Trump’s Polarization of Science Is Bad for Everyone


The president of the United States cannot control the trajectory of a hurricane, but he can—we learned in 2019—force the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to endorse a trajectory that he invented. Thus went Sharpiegate, the brief episode that began when Donald Trump tweeted a warning about Hurricane Dorian’s danger to several states. It was one of his more anodyne tweets, but he erroneously included Alabama. He doubled down when questioned, producing as proof a NOAA forecast altered with what looked suspiciously like a Sharpie. When this failed to quiet criticism, he strong-armed the agency into a statement that affirmed his tweet.

By then, Dorian was already making landfall nowhere near Alabama. But so what? Even if Trump could not bend reality, he found that he could bend the federal bureaucracy to his lies. Given another four years in the White House, he will certainly do so again and again.

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When science gets in his way, Trump is happy to attack or distort it—or block it altogether. His administration kicked scientists off EPA advisory panels, replacing them with allies who questioned the need to regulate smog and greenhouse gases. It canceled a $1 million study on the risks of mountaintop-removal coal mining. It stopped funding children’s health centers that studied the impact of pollution.

The pandemic, of course, is where Trump’s willful and wishful ignorance turned the most deadly. Even as he privately acknowledged the danger of the novel coronavirus in February 2020, he publicly proclaimed that it would “go away” as the weather warmed. When that didn’t happen, Trump tried new ways to downplay the virus’s threat. He promoted miracle cures: first hydroxychloroquine and then convalescent plasma, diverting federal resources to drugs that did nothing against the virus. He mocked masks. When the vaccines finally arrived, he endorsed only half-heartedly what should have been his administration’s crowning scientific achievement, because admitting that the shots were a big deal would have meant admitting that the virus was a big deal.

During his presidency, Trump’s so-called war on science set off existential fears that he was single-handedly destroying trust in science itself. This adage is not borne out in polling data, at least not quite in that way: Confidence in scientists was as high as ever during the Trump administration; if anything, it increased. The percentage of Americans who professed a fair or great deal of confidence in scientists climbed from 76 to 87 percent from 2016 to 2020, according to the Pew Research Center—the same period in which Trump was retconning hurricane forecasts and stoking COVID denialism.

But this upswing conceals a sharp polarization: Republicans lost confidence in the scientific community under Trump, while Democrats gained it. And those two trends appeared to reinforce each other. As conservatives ditched masks and refused vaccines, liberals enthusiastically flocked to them. They populated their lawns with IN THIS HOUSE, WE BELIEVE … signs, which declared that SCIENCE IS REAL, alongside BLACK LIVES MATTER and NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL. Even before the pandemic, they turned out in droves for the March for Science, in April 2017, which, while ostensibly nonpartisan, was inspired by the Women’s March in January of that year, and displayed nerdy slogans plainly directed against Trump, such as SCIENCE CURES ALTERNATIVE FACTS.

As liberals mixed science and politics, conservatives recoiled. The March for Science, according to one study, made conservatives’ attitudes toward science more negative. And after the prestigious journal Nature endorsed Joe Biden in the 2020 election, the only effects, another study found, were to make Trump supporters more distrustful of scientists and of information published in Nature. The journal ran an editorial acknowledging the study but stood by its endorsement anyway because “silence was not an option.” In other words, Nature also doubled down. Trump has a preternatural ability to politicize everything—through his actions and the reactions they provoke—and science proved no exception.

A second Trump administration would likely revive the crackdown on environmental science that characterized the first, and it is now hard to imagine Trump lending weight to vaccination or support to the CDC. He could also pressure the federal bureaucracy to target areas of science policy that have become politically salient since 2020, such as the regulation of abortion pills and the use of fetal tissue in research.

The more abiding danger might be the continued transmutation of support for scientific study and findings—which wasn’t always so strongly associated with one party—into a cast-iron tribal belief. A reelected Trump would continue to attack any science that stands in the way of his agenda, and he would also likely provoke his liberal opponents into still more full-throated defenses of science, including clumsy and overreaching ones. It would be a mistake, as well, for liberals to cling too tightly to science as the ultimate arbiter of policy. Closing schools for COVID, for example, came with genuinely difficult trade-offs in the uncertain days of March 2020; cutting off sources of viral transmission also meant cutting kids off from free lunches, socialization, reporting of child abuse—not to mention learning. But some of the bluest cities kept schools closed well into 2021, even as it became clearer that these other costs were steep.

The upshot of Trump’s polarization of science is bad for everyone. The early days of the coronavirus were, despite everything that came after, a time of remarkable social cohesion. COVID attitudes had not yet hardened along clear partisan lines, and Americans, by and large, stayed home at first. We followed social-distancing guidelines. We successfully flattened the curve, at least for a time. In another crisis—another hurricane, another pandemic—we will again have to rely on one another. But can we, if we cannot even agree on the same reality?

This article appears in the January/February 2024 print edition with the headline “When Science Becomes a Slogan.”

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