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America's devastating divorce from science

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Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden says that the United States is facing one of the most difficult moments in the nation's history, with "four historic crises all at the same time."

Posted: Sep 15, 2020 6:11 AM
Updated: Sep 15, 2020 6:11 AM

What do you say about a 75-year-old dream that has died? In 1945, Vannevar Bush, the MIT dean who mobilized American science during World War II, laid out the blueprint for what would become the social contract between science and American society for the next half century.

America would support science -- particularly through a new agency, called the National Science Foundation (NSF) but also through existing or expanded federal agencies such as NASA, the Weather Service, and the US Geological Survey -- and in return science would support America, through technical innovation that would better our material conditions and information that would enable us to face life's challenges and solve them.

Government was key to Bush's vision: the NSF would be a federal agency and it would be the federal government, through Congressional appropriations, that would support basic scientific research, trusting that the investment of taxpayer dollars would be readily repaid.

For several decades, that dream seemed to be fulfilled. Congress generously supported science, and both Republican and Democratic presidents signed the relevant appropriations bills. Those presidents also appointed highly qualified people to run science-oriented agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

And science, by and large, delivered on Bush's promise. Scientists developed safe and effective vaccinations against deadly childhood diseases, advanced the development of computer science and artificial intelligence, created a theoretical framework for understanding why earthquakes happen where they do, and learned to make remarkably accurate weather forecasts. Not all of this was done on the federal dime, but an awful lot of it was.

But then many things changed, one of which was climate change. Already in the 1960s scientists were predicting that burning fossil fuels would change our climate in dangerous ways, and by 1988 they were telling us that the climate was, indeed, changing. But, starting in the 1990s, rather than accepting these facts and finding ways to act on them consistent with our values and principles, conservative political and business leaders began to discount and deny them.

As the evidence got stronger, denial did not yield to acceptance, begrudging or otherwise. Instead, the denial got increasingly aggressive and belligerent.

Today, denial has become deadly. The Western United States are reeling in the face of unprecedented economic and ecological damage from wildfires and the choking smoke those fires have left in their wakes. As fires continue to rage, one Oregon official has advised people to brace themselves for a "mass fatality incident." Meanwhile, yet another monster hurricane is bearing down on the Gulf Coast -- while four other tropical storms are churning -- an almost unprecedented event.

The damage and destruction of "extreme weather events" -- fueled by man-made climate change -- is no longer a prediction, theory or hypothesis. It's our regular reality. We are losing both lives and livelihoods.

And in the midst of this hydra of climate-fueled catastrophe, what is our President, Donald Trump, doing? Hiring a notorious climate science denier, David Legates, to help run NOAA -- the federal agency most responsible for providing us with good climate information. The Washington Post reported this week that Legates formerly served as Delaware's climatologist but was "forced out" because of his "controversial views" on the issue.

But while the proposed appointment has been duly reported in the press -- and scientists have duly protested -- it sadly isn't news. This administration has repeatedly placed people who have questioned or rejected science in positions of authority throughout the federal service. Vice President Pence rejects evolutionary theory and suggested that smoking doesn't kill, and the President himself, as is well known, has claimed that climate change is a hoax.

Another day, another outrage.

Under these circumstances, it is tempting to respond by defending science and scientists, and by calling for more funding for research, more STEM education, and more scientists in the pipeline through greater efforts at inclusion. But the reality of the past two decades is that that approach doesn't work. As scientific conclusions become more indisputable, the machinations of those who are threatened by it become more outrageous.

It is evident that our scientific social contract is broken. Too many of our political leaders no longer seem to believe that science serves our national purpose. They see scientific evidence not as something to work with, but something to be worked around.

The writer and Iraqi war veteran Roy Scranton has written that the way he managed the dark reality of warfare was to embrace his own death. Each day, he would wake up and tell himself that he needn't fear, because he was already dead. "The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive."

Scranton's experience mirrors that of John Kerry in Vietnam, where he reminded himself that "every day was extra." When Scranton returned home, however, he was shocked to find federal troops in New Orleans, and then in New York and New Jersey, as military units were called in to deal with the chaos of climate change. He concluded that, as in Iraq, he needed to embrace the reality that the world as he knew it was already dead. Only then could he begin to look ahead and plan for a different future.

When we register our outrage at the latest governmental assault on science, we continue our own version of denial. We cling to Vannevar Bush's dream of a social contract where scientists generate knowledge and understanding, and our leaders and fellow citizens appreciate that knowledge and apply that understanding.

The unfortunate reality is that our elected government is increasingly populated with many men and women who do not merely ignore scientific facts, they appear to despise them and the people who produce them. They see science as something that stands in the way of their political goals, and therefore must be pushed out of the way.

The solution to this cannot be a call for more science or the restoration of "scientific integrity," whatever that is. We have tried that and it has failed. There comes a point when maybe one simply has to accept that the dream has died and it is time for a new one. I don't know what a new social contract for science would look like, but I am pretty sure it is time to start looking for it.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 608519

Reported Deaths: 9693
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion840461335
Lake45349684
Allen32803548
Hamilton29394315
St. Joseph27380381
Elkhart24404345
Vanderburgh19411249
Tippecanoe17970138
Johnson15069295
Porter14783169
Hendricks14401248
Madison10965221
Vigo10726181
Clark10677144
Monroe9383110
Delaware9116134
LaPorte9065163
Howard8236144
Kosciusko806983
Warrick672999
Hancock6697104
Bartholomew6484100
Floyd6428110
Wayne6136162
Grant5991115
Dubois555579
Boone551168
Morgan541295
Henry507864
Marshall503984
Cass483263
Dearborn479845
Noble473059
Jackson425047
Shelby417581
Lawrence391079
Clinton373043
Gibson370359
Harrison348144
DeKalb347164
Montgomery345754
Knox335639
Miami321444
Steuben313745
Whitley307326
Wabash303251
Adams300936
Ripley298445
Putnam296850
Huntington291659
Jasper289034
White273243
Daviess270474
Jefferson263338
Decatur247683
Fayette247148
Greene239862
Posey239328
Wells236051
LaGrange228862
Scott225339
Clay222532
Randolph213548
Jennings198936
Sullivan192333
Spencer191321
Washington186423
Fountain184027
Starke175443
Jay167623
Owen165737
Fulton164030
Orange159534
Carroll158015
Rush155118
Perry154229
Vermillion149134
Franklin148333
Tipton132332
Parke13078
Pike116926
Blackford111022
Pulaski97037
Newton90921
Brown88035
Benton86610
Crawford7999
Martin73713
Warren6817
Switzerland6615
Union6287
Ohio4907
Unassigned0376

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 859841

Reported Deaths: 10680
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin101171707
Cuyahoga855711125
Hamilton64017448
Montgomery43107418
Summit34836761
Lucas31350625
Butler30973232
Stark25786435
Warren19671140
Lorain19017223
Mahoning17321338
Lake16080154
Clermont15926111
Delaware1438878
Licking13204137
Trumbull12809316
Fairfield1279381
Greene12055137
Medina11591168
Clark10942265
Wood10348158
Allen9897126
Portage9296109
Miami916873
Richland9139118
Marion7459113
Tuscarawas7381182
Columbiana7327124
Pickaway726150
Wayne7034171
Muskingum703141
Erie6152129
Hancock552390
Ross548998
Scioto539164
Geauga508455
Darke470292
Ashtabula453073
Lawrence452654
Union451828
Sandusky436662
Mercer433589
Seneca430166
Huron428741
Auglaize422264
Shelby421222
Jefferson419269
Belmont416840
Washington388740
Athens38009
Putnam374975
Madison355129
Knox352622
Ashland344938
Fulton338443
Defiance330086
Crawford322374
Preble320637
Brown312921
Logan307332
Ottawa293943
Clinton290143
Williams278667
Highland275118
Jackson263845
Guernsey254125
Champaign252028
Fayette236530
Morrow23234
Perry231318
Holmes225474
Henry218749
Hardin213033
Coshocton205622
Van Wert202245
Gallia196726
Wyandot196051
Pike176217
Adams176115
Hocking172024
Carroll155616
Paulding144321
Noble120540
Meigs108624
Monroe100732
Harrison89121
Morgan83130
Vinton70213
Unassigned00
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