Donald Trump and various headlines (Getty Images/Washington Post/ABC/New York Times/Salon)

Science editor H. Holden Thorp: Scientists "should have spoken out" against Trump "a long time ago"

Editor of respected journal on his "Trump lied about science" editorial — and why too many scientists stayed quiet



Chauncey DeVega
September 28, 2020 11:00AM (UTC)

A healthy democracy is impossible without a common understanding of truth and empirical reality. This is why Donald Trump and other authoritarians systematically assault the legitimacy of the press (as the "enemy of the people" and "fake news"), higher education, teachers and educators (as indoctrinators in "cultural Marxism" and "political correctness"), scientists and other experts ("elites" who are part of a "deep state" plot) as well as truth-tellers more generally.

Writing at The Guardian, Michiko Kakutani warns: "With Trump, the personal is political, and in many respects he is less a comic-book anomaly than an extreme, bizarro-world apotheosis of many of the broader, intertwined attitudes undermining truth today, from the merging of news and politics with entertainment, to the toxic polarisation that's overtaken American politics, to the growing populist contempt for expertise."

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In his bestselling book "On Tyranny," historian Timothy Snyder expresses similar thoughts:

Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

Simultaneous with Trump's authoritarian assault on the country's democracy and truth itself, America remains under siege from the coronavirus pandemic that has already killed more than 200,000 people and may ultimately end the lives of millions. In total, "corona-fascism" is a double-sided dagger aimed right at the heart of America's democratic project.

In the midst of such a public health crisis, America's political elites should be unified in their commitment to finding a cure for the coronavirus pandemic by fully supporting the efforts of the scientific community.

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Instead, Donald Trump and the Republican Party, along with their media and supporters, have sabotaged those efforts for personal and political gains. Most notably, Trump publicly lied for at least six months about the lethal danger embodied by the coronavirus pandemic. Trump and his servants also actively interfered with coronavirus relief efforts and should be charged with crimes including negligent homicide and de facto acts of genocide against the American people.

As part of their efforts to misrepresent the threat of the coronavirus and the destruction it has caused the American people both personally and financially, the Trump regime has manipulated and distorted public health data to serve its political agenda.

In response, prominent members of America's scientific community have spoken out against Donald Trump and his regime. To that end, Scientific American, one of the country's leading scientific publications, has now endorsed Joe Biden. In its 175-year history, the magazine has never previously endorsed a presidential candidate before.

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Science magazine has also been outspoken in its criticism of Donald Trump and the administration's positions on science and public policy. In his recent editorial "Trump lied about science," editor-in-chief H. Holden Thorp also condemned Donald Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic, writing that it "may be the most shameful moment in the history of U.S. science policy."

In my recent conversation with Thorp, he explains why he finally decided to publicly condemn Donald Trump and why America's scientific community should have spoken out sooner. Thorp also explains that science is inherently political and has a responsibility to society, a position directly counter to what many Trump supporters and other conservatives try to claim.

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You can also listen to my conversation with H. Holden Thorp on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

What is science? Why does it matter?

That is a very important place to start, and a foundational question that is not asked enough. Science is aspiring to look for meaning in nature and to understand it.

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At its core, scientists are in a massive conversation with nature and with each other to try to understand the world and the larger universe. That is why most people want to become scientists. Science is not just something utilitarian. Most people do not get into science to make a drug or make a vaccine or make a battery. They want to become scientists because they are captivated by nature. But science is not outside of society or apart from human beings. This means that science can be weaponized politically. Unfortunately, we have been seeing that happen here in America with the coronavirus pandemic.

Donald Trump's lies about climate change, the pandemic, and other science-related matters are also sustained by America's deep problem with scientific illiteracy.

There is a large disconnect right now and it has many origins. Some of it is the fault of scientists, because we sometimes portray ourselves as being supremely objective. We do all our experiments and we subject them to all our sacred processes of peer review and the like. Somehow the experiments and the work of science are then free from human influence. That is not true. Science is done by human beings in a given society.

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As scientists, I believe that we have done a poor job of helping people to have an understanding of what we are doing and the underlying concepts, so that they can participate in these conversations in a competent way. None of this is helped, of course, when science is weaponized by politicians, something that has been happening in this country going back to when Ronald Reagan decided to run against environmental protection laws. We now see that with the dismantling of the country's public health infrastructure.

Donald Trump knows that what he has been saying publicly about COVID for the last six months is a lie. Trump giggles when he says that the scientists don't really know what is happening with global warming and other scientific facts because he knows he can get a whole bunch of people to believe him — even though he knows what he is saying is objectively wrong.

What responsibilities do scientists have to society?

Science has tried too hard and too long to avoid that question. Science does have a responsibility to be engaged in the public discourse. As scientists we like the idea, because it's convenient and less emotionally complicated, to say that we are totally objective and we put facts out there and let other people process them. That kind of thinking is what has led to the erosion of the country's political and social institutions. The notion of the apolitical scientist, I think, is clearly outdated. That is why Scientific American magazine has spoken out against Trump by endorsing Joe Biden. I have written my editorials. There are many prominent scientists speaking out and contributing to the public discourse. As scientists, we should have spoken out a long time ago because we have not done enough to stop many of the things that have happened in this country with Trump and the pandemic and other matters.

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What can be done better in terms of training scientists about social responsibility, and to view what they are doing as not being apolitical?

It would be good for undergraduate education to have a more holistic approach, where in addition to studying science there should also be a very rigorous program in the social sciences and humanities. We are seeing the real impact of that in this country right now. Engineering schools are the worst offenders in this regard because they have too many course requirements that crowd out other types of thinking.

What finally led you to make your decision to write "Trump lied about science"? Moreover, why do you think more scientists are finally speaking out against Donald Trump and in some cases even endorsing Biden?

I have only been the Science editor since November. My first piece about Trump was in response to a change he made in the EPA transparency rule, which was to further degrade environmental protections. I have written 10 or 12 pieces now about Trump and science. When I'm writing, I'm thinking about the scientists who are working in their labs while their families are home worried about COVID. Many scientists have been sleeping in their basements because they've been worried about bringing COVID home to their families.

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Many scientists have been working 18 hours a day trying to get us a vaccine or a drug, or to learn more about the virus. Then they come home and flip on the TV and collapse from exhaustion and they hear the president undermining their work.

And then they hear Trump's own voice telling Bob Woodward that it was all a lie. All a lie, while the president's allies were saying that we scientists were not giving the American people hope. Or that we scientists were confused and are just trying to undermine the Trump administration as part of some "deep state" conspiracy. We knew all along that Trump was lying. But hearing his own voice admit to lying is when I decided to write my essay.

How did science and scientists become the enemy of Donald Trump and other autocrats?

They do not like expertise. Autocrats and authoritarians try to undermine experts by saying they are not coming up with the right conclusions because the latter are not in agreement with what they want. Trump and others of his sort have attacked the press, academia, and "coastal elites" as the "enemy." Now they are adding science and scientists.

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How do you feel when you read about the many examples of the Trump administration manipulating or misrepresenting scientific data about the coronavirus, or outright lying about it, to make it fit with Trump's agenda?

There is a code of conduct in science about being honest with the way that data is collected and presented. It is scientific misconduct to change data. To see Trump and his co-conspirators changing data before scientists have had a chance to analyze it is not only outrageous in the act itself, but also outrageous in that one could imagine some well-meaning and well-trained scientist taking the altered data and analyzing it. That scientist would then come to the wrong conclusion because the data was manipulated.

There is a common talking point from Trumpists — and the right-wing more generally — that Democrats, liberals, progressives and others who are aghast at how the president and his administration have sabotaged and mishandled the pandemic are somehow "politicizing" the science and therefore should be ignored. How do you rebut that talking point?

All science has a political element to it. The trap that science has allowed itself to get caught up in is implying that science was apolitical in the first place. It never has been. It wasn't for Galileo. It wasn't for Darwin. It wasn't at Los Alamos. It certainly has not been in the last 50 years here in the United States, with Reagan, the two Bushes and Trump now trying to undermine science. The myth of the apolitical scientist is outdated, if it was ever relevant to begin with.

I keep thinking about Jonas Salk and the hope that some great inventor will discover a vaccine or cure for the coronavirus pandemic and that he or she will just give it to the world for free. Is that just a wild fantasy?

There are a lot of good reasons why that previous era was better than the system we have now. It was much more egalitarian. But even then, there were still plenty of inequities built into the rollout of that vaccine for sure. The problem we have now in America is that there is no way for the government on its own, or the government in collaboration with academia, to make tests and produce 400 million to 600 million doses of the vaccine for the United States and 15 billion doses for the world. To make all those doses and distribute them and give people shots and the other steps involved is going to require the scale of major industrial corporations.

Assuming that we want to vaccinate people as soon as we can, collaborating with the pharmaceutical companies is inevitable. We should use this as a signal that the United States should invent a better system for the next pandemic or for other health problems in the future. But for the time being, it is going to take academia, government and industry all working together if we want to vaccinate as many people as we can. Ultimately, there is not enough time to scale up a socialized system for getting a vaccine in place.

In this moment, what is your greatest hope and what is your greatest fear?

My greatest hope is that we all get past the pandemic and do not discard the lessons learned and then use that knowledge to change the world for the better. If Biden wins the election and we as a country and world get past the pandemic, there will be an enormous temptation to just go back to the way things were and not address a lot of the underlying injustices that have created this crisis.

My greatest fear is that the pandemic will drag on and it will be used to further separate people from each other. If Trump wins, my fear of that happening will be much greater. For example, economists are saying that America is in the midst of what they are describing as a "K-shaped recovery." That is an apt metaphor where the bottom of the K, those most vulnerable working-class and poor Americans will be even worse off than before the COVID pandemic. I worry that no one will do anything about this deep inequality and by the time the next crisis comes along it will be too late. So many people will be harmed.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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