Mother Jones’ “Climate Desk” editor, Tim McDonnell, recently summarized some of the “stupidest” anti-science nonsense spieled by politicians and other high-profile people during 2014 (although he used a more colorful word than nonsense).
It’s a troubling list of scientific ignorance — mostly because the people involved should know better. We can laugh (and do) at many of the statements (such as Donald Trump’s declaration to Fox News that global warming is a “hoax” perpetrated by scientists “having a lot of fun”), but, as McDonnell rightly points out, such statements often have serious consequences for public policy — and that’s no laughing matter.
Most of the items on McDonnell’s list involve climate change denial, but several also deal more directly with health-related issues:
Unnecessary Ebola quarantines: The plague of denial started in West Africa, as efforts to stem the outbreak were stymied by persistent rumors that Ebola was a myth propagated by the World Health Organization and Western powers. When Ebola hopped the Atlantic and landed in the United States, a host of (mostly Republican) lawmakers clamored for travel bans and visa restrictions — even though America’s leading public health officials repeatedly explained that those steps would be ineffective. In October, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) forced Kaci Hickox, a nurse who had been treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, to stay in an isolation tent in a Newark hospital for two-and-a-half days, despite the fact that she had no symptoms of the disease and therefore posed no threat to others. When Hickox finally escaped New Jersey, she was quarantined again in her home state of Maine. Doctors Without Borders, an NGO on the front lines of the Ebola crisis, issued a statement at the time declaring that the “forced quarantine of asymptomatic health workers … is not grounded on scientific evidence and could undermine efforts to curb the epidemic at its source.”
Anti-vaxxers are still a thing: The first five months of 2014 saw the more measles cases than comparable time periods in any year since 1994; the CDC reported that 90 percent of those cases were among people who hadn’t been vaccinated. In May, a Tennessee hospital reported a disturbing spike in cases of infants with a rare bleeding condition that could have been prevented with a routine vitamin injection; doctors there blamed anti-vaccination fears for parents avoiding the injection. Yes, it’s not just Jenny McCarthy — a surprising number of people across the country continue to be preoccupied with the totally debunked fear that vaccines will lead to autism or other maladies.
Contraception ≠ abortion: The year’s biggest court battle over reproductive rights, in which the craft store Hobby Lobby objected to the Obamacare requirement that it provide contraceptive coverage for its employees, was premised on terrible science. The company’s owners, who have a religious objection to abortion, claimed that intrauterine devices and the “morning-after” pills Ella and Plan B cause abortions. But scientists say that these methods of contraception work by preventing pregnancy; they don’t result in abortion. If it’s not surprising that Hobby Lobby’s owners would come out against the science, it is a surprise that conservative justices on the Supreme Court would back them up, despite ample testimony from leading gynecologists. As Molly Redden reports, battles over science denial in reproductive rights are only going to heat up in 2015.
And then there is the disturbing effort by some members of Congress to control what kind of scientific research gets federal funding. These efforts will have a profound impact not just on climate change research, but also on research related to health. Writes McDonnell:
Republican Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas took his opposition to basic science straight to the source: The grant-writing archives of the National Science Foundation. In an unprecedented violation of the historic firewall between the lawmakers who set the NSF’s budget and the top scientists who decide where to direct it, Smith’s researchers pulled the files on at least 47 grants that they believed were not in the “public interest.” Some of the biggest-ticket projects they took issue with related to climate change research; the committee apparently intended to single out these projects as examples of the NSF frittering money away on research that won’t come back to benefit taxpayers. The investigation is ongoing, and the precedent it sets — that scientific research projects are only worthwhile if they directly benefit the American economy — is unsettling.
You can read McDonnell’s entire list on the Mother Jones website.