John Colson: The anti-science bias that may kill us

John Colson
Hit & Run

I am not a science guy, let me say that right off the top.

As a journalist by training and by experience, though, I know a good bit about science, having done stories about issues and individuals in the scientific realm. Also, I have a natural level of curiosity about the world we all live in, and like most humans I have closely watched the ways science has tried to analyze and explain the world to us over the centuries.

Finally, truth be told, I have a very fundamental feeling that while science, as a human endeavor, cannot always claim to be right, or even on the right track in many cases, it is right often enough that it cannot be merely dismissed out of hand as a way of keeping track of our impact on the globe.

All of that being said, I must admit to being deeply unsettled at the ease with which certain segments of American society have arrived at the point where they can say, with a straight face and obvious feeling, that the ongoing drama of the climate change debate is irrelevant, that the consensus of world scientists about the dangers of climate change is off-base and the result of liberal bias, and that scientists can safely be ignored, vilified and driven from their jobs in government and research organizations without any troublesome consequences for the rest of us.

I got to thinking about all this after reading the Sunday New York Times, which featured a front-page article about President Donald J. Trump’s efforts at “eroding [the] role of science in government.”

I hasten to note that our president’s antagonism toward science, scientists and pretty much anything that he does not understand (which is an awful lot) has been well known since before he even ran for the job he now holds.

But now, as president, he has a lot more to say about how our government deals with a host of issues and questions that scientists have been working on for decades, even centuries, even though Trump obviously does not know squat about science, scientists, the scientific method or the proper role of science in an increasingly complicated and threatening world.

The anti-science stance of many of the supporters of the current administration in Washington, D.C., also has been around for a long time — for as long as I’ve been alive, for sure, and reportedly well before I came along.

Just from the annals of my existence, for instance, I can look back to the middle part of the 20th century, when scientists working in the public health arena were waking up to the possibility that cigarettes were not simply a way for guys to look tough in television commercials, serial dramas and movies, but were in fact causing some serious health problems among smokers.

It is now known that Big Tobacco executives, appearing before Congress at hearing about the health impacts of smoking, simply lied through their tobacco-stained teeth when asked whether smoking cigarettes could cause lung cancer and other maladies.

Despite the fact that the industry’s own scientists had been raising health-related alarms for some time, the executives looked straight into the eyes of their questioners and lied, said they did not know any such thing, had never heard of any such thing, and that smoking cigarettes actually had some health benefits.

Back then, because government was being run by people who apparently cared a little more about public health than they did about private profits, the lies of Big Tobacco were found out through scientific research. And hidden deeply among the lie-detecting reports was the startling revelation that Big Tobacco was knowingly making things worse with the additives it put into tobacco, which included added levels of nicotine (to deepen the addiction of smokers) and a host of other substances that are believed to have contributed to the rise in cancer-related mortality rates over the past half-century or so.

So Big Tobacco, in truth, was little more than just another drug dealer, working to addict its customers to ensure continued and growing profits. And if some people got sick and died as a result, well, that was really too bad, the execs were really very sorry to hear it, but there was no proof that they were at fault.

All of which was a pile of bull puckey, as we now know.

In my view, the battle over climate change has disturbing parallels to the War on smoking, not the least being the fact that many of those seeking to discredit the alarms about climate change happen to be in the pay of the very industry that is making piles of money off the business of pumping greenhouse gasses into the sky and making climate change worse every day.

Not surprisingly, the Trump administration and its legislative boosters are deeply invested (emotionally, politically and strategically, if not monetarily) in maintaining the industrial status quo, which mainly mean ridiculing and discounting fears about climate change, largely by disputing the science behind the fears.

There are many other areas in which the anti-science juggernaut in control of our government has had its way over the past couple of years — killing research into everything from invasive insect species to infant susceptibility to illness caused by chemicals in their clothes and blankets; from canceled studies about agriculture and crop mortality, to ignored or repudiated reports calling for lower mercury emissions from power-plant smokestacks as a way of reducing infant mortality; and so much more that it would require a book-length recitation.

“The disregard for (scientific) expertise in the federal government is worse than it’s ever been,” declared one academic scientist recently. “It’s pervasive.”

And this is just one broad example of how the willful ignorance of politicians, backed by corporate malfeasance and financial support, can and is doing measurable damage to humanity’s ability to survive into the future.

Email at