South façade of the White House

The White House

© Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons

Scientists ‘partly to blame’ for skepticism of evidence in policymaking, says AAAS CEO

A U.S. president needs more than access to high-quality technical experts to deal with the inevitable science-related global crisis—a new outbreak of avian flu in Southeast Asia, say, or a tsunami triggered by an earthquake off the Chilean coast—that could occur at any time, says AAAS CEO Rush Holt. The president also must believe that scientific evidence is useful in setting government policy.

But Holt is worried that the new Trump administration doesn’t subscribe to that second condition. And scientists are partly to blame for what he sees as the growing devaluation of evidence by U.S. policymakers, Holt suggested this past Saturday in remarks at the winter meeting of the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C.

“How did we get to this point?” says Holt, a physicist who served 16 years in Congress before taking the top job at AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider) in 2015. “Too often, we scientists have presented the evidence in a way that was condescending and hierarchical. We might say, ‘Let me try to explain this to you. Maybe even you can understand this.’ And that is not very effective. So we are partly to blame.”

That haughty attitude has generated a backlash within the body politic against all types of scientific evidence, Holt argues. “Because people feel they cannot evaluate the validity of our conclusion,” he explains, “it becomes simply one person’s assertion. And then someone says, ‘My scientist says this,’ or even, ‘My Facebook interlocutor says this.’ And people feel it’s not their place to judge, because they’ve been told they are not scientists. So the question is, can we restore their sense of confidence, and empower them to think about evidence for themselves?”

That “reverence for evidence” has been part of the nation’s political discourse since the United States was founded and traditionally spans both parties, Holt asserted. But his plea for its restoration came during a session, entitled Science Policy in the 21st Century, at which only Democrats were represented.

Holt was joined on the panel by a fellow physicist turned legislator, Representative Bill Foster (D–IL), and physicist Cherry Murray, now back at Harvard University after having headed the $5 billion Office of Science within the Department of Energy during the final year of the Obama administration. The audience of 400 or so appeared similarly one-sided in its political affiliation, cheering heartily whenever a speaker criticized the policies of the new administration. Asked why no Republican policymakers were on the panel, organizer Daniel Holz of the University of Chicago in Illinois said the session “was not set up to be a political event” and that the participants were simply “physicists in leadership roles in government.”

There was at least one Republican in the room—Chris Shank, a former top aide to the chairman of the House of Representatives science committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) and more recently a member of Trump’s NASA transition team. But he didn’t stay for the question-and-answer session.