Thursday 30 March 2017

Science under threat in Trump's 'post-truth' world

Pulitzer Prize-winner Deborah Blum talks to our reporter

Floody hell: Climate change is a concern but so is everyday regulation in the US
Floody hell: Climate change is a concern but so is everyday regulation in the US

Niamh Connolly

AS a college student, ­Deborah Blum set her hair on fire with a Bunsen burner sending toxic plumes into the atmosphere. She realised at that moment she wasn't cut out for lab work.

But Blum knew her future lay in the field of science. As a young girl growing up in Louisiana, her father, an entomologist at the Louisiana State University, brought exotic insects home to study. On one occasion, a caged black widow spider was placed on the table for family to study during dinner.

"My father loved the creepy crawlies of the world. It was a lot of fun. He was fascinated by what was under every leaf, it made a great childhood. My father's graduate students and post docs would meet in different rooms in the house to discuss science," she says.

It was stimulating for a young mind, laying the foundations for Blum's career as a science writer and to the ultimate accolade, the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, for her reports on the ethical dilemmas of using monkeys in medical research. Her book The Monkey Wars was published by 1994.

"I was never afraid of science. Sometimes, journalists can be afraid of science, or too respectful or awestruck by its supposed brilliance, so you don't ask the questions that need to be asked," she says.

Blum is preparing to ask those hard questions at the SCI:COM Science conference in Dublin on December 7. The responsibilities of scientists in an increasingly sceptical world is a timely topic given our 'post-truth' era.

"Following our election, a lot of people are worried about how things are going to be regulated here. Everyone is focussing on the fact that our [US] President-elect appointed a climate change denier to head his EPA transition team.

"But it's the everyday regulation - the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the way the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) moderates for bad things in food - that are probably a lot more vulnerable," she says.

"We've got a very pro-wealth, pro-business Republican Party that now has power over every single branch of government and they've had the EPA on their agenda and earth sciences in the crosshairs for a long time. This election allows them to start putting some of their plans in place to weaken environmental regulation."

The 'post-truth' world is fertile land for science sceptics from climate change deniers, anti-vaccine groups to evolution sceptics, while opposition remains strong to genetically modified foods.

"In an era when people are reportedly better educated and know more about science, why do we see this resistance to climate change, vaccines, genetic modification or evolutionism?" she asks.

There are communities in the US in danger of losing resistance to polio because of anti-vaccine sentiment, she adds. "A lot of people don't realise how deeply the scientific community have discredited a lot of these claims about the dangers of vaccines. They don't understand the concept of 'herd immunity'. Some understand it and reject it anyway." Her opposition to Trump and his administration is clear from her Twitter feed. A colleague of Blum, a reporter from the New York Times, took a different view: "He said 'I'm a journalist - journalists have to stay publicly neutral. This is a very interesting discussion among journalists - how politically forward, visibly, am I? What's the role of a journalist and do we pretend to be completely neutral? I felt this election and the issues raised by the direction the country was going was so important, that I had to just stand up, and pass on information.

"It would be a terrible moment to pull the covers over your head. This is exactly the moment we've got to do a better job to make people realise that if we don't stand up to keep these regulations in place, that their health and health of their children, will suffer."

Given the rise of fake social media news, it's even more important. "If you are someone who believes that facts matter, that we should make our decisions based on credible information, it's hugely concerning."

An environmental science graduate, Blum studied journalism and was professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin for 18 years. As well as investigative work for newspapers on poisonous chemicals, she has penned novels stemming from her fascination with poisons. Her novel, The Poisoner's Handbook, was a New York Times bestseller in 2011.

"If you look at the American Toxic Substances Control Act it will tell you that only 10pc of the compounds registered as toxic chemicals have been studied."

Blum was the subject of social media invective last year after she publicised remarks made by the Nobel Laureate scientist Tim Hunt at a science conference in South Korea.

"Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry," he said. In the Twitter hailstorm that ensued, Hunt along with the other journalists who reported his comments, were pilloried as the debate became highly polarised.

"He said what he said, and I'm proud we called him out. I'm glad to be on the other side of it. In the internet age, it's probably good to have a thicker skin because you're gonna need it. But I wouldn't like to go through it again," Blum says.

She believes that scientists are reluctant to get involved in the field of genetic modification as it's become a "politicised area". "I'm not opposed to genetic modification but I do believe it needs to be much more transparent and evidence based. We need to be very thoughtful and not pretend that decisions we make in science and technology don't often have unintended consequences, because they do."

GMO could be effective in some cases, she believes, such as addressing arsenic accumulation in rice from the soil. "You could genetically modify that transport system so that rice is no longer an arsenic accumulator... We need to not adopt a universal resistance to GMO but be open minded and look at it in a case by case way."

She readily acknowledges the dilemmas of using animals in science research but believes "we don't have enough good procedures to replace the early safety trials which in the US you're required to do on two different species. So, until I'm convinced, I would say human health and safety first. I would like us to invest in the mechanisms that would allow us to give it up."

Deborah Blum is guest speaker at the SCI:COM Science conference in Dublin on December 7, scicom.ie

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