Rejecting Science

In my Law and Policy classes, I discuss the influence of Enlightenment philosophy, with its emphasis on empirical inquiry and scientific discovery, on those who drafted America’s founding documents.

If there is any doubt that Americans have left those Enlightenment precepts far behind, the Age of Trump should dispel them. As Dorothy said to Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore.

Luddites occupy both ends of the political spectrum.

Does the scientific consensus about the existence and cause of climate change threaten the bottom line of the fossil fuel companies that make significant campaign contributions? Well, then, those on the Right “reinterpret” the evidence to show that settled science is wrong and must be dismissed.

Meanwhile, the Left’s suspicion of anything emanating from corporate America drives rejection of the scientific consensus that GMOs are simply a newer method of making the hybrids we’ve been eating for centuries and that widespread vaccination has saved millions of lives.

Our incoming President, of course, has never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t love, and he certainly doesn’t seem to have much interest in the numerous, genuine problems facing America’s Chief Executive. So I wasn’t really surprised by the Washington Post headline about a meeting between Trump and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a proponent of a widely discredited theory that vaccines cause autism, said Tuesday that President-elect Donald Trump asked him to chair a new commission on vaccines.

Hours later, however, a spokeswoman for Trump’s transition said that while Trump would like to create a commission on autism, no final decision had been made.

If Trump follows through, the stunning move would push up against established science, medicine and the government’s position on the issue. It comes after Trump — who has long been critical of vaccines — met at Trump Tower with Kennedy, who has spearheaded efforts to roll back child vaccination laws.

As the article points out, there is already a federal advisory committee on immunization composed of medical and public health experts — but as we have seen with his assertions that he knows more than “the Generals” and his contemptuous dismissal of uncongenial information from our national intelligence agencies, Trump believes he knows more than those “elitist” experts.

As an article in the New Yorker addressing Trump’s support for the “anti-vaxxer” movement  put it,

Asking Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to chair a commission on scientific integrity is like asking Ted Kaczynski to run the United States Postal Service.

In his Rolling Stone article, Kennedy wrote that vaccines exposed infants to a hundred and eighty-seven times the daily limit of ethyl mercury, as determined by the Environmental Protection Agency. If that were true, they would all have died immediately. Rolling Stone soon printed a correction—and then later corrected that correction. The actual figure was a hundred and eighty-seven micrograms, which is forty per cent higher than the levels recommended by the E.P.A. for methyl mercury (not ethyl mercury), and a tiny fraction of the figure cited in Kennedy’s paper.

I am no fan of Charles Krauthammer’s politics (to put it mildly), but he was trained as a doctor and is familiar with scientific evidence. He was appalled.

In a week packed with confirmation hearings and Russian hacking allegations, what was he doing meeting with Robert Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine activist pushing the thoroughly discredited idea that vaccines cause autism?…

Kennedy says that Trump asked him to chair a commission about vaccine safety. While denying that, the transition team does say that the commission idea remains open. Either way, the damage is done. The anti-vaccine fanatics seek any validation. This indirect endorsement from Trump is immensely harmful. Vaccination has prevented more childhood suffering and death than any other measure in history. With so many issues pressing, why even go there?

Conspiracy theories are embraced when people lack the information needed to evaluate their credibility. Civic literacy doesn’t require that citizens all be scientists–but it does require knowing the difference between a scientific theory and a wild-ass guess. It does require familiarity with the scientific method, and with the concept of falsification.

I think it was Neil DeGrasse Tyson who said “Science is true whether or not you believe in it.”  Rejecting reality is a prescription for disaster.


  1. I’ve always been interested in the Luddites. Now I’m going to get to see them in action — on both ends of modern life, and it should be entertaining. Wow!

  2. You know that we have hit the bottom when the Department of Energy has to institute new rules to protect scientists from political harassment. Heaven help the dedicated public servants who will have to work under the Trump Administration.

    And, why would any sane and moral person parade up to the tower just because Donald requested their presence? What is with that? Are all of their egos so great that they believe they have something desperately needed by the government? That only they can fill the need? Steve Harvey for heaven’s sake! Is anyone saying “no” to the man?

  3. Theresa,

    “Is anyone saying “no” to the man?

    No, no one is saying NO! Cognitive dissonance is around 99.9%. That’s my optimistic guess.

  4. Cognitive dissonance has been our main problem all along. That’s why countering the deception and denial must be the first item on any new agenda. That’s the only way to start overcoming the cognitive dissonance. In that way, the luxury of denial will be impossible for the majority of Americans.

  5. Why is it that we can admit to an eclipse of the sun, but not an eclipse of Democracy? It’s because of cognitive dissonance. We can handle the difference between the sun and the moon, but not DEMOCRACY and FASCISM.

  6. One place to start, Marv, would be to stop using the term “cognitive dissonance”. Instead, use the language of the people. Try “buying the bull shit” instead.

    Part of the reason that Hillary lost the election IMO was her use of language. The masses understood Trump; Hillary’s message never hit the average American because she was so intent on projecting herself as above it all. If your real intent in making a comment is to project that you are educated and above others, then you will not connect. Political speech should be about connecting.

  7. I am curious how you would use what has happened in politics lately in a Law & Public Policy class. It really does seem that Trump’s idea of bipartisanship is taking the worst parts from each side and mixing them together in his government leadership positions. It is clear to me that the notion of “evidence” as a tonic or salve that would save us from bad policies has long been dismissed. I suspect we couldn’t even get 100% consensus on the theory of gravity as in “I bet that if you fall off a 20 story building and hit the ground you would die.” Someone would say that is not necessarily true because they heard some story about someone who survived a fall so the science cannot be settled yet. When micro minority opinions are given equal weight in policy making rooms, everyone loses.

  8. The Luddites lost their bouts with the looms of Manchester and Leeds during the Industrial Revolution and will lose again because (as Sheila points out in her reference to what Tyson had to say about the controversy, if it is one) “Science is true whether or not you believe it.” This holds true for all of us, whatever our political persuasion from left to right, and does not exclude the Trumps and Kennedys of this world. Fact is fact.

    With a disturbed person who is about to take over formal leadership of our country (and to some extent the world) and who constantly bends reality to suit his preconceived view of things (e.g., I won in a landslide), we will have to daily reject our narcissist-in-chief’s rejection of
    Newton, Einstein, vaccines, penicillin, gravity, or wherever else his demented mind may lead him to believe may have substance. The good news is that, as in algebra, a rejection of rejection is a negative times a negative, which yields a plus. Science wins, the latter day Luddites lose, and we build bigger and better looms.

  9. “Cognitive dissonance” has always conveyed what I mean better than any term. Some days I feel like a small mammal, completely disoriented by a sonic pest control device, and desperately seeking shelter from the toxic confusion. Which, I gather, is the short-fingered vulgarian’s intention. But if it helps to get the message across to a wider audience, and influence them to take action, I’m just as happy to use the term “weapons-grade bullshit”.

  10. And when it comes to climate change deniers, I always like to ask them why, understanding how science works and all, the conclusions reached by the vast majority of climate scientists MUST be wrong. Turns out that most of them just don’t like the messenger.

  11. Theresa,

    I now understand better why you have been fighting me these past months. It’s a severe case of cognitive dissonance. You’re in denial.

  12. One factor driving the anti-science trend have been changes in parental attitudes over the past century or so. Although there were tutors and private schools for the elite, ordinary parents built schools and hired well qualified teachers. Textbook content was generally approved by academic specialists. Now parents want to be in the driver’s seat for what and how their children are taught.

    Since desegregation, there was a move to private schools, often religious ones and teacher quality slipped. Home schooling began to increase significantly. Consequently, many of today’s parents lack the good education their parents received in public schools and they now are teaching their children. The religious right has forced the teaching of silly stuff such as Creationism, and fails to teach critical thinking skills. Taking over school boards and state school commissions, scientifically deficient individuals have dictated the curricula and textbook content. It is a real shame that so many young minds are being mis-trained in matters of essential knowledge.

  13. COGNITIVE DISSONANCE is destroying America. It has prevented any attempt to take positive action before the fact. This has been going on since the present movement from the Extreme Right began over 45 years ago. Cognitive Dissonance allows you to still feel good up until the CATASTROPHY hits you smack in the face.

    Taking action after the fact “isn’t worth a dime.”

  14. The following link might help anyone who feels he’s been inflicted with a case of Cognitive Dissonance. I found out last nite, I wasn’t completely free of the disease myself.

    The link is from an article by an Englishman, Andrew Sullivan. Maybe his background has helped cure him of the disease. Americans like you and me have trouble admitting that we are TOO QUICKLY becoming a country of Fascists.

  15. Scientific denial may have existed in earlier times, but it exploded when Copernicus and Galileo put forth the idea of a sun centered solar system. The science, math, calculations, and observations were rejected by the conservative religious establishment. The second nuclear explosion in science that shook and still sends tremors through the conservative religious establishment was Darwin and evolution. Slowly through time we discovered that we humans and our solar system were simply a very small part of an immense universe, ruled by scientific principles.

    We have be to guarded with science and it’s applications. Rockets can deliver with pinpoint accuracy not only a satellite orbiting Mars, but a nuclear weapon to some city teaming with life half way around the earth. Chemicals can give us potable drinking water, but it can also produce Agent Orange.

    What I have said before instead of arguing with 900 page manifestos is tell the science deniers of global warming or proponents of creationism, or the anti-vaccine crowd to prove your positions based on science. By the way the bible is not Science.

  16. Ms Kennedy, this column is filled with errors I am asking that you correct it immediately. If you had gone to Robert Kennedy Jr’s website, you would have easily seen that he is not anti-vaccine. I have clipped the link and his quotes below. Columns like the one you just wrote distorts/slanders his position. He is calling for studies, of a specific nature, that the vaccine companies and CDC have apparently refused to do. Why? I believe you have done the bidding of the moneyed interests and fell to their continued attempts to deceive the public on these issues.
    “I am pro vaccine. I had all of my six children vaccinated. I believe that vaccines save millions of lives. So let me explain why I edited the book Thimerosal: Let The Science Speak, which exposes the dangerous—and wholly unnecessary—use of the mercury-based preservative thimerosal in vaccines being given to millions of children
    and pregnant women here and around the world.
    Vaccines are big business. Pharma is a trillion-dollar industry with vaccines accounting for $25 billion in annual sales. CDC’s decision to add a vaccine to the schedule can guarantee its manufacturer millions of customers and billions in revenue with minimal advertis- ing or marketing costs and complete immunity from lawsuits. High stakes and the seamless marriage between Big Pharma and government agencies have spawned an opaque and crooked regulatory system. Merck, one of America’s leading vaccine outfits, is currently under investigation for deceiving FDA regulators about the effectiveness of its MMR vaccine. Two whistleblowers say Merck ginned up sham studies to maintain Merck’s MMR monopoly…….”

  17. IMO the war on science is fueled by a revolt against “authority” in the sense of the word meaning learned.

    There’s nobody that I know who’s more likely to revolt against “authorities” in the other sense of the world meaning power hungry than I am. But that’s entirely different.

    One thing that defines our world is the explosion in our collective knowledge. That has driven everyone towards knowing a smaller and smaller slice of all that is known. That makes us all more and more dependant of authorities who know more in fields that each of us personally have chosen not to invest deeply in learning.

    Certainly everyone here would agree that Sheila is an authority in public policy for instance. We all benefit from her expertise if we are open to it.

    Today people feel entitled to authority without having invested in the necessary education.

    Why is that?

  18. Not Orange,

    Are you kidding? It sounded like anti-vaccine to me. And it must have also seemed that way to Donald Trump. Like the corruption, everywhere else, why would the CDC be immune? Whether you meant to or not, your book has built a case of guilt by association.

    You shouldn’t blame Professor Kennedy for any mistakes you made in the editing of his book “Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak.” I haven’t read the book, did it make the disclaimer you made in the above post, “I am pro-vaccine?”

    Speaking only for myself, anyone who VOLUNTARILY goes into the same room with Donald Trump should have his or her picture plastered on a “Wanted Poster” even if it is the likes of a Robert Kennedy, Jr.

  19. What I’m trying to say, since we’re going to be forced to start a SOMEWHAT, UNDERGROUND, RESISTANCE MOVEMENT, why not recruit while we still have our freedom to “market our product.”

    We can do a lot in seven days. Don’t forget the short time it took to create heaven and earth?

  20. Copied and pasted from U.S. Food and Drug Administration: (no date) “Thimerosal has been removed from or reduced to trace amounts in all vaccines routinely recommended for children 6 years of age and younger, with the exception of inactivated influenza vaccine.”

    Not Orange; “Ms Kennedy, this column is filled with errors I am asking that you correct it immediately.”

    I find this a bit pushy of you; disagreeing is encouraged and acceptable here, we all voice our opinions but do not expect Sheila or other commenters to correct their opinions immediately – or at any other time – to suit our views. The web site you provided was an interesting article with no date; I clicked on Robert Kennedy’s included “home” option and the article had no specific date on that site but options for other articles were dated 2012-2013.

    I Googled “Robert Kennedy, Jr., anti vaccine” and found a list of 17 separate articles available, including those regarding his interview with Trump. Below those options was a list of 6-7 titles regarding Kennedy anti-vaccine articles. But; I will not have the temerity to ask that you change or correct your views. This is called freedom of speech; provided to all in the 1st Amendment of the Constitution. IMO, you sound rather “orange” in your one-sided views, and not for the first time.

    I am 100% pro-vaccine; I can remember my terrible bout with measles in the 1940’s. In 1968 I almost lost my 11 month old son to Chicken Pox Encephlytis, he suffered severe fever convulsions, went into a catatonic state and two days later was hospitalized, in an oxygen tent, with pneumonia. David was my 4th child; healthy and well taken care of as all my children were, they all had Chicken Pox at the same time. There were no vaccines in those years; my 5 children had all available vaccines and boosters and had all childhood diseases prior to availability of vaccines. My youngest had Chicken Pox twice, diagnosed by our family doctor; two of them had Whooping Cough even having the vaccines.

    Science, including – maybe especially – medical science is a “work in progress” due to our changing environment and ongoing evolution of research and discovery.

  21. Virtually every time Drumpf opened his mouth he lied about whatever he was supposed to be talking about. How could anyone understand what he was saying? This will take a scientist or two to explain all this ……. stuff.

  22. “Either way, the damage is done. The anti-vaccine fanatics seek any validation.”

    Yep. Just yesterday saw someone who doesn’t believe in vaccines showing off the RFK, Jr. / Trump story to someone else as proof he was right.

  23. I personally have never liked Krauthammer from all his appearances on talk-news programs with John Mclaughlin Gtroup and Fake Noize. I’d need another scientific explanation why I find Krauthammer partially agreeable now.

  24. I can’t believe I’m actually going to say this but I agree that vaccines are ‘safe and effective’ but think they should be spaced out and given to children in smaller doses. I say this because I have a friend who had an infant son die after the vaccines were given at 3 months.

    The number of vaccines given to children since I was a child has quadrupled. I have a chart showing the amount of vaccines given in 1960 vs 2015 and it is amazing how many are listed. (Too bad we can’t post jpg files like that here).

    I do not believe that autism is a result of vaccines, but I (OMG I hate that I agree with the orange one) but I agree that children should be given smaller doses over the course of several years so that by the time they start kindergarten they are fully vaccinated. Unfortunately now, massive doses are given to babies at very young ages and I do not agree with that. (Good thing I didn’t have kids right?)

  25. As follow up – someone suggested they still felt RK Jr, was anti-vaccine, for me this was enough to convince me otherwise – “I am pro vaccine. I had all of my six children vaccinated.” Clipped directly from his website, prominently displayed. And for the person that said I was ‘pushy’ for asking Ms Kennedy to correct her letter – yes, I guess I was but why not be ‘pushy’ for the truth? Most of her letter suggested and directly stated that RK Jr was anti-vaccine, that isn’t true if you take him at his word. And why shouldn’t we? It wasn’t just my ‘view’ of the issue. I have no real skin in this game. I don’t know RK Jr or support directly any of his initiatives. Nor am I anti-vaccine, they save lives. But I share his concern about how money has potentially corrupted the agencies, individuals, science and policy on some aspects of vaccines. I sometimes read about issues that we share an interest. As I do Ms Kennedy and I have followed her for some time. This issue on vaccines seemed to be one that has touched her emotionally for some reason. This vaccine issue doesn’t have to become so polar that you can ONLY be for or against. Some of us have concerns and would like to see some different approaches taken and assurances made. Have some empathy for a parent or grandparent whose only concern is for the health of their child. We aren’t in it for the money nor do we want to put someone else’s child at risk.

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