Keck Faculty Respond to Trump Administration's 'Threat to Science'
Julie Tran | March 3, 2017, 11:11 a.m.
The majority of the W.M. Keck Science Department faculty signed a statement supporting science on Feb. 15 in response to the Trump administration’s recent attempts to vet scientific research before being published and to censor scientific findings on topics such as climate change.
“The pursuit and communication of unbiased information and the free exchange of ideas among all people form the very basis of our scientific community," the statement noted in response to the mounting anti-science rhetoric fomented by the Trump administration. "The scientific approach upholds informed decision-making based on continuous efforts to formulate and test hypotheses, collect data and information, and critically examine the evidence."
The statement, however, is not officially endorsed by Keck, as it was not introduced for a department vote.
"There were questions [among the writers] about the proper procedure about issuing such a statement," said Patrick Ferree, associate professor of biology at the Keck Science Department. "This might be the first of such statements raised by the faculty in our department, and we want to be careful. We are currently discussing the crafting of such policy."
According to Ferree, the statement was formulated in order to protect the “free, objective pursuit of science,” which he claims was under threat of restraint by the current federal administration and its supporters. Specific regulations that concerned Ferree were the proposed restrictions on the publication of scientific research.
Ferree thinks the Trump administration has played on public fears to overstate the controversy of ideas like climate change.
“The goal is to better communicate to the public how important it is that we have all of the facts," Ferree said. "We need undistorted facts that are not filtered so that we can make the best decisions as citizens, not just as scientists."
Andre Wakefield, professor of history at Pitzer College, also supports the collaborative statement and explained in an email that these concerns not only affect natural sciences, but human sciences as well.
“The Trump administration does not only pose a threat to science, but to all evidence-based inquiry," Wakefield said. "The administration, led by the President himself, has done much to undermine those networks of trust and reliability. If that strategy succeeds, we will have completely hollowed out public faith in science, evidence, and fact."
Lars Schmitz, assistant professor of biology at Keck, said that he is concerned by how the media has contradicted information that has been proven with scientific data and extensive research. He explained that the falsifying of information undermines educators and the education system.
“I am an evolutionary biologist, and I am personally concerned about what may happen with the teaching of evolution because I have never seen so many outspoken evolution critics in charge of education," Schmitz said. "There should be no controversy because there is absolutely no doubt from a scientific perspective that evolution is happening."
Before the recent outbreak of anti-scientific sentiment, Ferree had planned to teach a first year seminar course at Pitzer College modeled after associate professor of biology Anna Ahn’s Science vs. Pseudoscience course at Harvey Mudd College, solely due to his personal interest in the subject. However, this course now also serves to support the Keck statement and his belief in the critical assessment of evidence-based findings.
The course "will focus on how students can recognize pseudoscience and the basis of why there is pseudoscience, as well as give students tools to critically think about things that really impact society, such as climate change and immunizations," Ferree said. "It’s an opportune time to address a lot of cases where there are incorrect perceptions of these topics that are contrary to what the data actually says."
Ferree and Schmitz agree that scientific misinformation stems from communication barriers between the researcher and the general public, as average citizens are typically not experts on the processes of research and data analysis.
Therefore, in order to diminish this gap between researchers and the public, Schmitz plans to work with various disciplines, such as media studies, in order to make research results more accessible and understandable. He is also planning for his applied phylogenetics class to present evidence of evolution at local high schools to raise awareness on these topics and allow 5C students to actively engage in outreach projects.
“We as scientists have to get better at communicating what we work on to citizens so we can maximize the knowledge of citizens so that they can make good, informed decisions about policies. We owe it to them, and it’s a huge responsibility for researchers,” Ferree said.
Professor of philosophy, science, technology, and society at Pitzer College Brian Keeley agrees with the statement as well.
“I’d like to see the statement publicized broadly, as it reflects what many of us at the Claremont Colleges believe and affirm to be our role in larger society,” Keeley wrote in an email to TSL.
The statement has been officially endorsed by Pitzer and Scripps College, and HMC released a similar statement on Jan. 16.
"We will continue to oppose those movements and actions which threaten to strangle science education in our public schools, to pass off pseudo-science as science, or to de-fund crucial federal sources of support for scientific research and development," HMC's statement read.
Keck's statement has been presented to Claremont McKenna College for endorsement, but has not yet been addressed.