Trump vs. science; politics vs. truth

A boy sat in church, looking up at the chandelier as it swayed in the breeze. It seemed always to take the same time to go from one end of its swing to the other, no matter how far it traveled.

To turn idle observation into proven fact, he knew he needed hard evidence. He wanted to compare each full swing to a steady beat of time. The most reliable beat, he decided, was his own pulse. Checking the chandelier’s swing against it, he proved that his theory was correct.

The discovery took place in Italy about 400 years ago. The boy’s name was Galileo, and he had just found the pendulum.

A Dutch scientist, the son of a friend of Galileo’s, took his discovery and developed the pendulum clock, which became the world’s standard timekeeper for about three centuries. It was accurate to within one second a year.

Galileo would become one of the great scientific geniuses of all time. But he would not have an easy life.

A Polish scientist had come up with the theory that the sun was the center of the universe, a term then meaning only the small group of celestial bodies near Earth. But Copernicus lacked the evidence to prove his theory.

The theory was disdained by the Pope, who insisted that Earth was the center of the universe and that the sun moved around it.

Using a telescope, Galileo provided the evidence that Copernicus was right. But the Pope had decreed that only the Church’s view was correct and, if a person disagreed, he would be punished. Galileo spent much of his later life under house arrest. In the end, everybody had to admit he was right.

Galileo’s struggle was a lesson in science and politics. Science is based on theory tested by evidence. Politics is based on power. That difference can produce serious conflict.

Science should withstand the test of time, while politics change. Since the time when Isaac Newton explained gravity, his findings and fame have survived. Meanwhile, there has been a parade of forgotten kings and queens in England.

President Trump, as in the story of Pope Urban and Galileo, tries to overrule the scientists working on Covid-19’s cause and cure.

Science, based on data that is steadily being collected, has allowed understanding of the structure of the virus, how it spreads and what slows down or prevents the spread. Any scientist may have a theory about such matters, but they need evidence to provide proof.

Two other factors are involved. First, their personal opinion, religious belief or political affiliation cannot influence conclusions based on sound evidence. Second, any scientific finding is always open to challenge and change if new and better evidence is found.

If government prefers a conclusion contrary to evidence, it cannot nullify the evidence simply because it has power. If political leaders want to dispute science, their position must have solid scientific backing. They may not successfully choose to dismiss scientific findings as merely the opinion of scientists.

Here is where Trump misses the point, apparently believing that his view is worth as much as the evidence uncovered by scientists.

Eric Beach, a leading Trump backer, criticized Joe Biden for saying schools should temporarily close. He charged that Biden’s “capitulation” amounts to: “believe the science, don’t question anything and don’t show any leadership, whereas Trump understands that we should question science and should question data….”

Trump may certainly question science, but, he must have evidence. Otherwise, it’s “fake news.” Beach and other supporters deny science mainly because they want to win an election.

This issue is not simply about politics; it is about how people live. A New York Times survey this week asked epidemiologists, scientists who study viruses, about their own plans. They are extremely cautious about their social contacts, because they understand how easily Covid-19 can spread. In short, they act in line with what they know.

The country faces a real problem in finding ways to open the economy, which is vitally important. But denying the spread of the virus and its impact will not solve the problem. The “new economy” will be, well, new. Government needs to promote reopening, public safety and innovative change.

Trump cannot succeed simply by attacking science. Ignoring its findings or firing a scientist won’t return the country to the way it was before Covid-19. But it could make the impact of the virus worse.

By politicizing science, Trump and his allies can’t turn the calendar back a few months, but could take government policy back a few centuries to the days of Galileo.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.