The worst anti-science nonsense of 2016
2016 was a year of remarkable scientific breakthroughs. A century after Albert Einstein proposed his general theory of relativity, researchers proved him right when, for the first time ever, they were able to >observe gravitational waves produced by two black holes that collided 1.3 billion years ago. Astronomers discovered a >potentially habitable planet just 4.3 light-years from Earth. And scientists even came up with a good reason to put >a bunch of adorable dogs in an MRI machine.>
Unfortunately, there was a lot of anti-science nonsense this year, too — much of it from our political leaders. On issues ranging from climate change to criminal justice, our president-elect was a notable offender. But some of his rivals joined in as well. So did his nominees. And Congress. And members of the media. Here, in no particular order, are some of the most appalling examples. You can let us know in the comments which one you think is the worst.
Hurricane Matthew truthers
In early October, as Hurricane Matthew approached the southeastern United States and officials ordered mass evacuations, a group of right-wing commentators alleged that the Obama administration was conspiring to exaggerate hurricane forecasts in order to scare the public about climate change. On Oct. 5, Rush Limbaugh said hurricane forecasting often involved “politics” because “the National Hurricane Center is part of the National Weather Service, which is part of the Commerce Department, which is part of the Obama administration, which by definition has been tainted.” He added, however, that Matthew itself was “a serious bad storm” and hadn’t been politicized.
The next day, Matt Drudge took the theory a step further, tweeting, “The deplorables are starting to wonder if govt has been lying to them about Hurricane Matthew intensity to make exaggerated point on climate.” He added, “Hurricane center has monopoly on data. No way of verifying claims.” Drudge’s tweets were widely condemned as dangerous and irresponsible. They also caught the attention of conspiracy kingpin Alex Jones:
A day later, Limbaugh also went full Matthew Truther, declaring it “inarguable” that the government was “hyping Hurricane Matthew to sell climate change.” Matthew would ultimately kill more than 40 people in the United States and hundreds in Haiti. It caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage.
Congress won’t lift the gun research ban
Gun violence is a public health crisis that kills 33,000 people in the United States each year, injures another 80,000, and, according to an award-winning Mother Jones investigation, costs $229 billion annually. But as the Annals of Internal Medicine explained in a 2015 editorial, Congress — under pressure from the National Rifle Association — has for years essentially banned federal dollars from being used to study the causes of, and possible solutions to, this epidemic:
Two years ago, we called on physicians to focus on the public health threat of guns. The profession’s relative silence was disturbing but in part explicable by our inability to study the problem. Political forces had effectively banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other scientific agencies from funding research on gun-related injury and death. The ban worked: A recent systematic review of studies evaluating access to guns and its association with suicide and homicide identified no relevant studies published since 2005.
Following the June 12 terrorist shootings that killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Democrats tried once again to lift the research ban. But as the Hill reported, “Republicans blocked two amendments that would have allowed the [CDC] to study gun-related deaths. Neither had a recorded vote.”
Officials face charges in Flint water crisis
Perhaps the biggest scientific scandal in recent memory was the revelation that residents of Flint, Michigan — an impoverished, majority-black city — were exposed to dangerous levels of lead after government officials switched their drinking water source. Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems, along with a variety of other serious health issues. Officials ignored — and then publicly disputed — repeated warnings that Flint’s water was unsafe to drink. According to one study, the percentage of Flint children with elevated lead levels doubled following the switchover. The water crisis may also be to blame for a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.
Since April 2016, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed charges against 13 current and former government officials for their alleged role in the crisis. On Dec. 19, Schuette accused two former emergency managers — officials who had been appointed by the governor to oversee Flint’s finances with minimal input from local elected officials — of moving forward with the switchover despite knowing the situation was unsafe. According to the charging document, Darnell Earley conspired with Gerald Ambrose and others to “enter into a contract based upon false pretenses [that required] Flint to utilize the Flint River as its drinking water source knowing that the Flint Water Treatment Plant … was unable to produce safe water.” The document says that Earley and Ambrose were “advised to switch back to treated water” from Detroit’s water department (which had previously supplied Flint’s water) but that they failed to do so, “which caused the Flint citizens’ prolonged exposure to lead and Legionella bacteria.” The attorney general also alleged that Ambrose “breached his duties by obstructing and hindering” a health department investigation into the Legionnaires’ outbreak. Earley and Ambrose have pleaded not guilty.
Trump’s budget director isn’t sure the government should fund Zika research
Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), Donald Trump’s choice to head the White House Office of Management and Budget, isn’t just a global warming denier. As Mother Jones reported, he recently questioned whether the government should even fund scientific research. In September, Mulvaney took to Facebook to discuss the congressional showdown over urgently needed funding for the Zika epidemic — money that would pay for mosquito control, vaccine studies, and research into the effects of the virus. (Among other disputes, Republicans sought to prevent Planned Parenthood from receiving Zika funds.)
“[D]o we need government-funded research at all[?]” wrote Mulvaney in his since-deleted post. Even more remarkably, he went on to raise doubts about whether Zika really causes microcephaly in babies. As Slate’s Phil Plait noted, “There is wide scientific consensus that Zika and microcephaly are linked, and had been for some time before Mulvaney wrote that.”
The House “Science” Committee
The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is quickly becoming one of the most inaccurately named entities in Washington. For the past several years, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has used his position as chair of the committee to harass scientists through congressional investigations. He’s even accused researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of having “altered historic climate data to get politically correct results” about global warming. As Mother Jones explained in February, “Smith is determined to get to the bottom of what he sees as an insidious plot by NOAA to falsify research. His original subpoena for internal communications, issued last October, has been followed by a series of letters to Obama administration officials in NOAA and other agencies demanding information and expressing frustration that NOAA has not been sufficiently forthcoming.”
Fast-forward to December 2016, when someone working for Smith decided to use the committee Twitter account to promote an article from Breitbart News titled “Global Temperatures Plunge. Icy Silence from Climate Alarmists.” (Breitbart is the far-right website that was formerly run by chief Trump strategist Steve Bannon. In addition to climate denial, Bannon has said the site is “the platform for the alt-right,” a movement that is closely tied to white nationalism.)
Unsurprisingly, actual scientists weren’t pleased.
GOP platform declares coal is “clean”
Republicans’ devotion to coal was one of the defining environmental issues of the 2016 campaign. Trump promised to revive the struggling industry and put miners back to work by repealing “all the job-destroying Obama executive actions.” Those commitments were reflected in an early version of the GOP platform, which listed coal’s many wonderful qualities and said that Republicans would dismantle Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which limits emissions from coal-fired power plants. That didn’t go far enough for GOP activist David Barton, who convinced delegates at the party’s convention to add one additional word to the text. “I would insert the adjective ‘clean,’” said Barton. “So: ‘The Democratic Party does not understand that coal is an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource.’” Barton’s wording change was approved unanimously. As Grist noted at the time, “For years the coal industry — and at one point, even President Obama — promoted the idea of ‘clean coal,’ that expensive and imperfect carbon-capture-and-storage technology could someday make coal less terrible. But there’s no way it is clean.”
Global warming deniers in the GOP primaries
As 2016 kicked off, there were still 12 candidates competing for the Republican presidential nomination. Nearly all of them rejected the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are the main cause of global warming. (The GOP contenders who spoke most forcefully in favor of the science — Lindsey Graham and George Pataki — both dropped out of the race in late 2015.)
As recently as December 2015, Trump declared that “a lot of” the global warming issue is “a hoax.” His chief rival, Ted Cruz, said in February that climate change is “the perfect pseudoscientific theory” to justify liberal politicians’ efforts to expand “government power over the American citizenry.” In a debate in March, Marco Rubio drew loud applause when he said, “Well, sure, the climate is changing, and one of the reasons why the climate is changing is the climate has always been changing … But as far as a law that we can pass in Washington to change the weather: There’s no such thing.” Moments later, John Kasich said, “I do believe we contribute to climate change.” But he added, “We don’t know how much humans actually contribute.”
In 2015, Ben Carson told the San Francisco Chronicle, “There is no overwhelming science that the things that are going on are man-caused and not naturally caused.” A few months earlier, Jeb Bush said, “The climate is changing. I don’t think the science is clear of what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural … For the people to say the science is decided on this is just really arrogant.” In one 2014 interview, Rand Paul seemed to accept that carbon pollution is warming the planet; in a different interview, he said he’s “not sure anybody exactly knows why” the climate changes. Mike Huckabee claimed in 2015 that “a volcano in one blast will contribute more [to climate change] than a hundred years of human activity.” (That’s completely wrong.) In 2011, Rick Santorum called climate change “junk science.” In 2008, Jim Gilmore said, “We know the climate is changing, but we do not know for sure how much is caused by man and how much is part of a natural cycle change.”
Two other GOP candidates, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina, seemed to largely accept the science behind climate change, but neither of them had much of a plan to deal with the problem.
Trump’s (other) wars on science
Trump’s rejection of science goes well beyond basic climate research. Here are some of his more outlandish claims from the past year:
- Despite DNA evidence, Trump still thinks the Central Park Five are guilty. In 1989, five black and Hispanic teenagers were charged with the brutal rape of a white woman in New York’s Central Park. Trump proceeded to pay for inflammatory ads in the city’s newspapers decrying the “permissive atmosphere which allows criminals of every age to beat and rape a helpless woman.” He called on lawmakers to “bring back the death penalty and bring back our police!” The defendants, most of whom had confessed to involvement in the rape, were convicted. They were eventually exonerated by DNA evidence and a confession from the actual rapist. But Trump still isn’t persuaded by the scientific evidence. “They admitted they were guilty,” he told CNN in October. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous.” As Sarah Burns, who made a documentary about the case, noted in the New York Times, “False confessions are surprisingly common in criminal cases. In the hundreds of post-conviction DNA exonerations that the Innocence Project has studied, at least one in four of the wrongly convicted had given a confession.”
- Trump mocks football players for worrying about brain damage from concussions. In October, Trump praised a woman who returned to his Florida rally shortly after she had fainted from the heat. “That woman was out cold, and now she’s coming back,” he said. Trump, who once owned a USFL football team, added, “See, we don’t go by these new, and very much softer, NFL rules. Concussions — ‘Uh oh, got a little ding on the head? No, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season’ — our people are tough.” As the Washington Post pointed out, “Recent MRI scans of 40 NFL players found that 30 percent had signs of nerve cell damage. Florida State University College of Medicine’s Francis X. Conidi, a physician and author of the study, said in a statement that the rates of brain trauma were ‘significantly higher in the players’ than in the general population. In the spring, the NFL acknowledged a link between football and degenerative brain diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is associated with symptoms such as depression and memory loss.”
- Trump meets with anti-vaxxers. Trump has long been a proponent of the discredited — and dangerous — theory that vaccines cause autism. “I’m not against vaccinations for your children, I’m against them in 1 massive dose,” Trump tweeted in 2014. “Spread them out over a period of time & autism will drop!” He made the same argument at a 2015 GOP debate, causing a spike in Google searches for information about the supposed vaccine-autism connection. Since then, Trump hasn’t said much more about the issue in public. But according to Science magazine, he met privately with a group of leading anti-vaccine activists at a fundraiser in August. The group reportedly included Andrew Wakefield, the lead researcher behind the seminal study (since retracted) of the vaccine-autism connection. Science reported that “Trump chatted with a group of donors that included four antivaccine activists for 45 minutes, according to accounts of the meeting, and promised to watch Vaxxed, an antivaccine documentary produced by Wakefield … Trump also expressed an interest in holding future meetings with the activists, according to participants.”
- Trump says there is no drought. During a May campaign stop in Fresno, California, Trump offered a bizarre take on the state’s “insane” water problems, implying that there wasn’t actually a drought. (There was and still is.) He suggested that the state had “plenty of water” but that “they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea” in order to “protect a certain kind of three-inch fish.” As FactCheck.org explained, “California is in its fifth year of a severe ‘hot’ drought,” and “officials release fresh water from reservoirs primarily to prevent salt water from contaminating agricultural and urban water supplies.” (A much smaller proportion of water is released from reservoirs to preserve habitat for Chinook salmon, the “three-inch” delta smelt, and other fish.)
- Trump wants to use hairspray. Trump has repeatedly complained that efforts to protect the ozone layer are interfering with his hair routine. “You’re not allowed to use hairspray anymore because it affects the ozone,” he said in May, arguing that more environmentally friendly hair products are only “good for 12 minutes.” He added, “So if I take hairspray and I spray it in my apartment, which is all sealed, you’re telling me that affects the ozone layer? … I say no way, folks. No way. No way.” FactCheck.org actually went through the trouble of asking scientists whether Trump’s strategy of using hairspray indoors would help contain the ozone-destroying chemicals. “It makes absolutely no difference!” said Steve Montzka, a NOAA chemist. “It will eventually make it outside.”
Jill Stein (yep, she deserves her very own category)
- Vaccines. Of course, science denial isn’t confined to the political right. During the 2008 presidential campaign, both Obama and Hillary Clinton flirted with the notion that vaccines could be causing autism and that more research was needed on the issue — long after that theory had been discredited. Obama and Clinton have abandoned these misguided views, but Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein is apparently still concerned. In July, she told the Washington Post that vaccines are “invaluable” medications but that the pharmaceutical industry has too much influence over safety determinations from the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC. “As a medical doctor, there was a time when I looked very closely at those issues, and not all those issues were completely resolved,” she said. “There were concerns among physicians about what the vaccination schedule meant, the toxic substances like mercury which used to be rampant in vaccines. There were real questions that needed to be addressed. I think some of them at least have been addressed. I don’t know if all of them have been addressed.”
- GMOs. There are plenty of reasonable debates surrounding the use of genetically modified crops. But when it comes to their impact on human health, scientists are pretty much in agreement: GMOs are safe to eat. Once again, Stein isn’t convinced. During the 2016 campaign, Stein called for a moratorium on the introduction of new genetically modified organisms and a “phaseout” of current genetically modified crops “unless independent research shows decisively that GMOs are not harmful to human health or ecosystems.” Stein’s website promised that her administration would “mandate GMO food labeling so you can be sure that what you’re choosing at the store is healthy and GMO-free! YOU CAN FINALLY FEEL SECURE THAT YOUR FAMILY IS EATING SAFELY WITH NO GMO FOODS ON YOUR TABLE!” That page also featured a 2013 video of Stein saying, “This is about what we are eating. This is about whether we are going to have a food system at all. This is about whether our food system is built out of poison and frankenfood.”
The climate-denying Cabinet
Trump has loaded up his incoming administration with officials who, to varying extents, share his views on climate change. Vice President-elect Mike Pence once called global warming a “myth,” though he now acknowledges that humans have “some impact on climate.” Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency, wrote in May that “scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.” Energy secretary nominee Rick Perry once alleged that “a substantial number” of climate scientists had “manipulated data.” Trump’s interior secretary nominee, Ryan Zinke, believes that climate change is “not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either.” Ben Carson (see above) is slated to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, an agency facing serious challenges from global warming. Mulvaney, the incoming White House budget director, has said we shouldn’t abandon domestic fossil fuels “because of baseless claims regarding global warming.” Attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions claimed in 2015 that predictions of warming “aren’t coming true.”
Interfering with government scientists?
Trump hasn’t even been sworn in yet, but already there are troubling signs that his administration may attempt to interfere with the work of government scientists and experts.
- Energy Department questionnaire. The president-elect’s transition team submitted a questionnaire to the Department of Energy asking for a list of employees and contractors who had worked on the Obama administration’s efforts to calculate the “social cost of carbon” — that is, the dollar value of the health and environmental damage caused by burning fossil fuels. The transition team also asked for a list of staffers who attended U.N. climate negotiations. As the Washington Post explained, the questionnaire “has raised concern that the Trump transition team is trying to figure out how to target the people, including civil servants, who have helped implement policies under Obama.” (The department didn’t comply with the request, and the Trump team ultimately disavowed the questionnaire after facing criticism.)
- Earth science at NASA. One of Trump’s space advisers, Bob Walker, has repeatedly floated the idea that the administration should begin to remove Earth science from NASA’s portfolio. NASA’s Earth science program is well known for producing some of the world’s most important climate change research, and Walker’s proposal has sparked an outcry among many in the scientific community. (Walker has suggested shifting the work to NOAA, but the incoming administration hasn’t proposed giving NOAA additional funding, and Walker’s critics have called the plan unworkable.) Trump hasn’t actually adopted Walker’s idea, and scientists such as David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist who receives NASA funding, are optimistic that he won’t. But if Trump does attempt to gut NASA’s research efforts, the backlash could be intense. “We’re not going to stand for that,” said Grinspoon on our Inquiring Minds podcast. “We’re going to keep doing Earth science and make the case for it. We’ll get scientists to march on Washington if we have to. There’s going to be a lot of resistance.”
Abortion and breast cancer
For years, abortion rights opponents have insisted that abortion can cause breast cancer. That claim was based on a handful of flawed studies and has since been repeatedly debunked by the scientific community. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “More rigorous recent studies demonstrate no causal relationship between induced abortion and a subsequent increase in breast cancer risk.” Influential anti-abortion groups have frequently emphasized a more nuanced but still misleading version of the breast cancer claim: that having an abortion deprives women of the health benefits they would otherwise receive by giving birth. That argument has found its way into an official booklet that the state of Texas provides to women seeking abortions. According to the latest version of the booklet, released in early December:
Your pregnancy history affects your chances of getting breast cancer. If you give birth to your baby, you are less likely to develop breast cancer in the future. Research indicates that having an abortion will not provide you this increased protection against breast cancer.
“The wording in [the Texas booklet] gets very cute,” said Otis Brawley, the American Cancer Society’s chief medical officer, in an interview with the Washington Post. “It’s technically correct, but it is deceiving.” Here’s the problem, as explained by the Post:
Women who deliver their first baby to full-term at 30 years or younger face a decreased long-term risk of breast cancer than women who have their first baby at older than 30 or 35, or who never deliver a baby at all … Having a baby does provide increased protection against breast cancer, but it doesn’t mean that having an abortion affects your risk one way or another. For example, women who deliver a child before 30, but then have an abortion after their first child, still have a decreased risk of breast cancer, said Brawley, who described himself as “pro-life and pro-truth.”
Pence denies the existence of implicit bias in police shootings
During her first debate with Trump, Clinton supported efforts to retrain police officers to counter so-called “implicit bias.” She noted that people in general — not just police officers — tend to engage in subconscious racism. But she added that in the case of law enforcement, these biases “can have literally fatal consequences.” During the vice presidential debate a few days later, Pence blasted Clinton and other advocates of police reform for “bad-mouthing” cops. He criticized people who “seize upon tragedy in the wake of police action shootings … to use a broad brush to accuse law enforcement of implicit bias or institutional racism.” That, he said, “really has got to stop.”
Pence’s comments were a gross misrepresentation of a key scientific issue in the national debate over police killings of African Americans. Implicit bias does not, as he implied, refer to intentional, overt bigotry or to systematic efforts by law enforcement to target minorities (though there are plenty of examples of those, too). Rather, implicit bias refers to subconscious prejudices that affect people’s split-second decisions — for example, whether or not a cop shoots an unarmed civilian. As Chris Mooney explained in a 2014 Mother Jones story:
This phenomenon has been directly studied in the lab, particularly through first-person shooter tests, where subjects must rapidly decide whether to shoot individuals holding either guns or harmless objects like wallets and soda cans. Research suggests that police officers (those studied were mostly white) are much more accurate at the general task (not shooting unarmed people) than civilians, thanks to their training. But like civilians, police are considerably slower to press the “don’t shoot” button for an unarmed black man than they are for an unarmed white man — and faster to shoot an armed black man than an armed white man.
And as Mooney noted, acknowledging that implicit biases are common — something Pence refused to do — allows scientists and law enforcement to devise trainings that seek to counter the problem.