Science, Trump, and the Culture War

David Frum has an article in The Atlantic examining what he calls the “pro-Trump culture war on American scientists.” As he notes, Anthony Fauci has become the object of hate by pro-Trump supporters even more than any Democratic politicians. Underlying Frum’s article seems to be the assumption that scientists are merely scientists and that the pro-Trump contingent has wrongly focused their blame on them. Moreover, although Frum recognizes that the Chinese lab-origin story turns out to have more truth than anti-Trumpers want to admit, Frum suggests that we should focus less on that and more on Trump’s mishandling of the virus once it hit American shores. By focusing on China’s mistake and on hatred for science, Trump’s supporters have deflected blame from their beloved President.

Although Frum is likely correct about the psychology of his supporters, this article is a classic example of the way that Trump affects not just his supporters but also his critics. Frum blithely passes over the fact that much of the reason the scientific community didn’t initially take the lab-origin story seriously is because Trump said it. He also accuses Trump’s supporters of a misguided attack on science and seems to suggest that we should restore science to its rightful place as the primary authority on policy questions like this.

But his article itself reveals the problem with the latter claim. That is, Trump supporters focused their vitriol so much on the scientific community because it was acting politically. It was acting politically because it’s impossible for it not to act politically. Despite the claims of many of its supporters, any good scientist would admit that science isn’t univocal in its conclusions. We cannot simply “follow the science” because it points in multiple directions. Which direction we follow depends on political decisions. Trump supporters accused Fauci of being political because he was.

Policy decisions require political decisions. As Frum himself says: “Scientists can live with uncertainty. Politics abhors it.” Precisely because science is uncertain and because politics requires certain choices about which direction to go, we cannot simply “follow the science.” Just because Trump and his supporters say something doesn’t mean that they are wrong. They have included the scientists in the culture war. Some, like Frum, might dislike or disagree with that inclusion, but it’s not wrong, in and of itself.

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