I have been thinking these past few months of Dr. Carl Sagan. In his last interview, conducted with Charlie Rose in 1996, Dr. Sagan said the following:
We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?
This was Dr. Sagan, with all his clear-eyed skepticism brought to bear on our world. But his appeal – his moral courage, really – came from his deeper, unwavering optimism for our species. These are the first two quotes from The Demon-Haunted World, his user’s guide to scientific thinking:
Of course, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump didn’t talk much about science during their campaigns. This was not an election based on issues. But this was the first election in U.S. history where the role of expertise itself – be it scientific, academic or security-related – actually divided the candidates.
During her acceptance speech after the primaries, Clinton said she believed in science, citing climate change, in particular. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has called climate change a hoax. That statement, along with Trump’s pending withdrawal of the United States from an international climate agreement, drew unprecedented criticism from more than 375 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
Further, more than 1,200 members of the scientific community echoed these concerns in another letter, citing Trump’s embrace of conspiracy theories and the alacrity with which he and his running mate made discredited claims about vaccines, evolution, and the link between smoking and lung disease. They joined many other experts in making similar statements condemning Trump and praising Clinton, including Nobel Prize winners, historians, economists and nuclear launch officers.
Trump’s rise — and his narrow victory — should make us question the degree to which expertise will continue to matter in politics. We know that it does when it’s time to make policy, but on the politics, its salience is simply low and will probably remain so. Repeated warnings from experts across disciplines and across the political spectrum fell not on deaf ears, but on deeply disengaged and distracted ones. It is tempting to blame others for this problem, including politicians who abandoned their Constitutional principles to support Trump as well as media coverage that too often balanced bigotry, threats of violence, repeated falsehoods, attacks on the democratic process itself and sexual assault with email servers. But such complaints will not change anything, certainly not history.
It is therefore up to the scientific and academic community itself to become a more powerful political constituency. As Dr. Sagan once said about our planet, help will not come from somewhere else.
What lessons do we take away from this as science communicators who care about public policy? Here are a few, which broadly apply to other experts, too.
Of course, many scientists and science communicators are already doing all this. What I am saying is that we need more. Scientists who think this is someone else’s problem need to come off the sidelines. And scientific leaders have a further responsibility to foster more leadership in our community, through mentorships, fellowship programs and the simple grace of building each other up instead of tearing each other down.
Finally, we must care for each other. We need to face great difficulty with great creativity and drive. Dr. Sagan is no longer with us, but his legacy lives on in all of us who have dedicated our careers to the sciences. As Sarah Myhre and Tessa Hill put it last year: “Be brave. There has never been a more important time to be a well-spoken member of the scientific community.
Update, 11/11 at 4PM: The American Physical Society just retracted a fawning statement about Trump’s win after members pushed back. Scientists and scientific organizations will have to choose between appeasement and opposition and it’s going to be about way more than funding.
In the Guardian, Jack Stilgore and Roger Pielke Jr. argue that scientists have to work with a Trump administration to “remain relevant” or risk jeopardizing “the constructive role that we should play in policy and politics.” This is a false choice. Scientists are already relevant to policymaking at all levels of government and opposing a Trump Administrations’ attempts to gut politically inconvenient federal science would be both a constructive and moral choice. Australian scientists faced a similar choice and they stood up for themselves and their colleagues, prompting a reversal of anti-climate-science policies from their new government.
Also published on Medium.
Aaron Huertas is a science communicator and public relations professional who lives in Washington, DC.