Scientific work is always set in the context of certain social and political realities, and scientists cannot afford to ignore them. Brexit cast a long shadow across UK research, and the US government shutdown of 2013 exposed the fragility of the underlying funding apparatus that most research depends on. Combine that with a toxic political climate in which expertise and statistics are lazily dismissed in favour of emotionally charged but vacuous rhetoric, and you get to the situation we now find ourselves in.
Although the threat of lost funding is significant on its own, it forms only a piece of the puzzle. When you consider Trump’s clamorous rise to become the Republican nominee for President, Michael Gove’s disparaging remarks about experts, Newt Gingrich’s elevation of public sentiment over facts and data, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s purge of thousands of academics in Turkey, a sinister pattern begins to emerge — one that cuts across national boundaries.
The underlying message seems to be that knowledge and expertise do not matter in the political process. All that matters is how strongly one believes and, crucially, how passionately one can express those beliefs, even if they lack rational justification. That’s why the opprobrium Trump’s comments attract seemingly make no dent on his popular appeal, at least among Republicans, some of whom have started to borrow from his approach.
As an example, consider Antonio Sabàto Jr, who insisted at the Republican convention that Obama was not a Christian, but a secret Muslim belonging to the “other side.” When asked to support this claim given all the evidence to the contrary, in an exemplary display of truthiness, he simply said that he felt it to be true “in his heart.” Sabàto’s religious intuitions apparently supersede any and all facts that would show them to be wrong.
As with Trump, it seems that the strength of the justification is not considered nearly as important as the strength of the conviction and the vociferous manner in which it is conveyed. He says it with passion, so who would dare doubt it? And if they were to question it, by what authority? We’ve already dispensed with experts and fact-checkers! We’ve already dismissed facts and data. “Enough of them,” as Gove put it.
If this is how the political game is to be played now, by appealing to emotionally evocative intuitions while ignoring facts, then what place is there in this discourse for scientists and other scholars who care enough to examine those intuitions? What happens when legislators are allowed to spurn rational accountability for policies that are promulgated in denial of what we have learned through scientific inquiry (e.g., climate change)?
When political discourse is tethered to firmly entrenched intuitions that are seemingly impervious to facts, and the loudest voices are confused for the most authoritative, what kind of society can we expect to find ourselves in?
Apart from cuts to research funding, the scientific community should also be concerned about preserving the critical discourse on which both science and democracy fundamentally depend. As bitter and ugly as politics has become, we cannot afford to ignore the anti-intellectual streak weaving its way through the culture and into the legislative chamber, where it can do untold damage to scientific and democratic institutions.