On an episode of his HBO political talk show, Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher repeated his contention that the Republican Party, more generally the right wing of the American political spectrum, is the party of science denialism politics.
One caveat about this article – it is primarily focused on American politics. In many countries, both the left and right accept the consensus on scientific principles like evolution and vaccines. Only in America is science denialism the default position, crossing party boundaries.
Let’s take a look at left vs. right ideas about science, and how each embrace science denialism and pseudoscience. It’s quite a bit more complicated than you can imagine.
Earlier this week, I published an article on the nominee for the Surgeon General, Dr. Jerome M. Adams along with a potential nominee for CDC director, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald. Since then, President Trump made it official, and Dr. Fitzgerald will be the next CDC Director. And the delicious salty tears of anti-vaxxers are flowing freely, since both doctors are clearly pro-vaccine.
Donald Trump’s record on appointments for science and medical positions has been horrific, at best. His choice of Tom Price for Health and Human Services was terrible for healthcare. Anti-science individuals were also appointed to serve as EPA Director and Secretary of Energy. But recently, Trump appointed Surgeon General and will appoint a CDC director, both of whom appear to be good, though not perfect picks.
From a purely non-political standpoint, those of us on the science side wanted a few basics in the new Surgeon General and CDC director:
Have a respectable medical and/or public health background.
Provide full-throated support for immunization programs
We have seen a lot of anti-science activities at the Federal government level that are scary. Massive reductions in Federal budgets for the EPA and National Institutes of Health are bad enough for those of us who support science research and education. But the emboldened right wing, at the state level, are pushing all types of anti-science legislation that will have a profound effect on how we teach science to our children. We need to pay attention to this.
I thought it would be beneficial for us to take a look at the states that are pushing anti-science legislation since the November 2016 election, when a lot of state legislatures’ composition changed (or remained the same). In general, this legislation focuses on anti-evolution and anti-climate change beliefs pushed by the right wing.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in 1970 for the purpose of protecting human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by the United States Congress. Among its many responsibilities, it is at the forefront in attempting to reduce the effects of climate change. Of course, Donald Trump appointed a climate denier EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, who has absolutely despised the EPA while attorney general for Oklahoma.
In recent years, critics would say the EPA has been too focused on CO2 and maybe things like hazardous waste sites, particulate pollution, strip mining, what’s happening to the oceans — there are so many things that the EPA could do productively that maybe have been diverted from this single-minded focus on CO2.
I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. So no, I would not agree that it’s (CO2) a primary contributor to the global warming that we see. But we don’t know that yet…we need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis.
Alternative facts, what most of us would call outright lies or misinformation, are the new standard of truthfulness coming out of the Donald Trump administration. It started when Kellyanne Conway, one of the numerous Trump talking heads who think Americans are stupid, said, “You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving … alternative facts.”
Alternative facts seem to be pretty close to the Nazi propaganda technique, called the Big Lie. It is about the use of a lie so colossal that the public would not believe that someone would have the audacity to distort the truth so impressively. Except, I’m going to reiterate most Americans (an non-Americans) aren’t that stupid. And sorry for going Godwin so early in the article, but sometimes, it is necessary to point out the obvious.
I’ve been fighting alternative facts as skeptic for nearly three decades. It started when I got into an argument with a school board candidate in California who said that “evolution is just a theory.” Now, those of you with scientific understanding accept that a theory, at least in science, is approximately equal to a fact. What he should have said is, “evolution is just a fact,” but instead he was making “theory” a pejorative which implied evolution wasn’t a fact.
He and I must have argued for 20 minutes, when he finally claimed that science was a religion that required faith, which, of course, is the exact opposite of what science represents. I told him that he apparently lacked any education in science, so why should he be on the school board. He lost, though I take no credit for it.
Over the years, I have evolved (pun intended) into other areas of scientific skepticism, like GMOs, vaccines, and alternative medicine. See, even the junk medicine quacks grasped that “alternative” label long before Donald Trump walked into the national spotlight.
Let’s look at my favorite alternative facts of science.
President-elect Donald Trump has met with Robert F Kennedy Jr., a notorious vaccine denier, today. The two will discuss “the issues pertaining to vaccines and immunizations.” And whatever tiny spark of hope that maybe Trump was pandering to the anti-vaccine wing nuts for votes has been put out with a bucket of water.
Trump himself shares many of the Kennedy’s anti-science beliefs on vaccines, including claiming that there is a link between vaccines and autism. During a 2015 GOP primary debate, Trump said
I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time. Same exact amount, but you take this little beautiful baby, and you pump–I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child, and we’ve had so many instances, people that work for me. … [in which] a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back and a week later had a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.
One of the things I’ve learned, while fighting the good fight on science on the internet for over 20 years, when someone says “I am totally in favor of XYZ,” they generally will follow up with how they really aren’t. Trump does the same.
Outspoken vaccine critic Robert Kennedy Jr. has accepted a position within Donald Trump’s administration as chair of a panel on vaccine safety and scientific integrity — the clearest sign yet of the president-elect’s suspicions about vaccines.
The offer, which came in a Wednesday meeting between Trump and the scion of America’s most prominent Democratic family, is likely to concern scientists and public health experts who fear the incoming administration could give legitimacy to skeptics of childhood immunizations, despite a huge body of scientific research demonstrating that vaccines are safe.
Kennedy told reporters after the meeting,
President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it. His opinion doesn’t matter but the science does matter and we ought to be reading the science and we ought to be debating the science. And that everybody ought to be able to be assured that the vaccines that we have — he’s very pro-vaccine, as am I — but they’re as safe as they possibly can be.
Yes, Mr. Kennedy the science dos matter and you are on the absolute wrong side of science. Face it, you’re a science denier on the facts of vaccines. Moreover, science is not subject to debate – either the evidence is solid or not, and you don’t debate. You provide scientific evidence equal to, or better than, the science presented that supports my understanding of vaccines. Claiming that yourself, or Donald Trump, are “pro-vaccine” falls on deaf ears when it’s clear that you will use any lame conspiracy theory, bad science or outright lies to support your point of view about vaccines.
Robert F Kennedy Jr – you are an embarrassment to liberal ideals on science. You are an embarrassment to the legacies of your father and your uncles. You’re just an embarrassment.
Now this science denying ignoramus might chair a panel to look at vaccine safety. Maybe I should hope that Kennedy gets shamed into accepting the scientific facts. But my hopes are starting to be delusions.
The President-elect enjoyed his discussion with Robert Kennedy Jr. on a range of issues and appreciates his thoughts and ideas. The President-elect is exploring the possibility of forming a commission on Autism, which affects so many families; however no decisions have been made at this time. The President-elect looks forward to continuing the discussion about all aspects of Autism with many groups and individuals.
So Trump may or may not set up this panel and may or may not appoint Kennedy to chair it.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told members of his environmental group late Wednesday that he expects to temporarily leave it to chair a vaccine safety commission he has been discussing with President-elect Donald Trump and his aides for more than a month.
So, RFK Jr has been discussing this panel for much longer than it appeared when this news first broke. And it kind of supports the notion that this will happen, causing unneeded confusion about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, which is beyond dispute. At least beyond dispute of that uninformed, unscientific group.
I am not alone at being appalled by this turn of events. Nearly every scientific, medical and skeptical writer has expressed either shock, alarm, humor, or crying. Maybe all four at once.
Kennedy no longer represents liberal democrats to me. He’s an unscientific traitor.
Despite the consternation with Trump’s views on vaccines, we really should examine what he can and cannot do. Because other than the tweeting out his opinions about vaccines, which constitutes modern politics’ bully pulpit, what powers does Trump really have to modify or eliminate vaccines. The answer is somewhat complicated.
Once Trump was elected, along with a Republican Senate and House, most of us in healthcare knew that Obamacare was probably doomed. I don’t think it will be easy for the Republicans, now that they’re in power, to actually dismantle Obamacare, especially some of the more popular provisions such as elimination of the pre-existing conditions as a disqualification for receiving health insurance.
Also, there are over 20 million Americans who have taken advantage of health insurance from Obamacare, and I think it would be almost impossible for the Republicans to cut them off. But I may be delusional about the limits of Republican dislike of poorer Americans.
Setting aside healthcare insurance, what else may be impacted by Tom Price? Well, the Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for many of the important health care institutions that matter to me and my readers. Some of the major institutions under the HHS umbrella are:
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) – the nucleus of biomedical and health-related research in the USA. Much of the research at NIH, which has an impressive world-wide reputation, serves as the foundation of much of what we know about human health and disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – if you are a reader of this website and blog for the past 5 years, you know I, and many others, have tremendous respect for the CDC. It functions as the frontline, first responders if you will, for any disease that appears in the world. It is made up of some of the leading scientists, public health specialists, and thought leaders in healthcare, who give their careers to help humanity. And, of course, they set vaccine policy for this country. The CDC has tremendous influence on public health across the globe.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – the primary regulator of pharmaceuticals, medical devices, food, diagnostics, supplements, and many other areas, it is one of the most powerful agencies in the world for protecting the health of consumers.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) – the federal agency that administers the Medicare program along with advising the states on Medicaid and other public health care programs.
Tom Price will have significant influence on much of the science of medicine, let alone the financing of health care in the USA. There is one thing in Price’s background that give us some significant insight as to how he’ll run his department – let’s just say, it’s not good. Yeah, none of us of would have predicted this.
Donald Trump is technically the Republican candidate in the 2016 election for President of the United States. There’s a lot that he says that disgusts me personally, and the public generally. But there’s one area that may indicate the depth of his ignorance. Donald Trump and vaccines – his views are just plain wrong.
As I wrote recently, there’s really only a slight, probably not statistically significant, difference between the acceptance of mandatory vaccination. So the views of Donald Trump and vaccines is way over on the side of crackpot. This is why we can’t have good things.
Let’s look at some the things that Trump has said about vaccines on Twitter, his preferred method of communicating.