"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"...no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." – Thomas Jefferson

Friday, August 23, 2019

Repairing the Damage to Science


The Growing Partisan Divide in Views of Higher Education

In 2012 53% of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents in the U.S. believed that higher education was a net positive for the nation and 35% had a negative view. Now, in 2019, those numbers have reversed. 59% of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents have a negative view of higher education while 33% have a positive view. Over the same time period, the results for Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents have been consistent -- about 66% positive and about 20% negative.

Ed Brayton, who blogs at Dispatches from the Culture Wars "is not at all" surprised by this.

Most Republicans Reject Higher Education
This is not at all surprising. The right, and Trump in particular, have made rejection of expertise and knowledge almost an article of faith. They look at university faculty that leans liberal, decide they’re the enemy and demonize them in every way possible. Trump embodies this with his constant rejection of science, learning and experience. No one knows anything about anything but him, so he doesn’t need no fancy schmancy liberal eggheads telling him that global warming is real or that perhaps he should listen to our career civil servants in the diplomatic corps, who might just know something he doesn’t about the countries they’ve been deeply involved with for decades.
Not only is this not surprising, but, as the surveys have shown, it's not new either. In 2012 more than a third of America's Republicans thought that a post-secondary education had a net negative impact on our society. While that's less than in 2019, it's still a lot.


This strain of popular anti-intellectualism has been part of American life since the beginning of the Republic. It was present in the religious objections to the Constitution, and according to Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, is at least in part, the result of the particular strain of Protestantism which set the tone for the development of the country.

In more modern times...
  • Vice-Presidential candidate Richard Nixon called former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson an "egghead"
However, the fact that the percentage of Republican Americans who disdain expertise has risen is more reflective of the direction of the Republican Party under its current leadership than any change in the number of Americans who would like their children to go to college.

By the way, it's still true that the more education one has, the higher one's income prospects...and the difference is growing. In 1970 the difference in average income between those with a college degree and those with just a high school diploma was $14,400 per year. By 2018 that difference had nearly doubled to $25,000.

Majorities of both Republicans and Democrats don't like the post-secondary impact of high tuition costs, but nearly 80% of Republicans include the so-called left-leaning tendency of college professors in their reasons for their negative view of colleges and universities. Interestingly, this further divides by age. 96% of Republicans over 65 think liberal professors impose their beliefs on the young, whereas slightly over half (56%) of Republicans between the ages of 18 and 34 feel that way. While that's still a majority, it implies that a large number of young Republicans don't see post-secondary liberal professorial indoctrination as a problem. One would think that the younger sample rather than the older, would have a better handle on what is going on in colleges and universities today.


In the meantime, the current administration ignores scientific (and other) expertise when making decisions which affect us all.

The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in their report, The State of Science in the Trump Era (2019),
Scientists—whether agency staff, experts in leadership positions, or nongovernmental scientists on advisory committees—have long advised policymakers when good decisions depend on scientific evidence. The Trump administration is excluding this expertise from decisionmaking...

Our nation's landmark public health and environmental laws require the use of science to set standards that protect people and preserve our natural resources. The Trump administration has ignored or sidestepped many of these processes...
In fact, the administration is not just ignoring expertise, but actually censoring science that doesn't fit its pro-profit or political agenda.

Who does President Trump treat worse than anyone else? Scientists.
In 2017, Interior Department officials — including then-Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt — blocked the release of a comprehensive analysis about the threat that three widely used pesticides pose to endangered species, requiring the report’s authors to use a narrower standard for determining the risk of the chemicals. That year, the government also halted a study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine on the health risks of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachian states, wasting $455,110 that had already been spent on the process.

We could go on: The administration has suppressed, blocked or ignored scientific research on the environmental effects of mining in national forests, the dangers of asbestos, the status of endangered species, the effect a citizenship question would have on the U.S. Census, the safety of children’s products and countless other issues.

The education community must step up. We must prepare tomorrow's leaders to repair the intellectual damage coming from the current administration.
This is the intellectual rot of the Trump era. It’s more than just an anti-big government ideology; it’s a systematic assault on science across the federal government. These actions will reverberate in our government for years to come, even after the Trump administration is gone, in the form of policy decisions we make without the benefit of the best evidence available. And worse, Americans may not even be aware of how they are being deceived and deprived.

That’s the true scandal of Trump’s war on scientists. No other group is so pervasively targeted and so thoroughly ignored. Yet it is their voices, more than any other, that our nation needs in this disturbing political moment.


Reversing the anti-science direction of the country will take time and won't be easy. We can do it if we focus on today's students...tomorrow's leaders.

In his last interview (go to 3:55 for this quote), Carl Sagan warned (1996),
Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking; a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.

If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then, we are up for grabs for the next charlatan (political or religious) who comes ambling along.

It's a thing that Jefferson lay great stress on. It wasn't enough, he said, to enshrine some rights in a constitution or a bill of rights. The people had to be educated and they had to practice their skepticism and their education. Otherwise we don't run the government. The government runs us.
What can we do? The charlatans are here...it's time to step up.


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