Editor's note: This story was originally published in April. It has been updated to include the latest on the Paris climate agreement.
Thousands of scientists and their allies filled the streets of the nation’s capital on Earth Day for the March for Science, advocating for the importance of scientific truth in an era we’ve ominously been told doesn’t value the truth any longer. Just a week later, the People's Climate March in Washington, D.C., demanded policymakers not only respect science, but that they also act on it.
And now, drawing global dismay and condemnation, President Trump has announced that the U.S. will no longer participate in the landmark Paris climate agreement.
Advocates say science is under attack. President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt doesn’t accept evidence that shows humans are causing climate change. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' 2001 comments on wanting to “advance God’s kingdom” through education have educators worried she could undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools. Trump’s budget blueprint slashes funding for the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy's Office of Science.
Esteemed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, in an impassioned video on his Facebook page, said he fears people have lost the ability to judge what's true and what's not.
"That is a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy," he says.
The scientific community is alarmed by the Trump administration, and by what they see as the diminishing role of objective science in American life. But the General Social Survey, one of the oldest and most comprehensive recurring surveys of American attitudes, shows that although trust in public institutions has declined over the last half century, science is the one institution that has not suffered any erosion of public confidence. Americans who say they have a great deal of confidence in science has hovered around 40% since 1973.
Many scientists say there is no war on their profession at all.
According to the 2016 GSS data released this month, people trust scientists more than Congress (6%) and the executive branch (12%). They trust them more than the press (8%). They have more trust in scientists than in the people who run major companies (18%), more than in banks and financial institutions (14%), the Supreme Court (26%) or organized religion (20%).
So why all the headlines about the "war on science"?
Though science still holds an esteemed place in America, there is a gap between what scientists and some citizens think — a rift that is not entirely new — on issues such as climate change, nuclear power, genetically modified foods, human evolution and childhood vaccines.
Americans don’t reject science as a whole. People love the weather forecast. They love their smartphones. When people reject science, it’s because they’re asked to believe something that conflicts with a deeply held view, whether political (my party does not endorse that), religious (my god did not say that) or personal (that's not how I was raised).
Many conservatives reject the science of man-made climate change, just as many liberals reject the science that shows nuclear energy can safely combat it. The views we express signal which political group we belong to. The gap between what science shows and what people believe, sociologists say, is about our identity.
“The issue of climate change isn’t about what you know,” said Dan Kahan, a professor of psychology and law at Yale and a member of the university’s Cultural Cognition Project. “It’s about who you are.”