The state of science in America is currently not good. I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know: our president is a blithering moron who we knew even before we elected him that he thinks climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese, because he tweeted it. Like, dozens of times. Every time it snowed. Anywhere. Hoax.
But he became president anyway, because there are a lot of idiots in this country and the system is rigged. He immediately started memory-holing all mentions of climate change on government websites, and screwing with science in many other ways: National Park Service employees were muzzled from making evidence-based claims, Health and Human Services employees were restricted from discussing gun violence research, the Department of the Interior removed scientific reasoning from the protection of endangered species and 30 species were removed from the endangered species list for no rational reason, the DoI also prevented federal employees from attending scientific conferences, the Environmental Protection Agency flouted their own standards in choosing advisors and stopped collecting important data on pollutants, one-third of all federal advisory committees were cut via executive order, the HHS banned the use of fetal tissue research, doctors were prevented from discussing abortion with low-income women, researchers at the CDC were cautioned against using words like transgender, fetus, vulnerable, and evidence-based…and that’s just a tiny sample. I highly recommend you head over to the Union of Concerned Scientists and just scroll on through all the examples to really internalize just how many attacks on science the Trump Administration has engaged in.
And all of that, if you can believe it, was before the pandemic hit us earlier this year. More than a year ago, Joe Biden tweeted “We are not prepared for a pandemic. Trump has rolled back progress President Obama and I made to strengthen global health security. We need leadership that builds public trust, focuses on real threats, and mobilizes the world to stop outbreaks before they reach our shores.” Huh! Turns out he was right. In addition to all the things I mentioned above, Trump gutted the United States’ pandemic response agencies and left our Strategic National Stockpile dangerously understocked, which is why we ran out of much-needed medical supplies like N-95 masks.
And then Trump himself continued to deny the science of the virus and the ideal response to contain it, stating that it was no big deal, that it would be gone in no time, that people could inject bleach to cure it, that masks are useless, that shutdowns are useless, that quarantine is useless, all of which flew in the face of what his own administration’s scientists were saying. The result? Nearly 9 million Americans infected thus far (including Trump, his family, and much of his administration) and 226,000 deaths as of this recording, more than anywhere else in the entire world.
Honestly, I was one of those people back in 2016 who said “holy shit, a Trump presidency is going to be a fucking disaster” and even I didn’t realize just how bad things were going to be. And I mean, I haven’t even mentioned all the non-science stuff and the Supreme Court stuff and Jesus Christ, this is bad.
So now that we are quickly approaching the end of the 2020 election, a lot of people who value science are rightfully pointing out that we need to get Trump out of office. In October, for instance, the editors of Scientific American endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in the magazine’s 175-year history, writing that the “evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people—because he rejects evidence and science.” They followed that endorsement a week later with a plea: “On November 3, Vote to End Attacks on Science.”
Biden and Kamala Harris have jumped on this messaging, with Harris recently Tweeting “It’s not controversial to say that @JoeBidenand I will listen to scientists.” Hell, even back in April when more than 50 scientists endorsed Biden in an open letter, Biden replied “Unlike our current president, I will always choose science over fiction.”
And yet. You knew there was an “and yet” coming, didn’t you? That’s my thing. “And yet.”
It is completely undeniable that we must get Trump out of office, for his horrific fascism but yes also for his relentless attacks on science that have directly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. But is it true that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will “always choose science over fiction?” Will they always “listen to scientists”? The answer to that appears to be “maybe, but maybe not when the scientists disagree with voters or donors.”
Let’s talk about fracking. Hydraulic fracking is a process of extracting natural gas reserves that are trapped in shale rock thousands of feet underground, by blasting the shale with high-pressure chemicals that allow the gas to slip out. It’s led to the US regaining some energy independence and Americans getting cheaper energy rates, but it’s also caused a lot of problems. The process can lead to toxic chemicals like ethylene glycol getting into the water supply, usually through poor well design and spills like the 8,000 gallons of fluids that Chesapeake Energy dumped in Dimock Pennsylvania in 2009. A 2017 Duke University study found that 16% of fracking wells spill liquids each year, or 6,600 incidents in four states over a decade. Last year, researchers at Johns Hopkins conducted a meta-analysis of the past decade of fracking research and found significant evidence of a link between fracking and preterm births, high-risk pregnancies, asthma, migraine headaches, fatigue, nasal and sinus symptoms, and skin disorders, with pregnancy and birth outcomes being the link they found most concerning.
The fracking process also releases huge amounts of methane into the water supply and into the air as a byproduct. Then there’s the problem of where and how the fracking is done, like how the most accessible shale deposits happen to be located under the feet of poor, rural people with their own well systems and not a lot of political pull. So for a long time, companies were fracking in these areas without first performing water quality checks, so that when the residents started complaining about a drop in quality, the companies could shrug and say it was always like that. And those same companies could build access roads and move heavy equipment into otherwise pristine wilderness without much oversight, screwing up delicate ecosystems.
It’s a flawed system that has been growing so quickly that many scientists are concerned that the process is outpacing the science. There are so many ways that fracking might be affecting the health of humans and the environment around us that someone needs to pump the brakes. Even researchers who think that fracking can be done safely still have concerns, like Robert Jackson at Duke University who says “The question isn’t ‘can hydraulic fracturing be done safely?’ It’s ‘will it be done safely?’” Even if you think that it’s possible to blast toxic chemicals a mile or two beneath our drinking water without those chemicals ever coming back up, you can’t argue that these companies are seriously screwing up when it comes to preventable spills. There might not be a scientific consensus that fracking must be banned outright immediately, but it does appear that there’s a consensus saying “hey, fracking can be extremely dangerous and we need to fully study it and regulate it and yes, maybe ban it if the research demands it, before we let companies blast the shit out of rural areas.”
But Joe Biden’s policy on fracking is simply “I will not ban it,” which Kamala Harris repeated in a recent debate. Harris herself is anti-fracking, but acknowledges that Joe Biden absolutely 100% will not ban it. Why? Well, the campaign has gone to great lengths to attempt to reassure the tens of thousands of voters who are currently making bank in the fracking industry in key battleground states like Pennsylvania. He even managed to get two large unions to endorse him in the hope that their members will believe Biden when he says he’s pro-fracking.
Does that mean that Biden is anti-science? I hesitate to say that he is, though I do think that he has a cynical view of it. The evidence that fracking is dangerous is becoming overwhelming but what’s not clear is if those dangers can be fixed through tougher regulation, which many industry leaders are worried that Biden will enact. But it’s all conjecture: Biden won’t come out and state strongly that he will follow the science on fracking regulation, because he knows that that will damage him in the eyes of swing state voters and a $30 billion industry.
My point here isn’t to say that Biden is worse for science than Trump. Let’s be clear: a trashcan full of rotten turnips would be better for science than Trump. I’m just saying that it’s important to remember that a Biden presidency isn’t going to launch us into a scientific utopia. Trump has pushed the Overton window too far for that. In 2016 we may have been able to have a meaningful presidential debate about whether or not a candidate understands the science on complicated topics like fracking, or nuclear energy, or crewed spaceflight, but now that’s unthinkable because Trump has forced the conversation to be so much stupider: did China invent global warming? Did China invent a virus? Do viruses even exist?
So vote for Biden, obviously, but do it with the understanding that once he is president, we still need to work hard to make sure that he’s listening to the science — even when it’s politically inconvenient.