Who’s afraid of the big, bad science?

This country is in a crisis of scientific illiteracy. On the everyday level, many people aren’t familiar with even the rudiments of the scientific method, critical thinking, and how they function, issues that have real and serious repercussions for society — in a prominent recent example, people who can’t comprehend how vaccines work are endangering everyone. But on a larger more structural level, it also has big implications for policy and enforcement, because when people who don’t understand science call the shots, we all lose.

It’s even worse, though, when people are actively afraid of science. And right now, that’s the state of much of the extreme right in the United States. That fear is driving dangerous policy, and it will get worse with more conservatives in power, especially if someone like Jeb Bush takes the White House next year. We may be electing a president who seriously believes the Earth was created in seven days and is scarcely 6,000 years old, who thinks that G-d ‘intelligently designed’ us and that evidence of evolution and the Earth’s age is a fraud. We may elect someone who believes that basic scientific principles are false.

We can mock people and take on an air of superiority over situations like this, but it’s more complicated than that. People like this in positions of power should be terrifying, not funny, because what they represent is a world where actively anti-science policies may become the norm at multiple levels of government. That could lead to a dramatic regression in scientific progress in the United States and reduce the nation to a pathetic has-been in the worlds of science and technology — the USA cannot be, as they say, ‘number one’ without the cultural progress to back it up.

The fear of science plays directly into American exceptionalism and political isolationism. Conservatives leverage their fear of science to promote bad policy, but the fact that it distances the US from the rest of the world is likely a side bonus. Some don’t even care that the rest of the world is mocking us as it pulls ahead with more coherent and progressive policy, as long as it means that they leave the country mostly alone — these are people who do not want to interact with the rest of the world and have no interest in exchanging ideas and skills and experience with communities outside the US.

Should an anti-science president be elected, we’re going to see the ripple effect almost immediately. Executive orders can repeal funding and policies, push science to the back of the bus, and restructure social priorities, shutting down labs and research facilities while promoting the growth of anti-science organisations (remember George W. Bush’s ‘faith-based initiatives’ and welfare?). Congress will be pressured to further drop funding and pass anti-science legislation including restrictions on research and the policymaking scope of organisations like the EPA, which will have their hands tied during an anti-science administration on the grounds that the work they do is valueless or actively suspicious.

The president will undoubtedly appoint science deniers to key cabinet and other political positions, and a conservative Congress could confirm them relatively smoothly. Suddenly the country’s position on issues like climate change will change radically, with a reversal in commitments to reduce carbon emissions and develop greater environmental efficiency. The surgeon general will advise against comprehensive sexual education, claim that abortion endangers people, and suggest that vaccines are dangerous. At all corners, science will be under attack in the United States, and the results will not be attractive.

When a country is operated by people who don’t believe in basic concepts recognised by science, by people who actively fear scientific discussion, research, and culture, that’s terrible for scientists. It creates a strong drive to work outside the United States, and they’ll take their research grants with them. They’ll take jobs with them, too, as good science requires teams of hundreds and thousands of people coordinating on projects big and small.

Pharmaceutical companies will have no incentive to stay in the country, especially if they’re facing limitations on testing and development created by the government — they’ll move elsewhere, to countries where they have more freedom to do whatever they want to do. NASA, a jewel in the science crown of the United States, will likely be stripped of its funding and turned into a sad, sagging balloon. Aerospace development will move overseas. Even the military, which conservatives claim to prize, will find itself struggling to develop new technologies.

Science education in schools will be dismal, with the scope of education severely limited. That’s going to increase scientific illiteracy and leave students ill-prepared for life after school; they certainly will face significant disadvantages if they want to attend colleges and universities in other nations. Such students will be viewed as a potential drag, not assets, by admissions staff.

The huge loss of scientific talent and development will inevitably lead to a drop in innovation and creativity in the United States, too. For a nation that conservatives like to claim ranks one in the world, this would be devastating — it would be difficult to attract talent from outside the country, to develop better technologies to improve quality of life and drive up profits in a nation where capitalism is king, to do all of the things the nation needs to do in order to remain at the forefront of global innovation.

The wave of anti-science attitudes among a growing number of powerful conservatives is a cause for serious concern for individuals and the nation. If the nation doesn’t work to reverse the phenomenon, it is facing significant future problems.

Image: Mad Science, Dennis Wilkinson, Flickr