In the hours after the election of Donald Trump, Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington, told the journal Nature that Trump will be “the first anti-science president we have ever had.”
Whether that characterization is fair won't be clear until Trump actually takes office. But Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence do not have a great track record. In the course of their careers and this campaign, they have made several false claims about science, eliding complexity and sometimes outright rejecting the conclusions of the vast majority of researchers. Often, they have repeated dangerous misconceptions about science, such as the nonexistent link between vaccines and autism, which could make it harder for researchers to communicate the truth.
Trump and Pence are far from the only candidates to be wrong about science. But they are the ones who will enter the Oval Office in three months. So, in their own words, here are eight cases in which they have gotten science wrong — with an explanation of what the science actually says. Starting with Trump:
“I'm not a big believer in man-made climate change." — Trump in an interview with Hugh Hewitt, Sept. 21, 2015
“Well, I think the climate change is just a very, very expensive form of tax. A lot of people are making a lot of money." — interview on Fox and Friends, Jan. 18, 2016
“We're going to cancel the Paris climate agreement." — speech in Bismarck, N.D., May 26, 2016
In September, hundreds of U.S. researchers, including 30 Nobel laureates, published an open letter criticizing Trump for his stance on climate change and highlighting the risks of failing to comply with the Paris climate accord. Studies published in peer-reviewed journals find that at least 97 percent of all actively publishing scientists believe that global warming in the past century is a consequence of human activity.
Vaccines and autism
“You take this little beautiful baby and you pump . . . We had so many instances, people that work for me, just the other day, 2 years old, a beautiful child, went to have the vaccine and came back and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic." — Republican presidential debate, Sept. 16, 2015
The claim that there is a causal link between vaccines and autism is based on a fraudulent and retracted study that was funded by lawyers for parents who were pursuing a lawsuit against vaccine companies. A study of nearly 100,000 U.S. children published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no increased risk for autism in children who received a measles/mumps/rubella vaccine. Scores of studies from around the world have shown conclusively that there is no link.
Ebola is spread only by direct contact with the bodily fluids of a sick person, and doctors said that the infected Americans whose transfer to U.S. hospitals Trump opposed would probably have died otherwise. Public health experts also said that a travel ban on Ebola-affected countries would not protect Americans and would likely make the epidemic worse by hampering relief efforts.
This tweet cites the testimony of Carl V. Phillips, a wind power opponent who previously worked as a paid expert for the tobacco industry. Multiple reviews of the research on the purported health impact of “infrasound” from wind farm turbines found that there was none, aside from annoyance that could contribute to stress.
Lightbulbs and cancer
Compact fluorescent lamps, which use 25 to 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent lightbulbs, do contain small amounts of mercury — but the total quantity is 600 times less than the amount in a traditional thermometer. They need to be carefully handled and properly disposed of, but by reducing energy usage, they also reduce overall mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, the single-largest U.S. source of mercury pollution. A 2012 study also found elevated UV radiation from damaged CFLs, but the dose is low — no more than you would receive standing in direct sunlight. The FDA recommends that any risks from UV can be avoided by buying double envelope bulbs and not spending prolonged periods directly in front of the light.
The ozone layer
“You know, you’re not allowed to use hair spray anymore because if affects the ozone. You know that, right? . . . I said, ‘Wait a minute — so if I take hair spray and if I spray it in my apartment, which is all sealed, you’re telling me that affects the ozone layer?' ‘Yes.' I say, no way, folks. Now way. That’s like a lot of the rules and regulations you people have in the mines, right? It’s the same kind of stuff.” — speech in Charleston, W.Va., May 5, 2016
Trump is right that the chlorofluorocarbons formerly used in aerosols like hair spray are destructive to the ozone layer — a region of the Earth's stratosphere that shields the planet from harmful ultraviolet radiation. And he's wrong that a man spritzing hair spray in Manhattan can't contribute to a hole in the atmosphere a dozen miles above Antarctica. The Nobel Prize-winning work that led to the Montreal Protocol (which banned the kind of aerosols in Trump's old hair spray) found that if human use of CFCs continued unabated, the ozone layer would be depleted by as much as 50 percent by 2050.
Science has struggled to keep up with the pace of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — an unconventional drilling method that injects high-pressure water into rock to release natural gas. Some of the claims about health risks associated with fracking are likely overstated, and a recent draft EPA report concluded that while waste from fracking has occasionally contaminated water supplies, it isn't a nationwide problem. But it is definitely not correct to say the drilling method has zero risks: People who live near fracking wells are more than twice as likely to report skin and respiratory problems, and some studies have shown a correlation between proximity to wells and increased hospital admissions, low birth weights, respiratory disorders and other illnesses.
Pence on evolution
Chris Matthews: Okay, you want to educate the American people about science and its relevance today. Do you believe in evolution, sir?
Mike Pence: Do I believe in evolution? I embrace the view that God created the heavens and the Earth, the seas and all that’s in them.
Matthews: Right. But do you believe in evolution as the way he did it?
Pence: The means, Chris, that he used to do that, I can’t say. But I do believe in that fundamental truth.
— interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews, 2009
“Charles Darwin never thought of evolution as anything other than a theory. He hoped that someday it would be proven by the fossil record but did not live to see that, nor have we . . . And now that we have recognized evolution as a theory, I would simply and humbly ask, can we teach it as such and can we also consider teaching other theories of the origin of species?" — speaking before Congress, July 11, 2002
In scientific parlance, a “theory” is a broad explanation for a wide range of phenomena supported by many lines of evidence. Scientists have accumulated 150 years of evidence to support Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, ranging from the bones in the fossil record to adaptations that happen right before their eyes. Neither Darwin nor the 99 percent of working research scientists who believe humans have evolved to reach their present form doubt that the theory of evolution is the correct explanation for the history of life on this planet and should be taught in schools as such.