Science Illiteracy and Public Policy

“Every shortcoming of American governance is related in some fashion to the knowledge deficit of the public…”

Susan Jacoby, author of “The Age of American Unreason”

Americans have a long tradition of anti-intellectualism. In today’s politics this is expressed as denial of facts and scientific research in favor of opinion, self-righteousness, and prideful ignorance. We seem to be unable to distinguish documented knowledge from unsubstantiated opinion. Unfortunately for our public affairs, as Susan Jacoby says, our elected officials “suffer from the same intellectual blind spots as their constituents.”

The complete control of the federal government by radical conservatives does not bode well for science, public education, or fact-based public policy. We can expect cuts to scientific research (except military related research). Work on climate change, clean energy, and pollution control will be targeted. We can expect reduced funding for public education and increased support for private, charter, and religious schools. Divisive issues not related to quality education, like prayer in schools and the pledge of allegiance, will be pushed. There will be no help with the high cost of post-secondary education or the student loan crisis. We may see cuts to medical research, public health programs, and disease control agencies.

Donald Trump’s appointments foretell these outcomes. The criteria for appointment seem to be political correctness (in this case being rabidly conservative) and loyalty to the boss. Knowledge of, or experience with, the agency’s mission does not matter. A number of his appointments have actively opposed the work of the agency which they will head. Some have openly advocated abolishing the agency they are to lead. How these appointments can result in a better America is a mystery.

Of course appointing campaign contributors, cronies, and unqualified people to political positions is common practice. Both parties are guilty of subordinating the public good to political payback. But conservatives have been more aggressive at using appointments to undermine legislation they do not like. Budget cuts and bad appointments are a major tool for defeating social progress you do not support. If you don’t like “regulations” that impact on business you cut funding and staff to insure the agency cannot effectively regulate. When possible you appoint leadership that doesn’t support the work of the agency.

The appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency is an example. He is a lawyer, former Oklahoma state senator, and current Oklahoma attorney general. He has no education or background related to science or environmental protection. He does have experience suing the EPA and other federal agencies to oppose implementation of various federal regulations and programs. After he was elected attorney general in 2010, Pruitt established a “Federalism Unit” to “more effectively combat unwarranted regulation and systematic overreach by federal agencies, boards and offices.” According to Wikipedia, Pruitt calls himself “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” He is quoted in the media as intending “to run this agency in a way that fosters both responsible protection of the environment and freedom for American businesses.” Freedom for business will not insure clean air, water, or the wise use of our limited natural resources.

Another appointment follows a similar pattern and will have an impact on public education. Trump has nominated Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education. She has no background in education other than being an advocate of school “choice.” She also advocates school vouchers to provide public money to support private, charter, and religious schools. She is the daughter and daughter-in-law of billionaires. She is married to the heir of the Amway fortune. Her own education consisted of attending a private religious high school and college. According to the Washington Post her support for school choice is based on her fundamentalist religious beliefs. The DeVos family has a history of funding far right conservative social causes including opposition to gay rights and abortion. She originally opposed the nomination of Trump but apparently has had a change of heart.

As a nation we talk big about the importance of education. But in practice education, knowledge, and competence at anything (other than sports) takes a back seat to the popular commercial culture. Education is only valued as a means to a good paying job (even though many occupations requiring education, like teachers, are not paid well). Some highly educated occupations (doctors and lawyers) do get paid well, but the serious money is made in other ways. Ball players, celebrities, stock speculators, hedge fund managers, and real estate brokers are examples. Education is not the path to success in these occupations although people in these occupations may have degrees. The seriously wealthy, like Mrs. DeVos and Donald Trump, gained wealth the old fashioned way. They had the right parents.

The school choice movement claims to be advocating for better schools for everyone, especially poor families and inner city minorities. But the movement is largely the result of desegregation of public schools. We have always had private and religious schools, but their numbers increased after segregation was outlawed. This growth was fueled by white flight from segregated schools and by religious flight from the teaching of evolution. For many years parents had to pay for private schooling. The school choice movement is about requiring the public to pay for these private choices. A school choice agenda is not the answer to our public schools many problems.

Ignorance and faith-based public policy can only lead to disaster for the economy and future of our country. We cannot ignore the issues of climate change, pollution, water shortages, destruction of the oceans, nuclear waste, and 80,000 untested chemicals in our lives to mention a few pressing problems. Nor can we expect advances in medicine, green energy, technology, and future economic well-being if we cut science and science education. We can’t continue ignoring the warnings of science. We can’t afford scientific illiteracy in a 21st century world. Nor can we afford political leadership with the “same intellectual blind spots as their constituents.”