The inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States represents a sea change for the scientific enterprise. Trump has claimed, variously, that climate change is a hoax, vaccines trigger autism, and compact fluorescent light bulbs cause cancer. These views stand at odds with scientific evidence. Many have argued that his election confirms we have entered a post-truth era, in which facts are considered subjective and any information that conflicts with one’s personal opinion is justifiably questionable.
This sociopolitical moment has arrived even as science and technology—institutions that intrinsically rely on objective observations of reality—have reached a pinnacle of influence and usefulness. Science has made it possible to defeat emerging health threats, overcome diminishing resource availability, ease environmental stress, and accelerate economic growth. Survey data show that the public overwhelmingly supports investments in these areas. Generally speaking, the aims of scientists and the public would appear to be compatible. And yet scientists are facing marginalization and suppression from incoming leadership. So what’s going on?
In some ways it’s not difficult to understand why science has become entangled in the political fray: Science is a powerful tool that disrupts existing paradigms. And disruption can be unsettling. Groups that benefit from the status quo feel threatened when new technologies catalyze systemic change, even when these transformations mean better health and greater prosperity overall. Other groups sidelined during earlier transitional periods grow concerned that further change, even if it may be very different, will render their circumstances all the more dire.
Taking either of these perspectives as a starting point, calling scientific intent into question doesn’t seem a great leap. From there, especially in the absence of other information, the next logical step for some may be disbelief, distrust, and disdain. Those who reject climate science may view scientists as part of a global anticapitalist conspiracy. Those who question the safety of genetically modified crops may assert that scientists are colluding with corporations to monopolize agricultural markets.
At American Scientist, we recognize the enormous need to help remedy the current predicament. We are therefore renewing our commitment to sharing and contextualizing scientific and technological breakthroughs. We’ll strive not only to provide important science updates but also to explain how they fit into the bigger scheme of things.
We’re aware that these simple acts, performed by a small group of people, won’t be enough by themselves to restore broad-based faith in science, so we’ll need your help. As we enter a challenging age for science, we’ll be working to ensure that researchers and technologists have a seat at the table when important decisions are made. We’ll also provide ideas and opportunities for you to participate in the process.
In this issue, we are launching Science Communication, a column dedicated to the effective dissemination of research results to all audiences. In his inaugural article, "Ending the Crisis of Complacency for Science,” Matthew Nisbet identifies gaps in current science communication channels that alienate scientists from the public by failing to accommodate in-depth coverage and analysis of scientific topics. Also, in "The Hand-in-Hand Spread of Mistrust and Misinformation in Flint,” Siddhartha Roy calls on his experience dealing with the Flint water crisis to recommend ways scientists can regain eroded public trust. Together, Nisbet and Roy make a compelling case for scientists to engage with the public at the local level.
We invite you to tell us whether these ideas are helpful for restoring trust and truth in all our communities.