on new road systems. The 1890 flu was blamed on new electric light technology. Rising diagnoses of autism must be related to vaccine use. This instinct may have helped ancient man survive and, therefore, may be a result of natural selection. A caveman might think, “Grog ate the orange berries and now he’s dead. Guess I’ll skip the orange berries.”

SOCIETAL OUTREACH

Public faith in science has eroded to dangerous levels. While evolutionary natural selection and anthropological climate change have scientific consensus, they are denied by about 60% and 35%, respectively. Anti-science beliefs arise from most political spectrums. On the left, science denial takes the form of unsubstantiated fear in items like vaccines, nuclear power and GMOs. So while the right often opposes regulations for proven dangers, the left favors regulating things that are generally safe.

In times of dire need, how can we motivate the U.S. population to take the correct actions? There are two systems in the brain to assess outside stimuli. The experiential is the stronger motivator for action. This system relies on emotion, images and stories. It is a predominant driver of the survival instinct. Conversely, scientific information, charts, graphs, numbers and probabilities are processed by the analytic system. This is a poor driver for quick action. Most of the methods we use for public outreach are processed by the analytic system. This is a mistake. The gruesome pictures placed on cigarette cartons in Europe are an attempt to appeal to the experiential system.

Television producers are well aware of these processing systems. A news story that has accompanying video is much more likely to make the air. Why has the number of Americans who accept the science of climate change risen dramatically in the past 24 months? Probably because we are watching images of the West Coast burn and new hurricanes slamming the Gulf every week.

Scientists used to be quite adept at society outreach. In the past, the majority of research funding came from public benefactors. Scientists would make a great production of their accomplishments and their amazing work to come. Research was a form of public entertainment; often the best showman was funded. In 1959, the Soviet Union’s success with the Sputnik program caused a panic in the U.S. Government funding of research would increase more than 12 times over the next decade. Scientists dropped public outreach for grant applications. And the National Institutes of Health doesn’t look too favorably on “showmanship,” at least in my experience. Those scientists who still attempted to reach the public— like Carl Sagan—were often vilified. Consider your feelings for Dr. Oz.

Another hurdle to public understanding is that science is no longer a core component of many liberal arts or humanities curricula. Most Americans have no exposure to science past high school. While the nuances of carbon-bonding patterns may not be relevant to most careers, familiarity with the scientific method would be beneficial. In other fields, students learn that truth is relative and experiential, and rarely are they presented facts that have achieved consensus after scrupulous research. To these graduates, truth is never settled.

WAR ON POLITICS

Still, there are examples of scientists enacting public change. In the early 2000s, several government agencies had their messaging changed, presumably for religious reasons. “Theory” was inserted before every mention of the Big Bang on the NASA website. False equivalencies between abortion and breast cancer were inserted into Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directives. The Department of Health and Human Services removed online references to the efficacy of condoms in preventing AIDS. Stem cell research funding was halted. Scientists reported being pressured to alter or delete climate change reports. Inspired by these events, Shawn Otto, author of “The War on Science,” gathered a group to form Science Debate in 2007. Thousands of Nobel laureates, university presidents and other notable scientists joined on. Their mission was to compel presidential candidates to address current scientific issues such as climate change, genetic research and pandemics.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, Harold Varmis, a Nobel Prize-winning cancer researcher, chaired then-candidate Barak Obama’s science and technology committee. Varmis supported the Science Debate movement and convinced Obama to participate. Obama, who did not seem to have a particularly strong interest in science previously, was inspired by this experience. After the election, he announced the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, including several members of Science Debate. Obama also appointed actual scientists to prominent positions in the government, including the secretary of energy, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the head of the U.S. Geological Survey. Science Debate has continued, receiving full participation from every major presidential candidate in the 2012 and 2016 elections.

A government that relies on the judicial method of analysis will amplify confusion, uncertainty and fear. Despite a technological revolution, scientific ignorance appears to be rising. Half of American adults don’t know it takes the Earth a year to revolve around the sun (apologies to Galileo and Bruno; give us another 400 years?). More than a third believe that astrology is based on science. More than 2 million believe the Earth is flat.

The pandemic exposed these deficiencies. When we desperately needed the American public to believe in medical experts, Anthony Fauci stated that a “general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling” hampered the COVID-19 response. Masks, social distancing and other precautions were utilized sporadically in the early phases, similar to having a No Peeing Zone in a pool.

The American experiment began with a plan rooted in science. Jefferson and Washington realized the threat posed to democracy by ignorance. Scientists can no longer avoid civics and public outreach. We need to be involved in our government and communities. A role for scientists was assumed by the Founding Fathers. The republic is not designed to survive without us.

Malachi Sheahan III, MD, is the Claude C. Craighead Jr. professor and chair in the division of vascular and endovascular surgery at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. He is the medical editor of Vascular Specialist.

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