The Trials of Denial Science and the Trump administration

Part 2

Eppur si muove

‘And yet it moves!” These are the words of Galileo, after torture by Pope Urban VIII and the Inquisition forced him to recant the idea that Earth moves around the Sun. Scripture said otherwise, and the Pope had a vested interest in that fiction. Galileo was slammed into house arrest in 1633. 

Yet “Eppur si muove” survives as the defiant motto of those who support science and reason over power. Some of our graduate students at Columbia end their emails quoting Galileo, absorbing a little of his bravery after almost 400 years.

When a government challenges a science, its first step is to demonize the scientists or the organization that supports them: They are against jobs; climate change is a hoax; why are they wasting our money? 

The second is to lock up scientific results that were in the public domain or ban further investigation. 

The third step is to cut funds and fire people.

Stalin banned Mendelian genetics because it did not allow for the inheritance of acquired characteristics — a concept that was necessary for the improvement of the new socialist man. The main villain was a charlatan named Trofim Lysenko, who caused geneticists to die in the gulag, while others fled to the West. 

Science is a generational undertaking, and Soviet science, especially biology and agriculture, never recovered. The United States was and remains the beneficiary of successive generations of Russian refugee scientists, engineers, and artists.

When Albert Einstein created the theory of relativity, it was too clever for some German physicists, even after the first experimental proof emerged in 1919. Although Einstein was born in Germany, relativity was considered foreign and even a threat; German physics textbooks of the 1920s did not mention Einstein or relativity. The Nazis loved absolutism, and relativity unnerved them. In 1933, Einstein’s ideas were labeled Jewish physics, and any discussion of relativity was banned. Einstein and many other refugee physicists became Americans and started the Manhattan project that built the first nuclear weapon.

There are many examples beyond these three, but they have certain elements in common. The cases against these scientists started with a corruption of language. There is no Jewish physics. Science does not accept alternative facts or the ignorance and laziness called post-truth (the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year). Aspiring autocrats are not constrained by decency or reasonable language — remember nasty woman, low energy and, (news to me) Meryl Streep and Hamilton are overrated. Language becomes Orwellian, and truth and reason are no longer the default positions, as the University of Texas philosopher Kathleen Higgins pointed out in an article titled “Post-truth: a -guide for the perplexed” that appeared in Nature magazine on Dec. 1, 2016 (to be found on the internet). 

Once language is corrupted, scientific or other facts are dispensable; there is nothing to build on, because post-truths and alternative facts are not solid, they are inventions of anger and convenience and allow no predictions. There are no scientific questions to be asked, say, about vaccines or gun violence or why the oceans are rising. And no need. Raging autocrats know the answers.

The next step in the destruction of inquiry is to wreck the agencies that sponsor it. It just takes a few administrators to sequester the vast data of NOAA, the EPA or other agencies that are now available online for everyone’s use. Will the carbon dioxide sensors on Mauna Loa be switched off? Will data from the buoys and satellites that measure ocean temperature, currents, and water levels become secret? Will the NSF be forbidden to fund research grants concerning the polar icecaps or the Greenland glaciers? 

Why did the CDC just cancel a conference on climate change and disease when mosquitos carrying Zika virus may be coming north in our warming climate? Why did the Trump transition team ask for the names of scientists in the Department of Energy who attended meetings on climate change? The request was refused.

A response is forming. A march of scientists in defense of the benefits of science to society will take place in the coming months. In some cases the amateurish attacks of the new administration on scientific agencies have retreated. We are better off than Galileo and Russian geneticists — we have free newspapers, courts and private foundations. The data from NOAA and the EPA have been downloaded to private servers. 

Still, we could do worse than to channel Galileo’s “And yet it moves.” Perhaps our motto should be: “Eppur cresce il mar. And yet the sea rises....”

For more, go to www.thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/316407-trump-sparks-fears-of-w...


Richard Kessin is Professor of Pathology and Cell Biology Emeritus at Columbia University. He lives in Norfolk and can be reached at rhk2@columbia.edu.