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Tyrannic Man’s Dominion: Trump Era Physical Sciences Approaching Social Sciences’ Marginal Status

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Photo by Paul Sableman | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Paul Sableman | CC BY 2.0

 

One of the Trump Administration’s most dramatic departures from preceding administrations is an open hostility to commonly agreed up facts and scientific findings, a stance culminating in new notions of “alternative facts.” While far from the first administration to lie–this is part of the office’s skillset—what’s new is the open attack on science itself, or more specifically on basing public policy on the findings of physics, biology, chemistry, and climate science. Trump is remarkably frank about what he doesn’t want to know; he intends to limit the impact of independent science on informing the policies of his administration.

The Trump Administration’s anti-science position is the foundation of their denials of human roles in climate change—with announcements of new limitations on the EPA and promises of ending NASA projects studying climate change. In his brief time in office, President Trump has issued new gag orders for governmental scientists, and proposals for new limits placed on the research these scientists can undertake and report. Scientists inside and outside of government have been vocal in their opposition to the Administration’s attacks on science, with news reports of scientists backing up massive data bases with information on environmental pollutants and climate data off-site, to protect it if from possible data purges.Weaponizing-Anthropology-404x600

All states seek to control not just the directions of scientific research; they weigh in on interpretations of findings with the policies they develop or ignore. Trump’s rhetoric moves beyond this as he appears ready to openly limit scientific interpretations. We have seen much of this approach before, in ways large and small. But when it occurs at this level, this is what totalitarian science policy looks like. History provides plenty of top-down centralized science policies, few of them producing a wealth or reliable results; whether it is the Rockefeller Foundation and German government funded eugenics research feeding nationalist policies developed for the Nazi Administration of the 1930s, Soviet biological research for years was required to align with the work of Trofim Lysenko, or the research underlying any number of failed five Year Plans. Trump’s policy wonks aren’t interested in hearing scientific findings about the damaging impacts of capitalism, and the deck is being stacked. The names for Trump’s Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy are outlier scientists whose main qualifications are rejecting human caused climate change, hostility to academia, and support for expensive weapons applied science projects. It isn’t difficult to foretell how coming funding streams will shift and shape our national scientific imaginations.

Scientists have a lot to worry about with congressional and presidential plans to limit the ways that science will be used to inform public policy. It all looks like a disaster, yet, perhaps the most significant thing about this new in is unwelcomed state of constrained-use-of-science for public policy is that the physical sciences are finally rapidly catching up with the government’s longstanding practice of ignoring the findings social science to influence public policy.

Climate and environmental scientists are only starting to acquire on the status of ignored scientists that has been afforded many social scientists for the past half century. It’s not that sociologists and anthropologists haven’t long understood and demonstrated things like the links between income and wealth inequality and crime, negative consequences of mandatory sentencing, the ways to improve access to public health, or the economic and social impacts of structural violence; they have, but policy makers don’t want to hear about data indicating that unfettered capitalism has negative social impacts. During the 1950s, anthropologists and sociologists who used their disciplinary findings indicating that race was a social construction, and not a biological variable accounting for differences between peoples were routinely ignored. When this research led to activism, these social scientists were marginalized and punished by the FBI and other agents of McCarthyism. Today, growing numbers of US scientists’ findings stand to place them at odds with the preconceived notions of elected officials in similar ways.

The US has a long history of Congressional ambivalence about establishing federal funding for social science policy research. When the NSF was established in 1950, it was charged with funding research aligned with national science policies; after nasty congressional debates, anthropology and other social sciences (except psychology, which was needed for militarized projects, and several programs linked with social control) were removed from NSF’s initial funding. American anti-intellectualism of 1950s fueled skepticism over the neutrality of social science contributions. At one 1953 NSF hearing Senator John McClellan (Arkansas) complained that all the tax payers received from such projects was “just a lot of professor theories and all that stuff.” In 1958 the NSF funded its first anthropological research; and in the mid-1960s Senator Fred Harris (Oklahoma) led failed efforts to establish a National Foundation on Social Science; with visions of funding the types of independent research these papers tonight present. Senator Harris’ proposal died in committee, but his vision is worth remembering—as are the vitriolic attacks by opponents who at times suggested the Pentagon should be involved in identifying and funding social science projects worth funding.

There’s been an increase in headlines reporting attacks on governmental science, but this anti-science governmental stance has been growing for years. Back November 2014, as the U.S. Senate debated the Keystone XL pipeline bill, the House adopted H.R. 1422, restricting the roles of scientists on the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board. As Union of Concerned Scientists director Andrew Rosenberg then objected: “scientists who know the most about a subject can’t weigh in, but experts paid by corporations who want to block regulations can.” This sort of muzzling of scientific findings now occurs openly, shamelessly, at new levels. For the past two decades, the NRA has successfully lobbied for, and received, policies assuring that the CDC and NIH cannot fund scientific research on America’s firearm epidemic. This policy shift occurred in reaction to Arthur Kellerman’s work establishing links between gun ownership and homicides, funded by the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Injury Prevention.

For years, Congressional Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology—famous for his attacks on climate scientists, has lead efforts to end NSF funding for social science research. Two years ago Smith published an op-ed clarifying that he didn’t want to cut all NSF social science funds, just “questionable social science grants”—he then listed seven anthropologically-related NSF projects before rhetorically asking “how about studying the United States of America?” framing his objections with claims that he would fund social scientific research informing American policy. Of course, Smith and his colleagues have long opposed funding social science research on topics like gun violence, impacts of predatory lending, migration studies, ways to increase voting participation among the poor, savings and increased efficiency by universal health care, negative social effects of increased automation, racialized police violence, and any other research measuring the destructive effects of neoliberal capitalism. Congress doesn’t want to fund scientists who’s findings undermines their assumptions that capitalism’s markets can best meet all human needs; and the closer that climate science comes to focusing on the ways our wasteful consumer cultures threatens the earth, the less they want to hear from science.

Today’s anti-science movement does not reject all science. It favors many technological innovations—particularly weapons systems, and labor-saving innovations increasing domestic unemployment—or physical or social science with military applications. It’s important that we continue remind ourselves of the injustice and absurdity of this situation and to focus on how political efforts to suppress scientific-knowledge threatening the profits of those capitalizing on what once was a common good, can be rolled back. The negative spaces of science and social science funding priorities are revealing. We can learn about our priorities, by what our leaders try and ignore. They can ignore this, but we can’t. We need to build and strengthened engaged forms of social and political science that use our findings to challenge the outrageous claims and attacks science and basic notions of truth coming from Washington, D.C.

Not only are we a long way from Senator Fred Harris’ dream over half a century ago to establish a National Foundation on Social Science; but today we can expect politicians whose dogma commits them to embracing unfettered capitalist development to similarly defund and attack physical scientists whose findings challenge the tenets of their free market faith.

The tens of thousands of pages of FBI files I had release under the Freedom of Information Act while researching my book, Threatening Anthropology, revealed how the FBI monitored and harassed anthropologists whose research results challenged popular beliefs about race. This work taught me that purely theoretical research is seldom much of a threat to power structures, but when theoretical findings are linked with activist efforts to implement change—especially when it threatened the extant political economy—this can change worlds, and it can garner the anger of those benefiting from the status quo. Some social scientists learned to study topics aligned with the needs of state, while others continued to engage in projects that challenged these powers.

There are plenty of reasons to be ambivalent about science, for me, most of these have to do with scientists’ failures to responsibly confront the uses of their work, acting as if science existed in a political vacuum where discovered truths exist disconnected from the contexts of discovery and application. The Trumpian present offers new opportunities to confront such illusions. The present brings new pressures on scientists to not tell politicians what they don’t want to hear, but this is a moment for scientists to make common cause to speak out against, and resist an administration so unashamedly ignoring facts that it openly embraces its own lies as alternative facts. While the history of science is full of examples of scientists seeing their work outside of the political processes that fund and consume their research, the present moment needs scientists to confront the ways that political forces shape their work. This is a moment where those of us working in the physical and social sciences must use the truths of our work to challenge an administration so comfortable with demonstrable lies.

More articles by:

David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.

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