Can Twitter Rescue Science?

Can Twitter Rescue Science?

Can Twitter Rescue Science?

President Trump is waging a war on science, but rogue scientists—including many within the government—are fighting back.

   

Can Twitter Rescue Science?

image by: GageSkidmore

From the Daniel Ellsberg and Deepthroat to Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, the experimental democratic weft known as the United States of America includes a thread of federal employees who have felt compelled to work against the government to preserve or restore the ideals that government is sworn to protect and uphold.

But the quilt of American history has never had a panel like the intragovernmental resistance that crystallized within a week of Donald Trump's taking office as the country's 45th president. It seems President Trump doesn't want his scientists communicating information that has not passed through his political prism—and the scientists aren't having it.

It started almost as soon as Trump took office. On January 20, after the National Park Service (NPS) used its Twitter account to retweet messages that did not comport with the Trump administration's demonstrably false claims about the size of the inauguration crowd, the NPS was instructed to cease using its account until further notice.

While the logic behind that directive might have seemed innocuous—the NPS tweeted that the retweets in question were "mistaken," and CNN reports that "the decision to stop tweeting was in order to investigate whether or not the account had been hacked"—the Boston Globe notes that this action, along with "a media blackout at the Environmental Protection Agency" is "part of a broader communications clampdown within the executive branch."

According to Reuters, that communications clampdown includes ordering the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove a page on climate change from its Website, a page that included links to global-warming research and data on carbon emissions, a move that would mirror deletion of all reference to climate change from the White House's Website.

climate change search

As of the time of this writing, the page in question remains on the EPA Website, but government science employees fear that we are seeing the beginning of the Trump administration's attempt to choke off the free flow of scientific information to the general public in favor of (to use Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway's now infamous turn of phrase) "alternative facts."

But rather than running scared, these scientists and their environmentally concerned cohort are inventing ways to stand and fight. And they're using the president's favorite communications tool—Twitter—as their lifeline to the public. First into the breach was Badlands National Park, which apparently defied the administration's ban by using its official Twitter account to promulgate various climate-change data. After those tweets (which the NPS said were made by a former employee) were taken down, it seems NPS employees created AltUSNatParkService (@AltNatParkSer). Dubbing themselves "[t]he #Resistance team against #AltFacts#FauxNews #FauxScience," they tweeted to the Badlands employees, "When they silence you, we will speak for you," and then sent an open message specifically to the president: "Mr Trump, you may have taken us down officially. But with scientific evidence & the Internet our message will get out."

It seems employees of other governmental organizations, such as NASA (@RogueNASA) and the EPA (@AltUSEPA), quickly followed the NPS employees' example, and before Trump had been in office for a full seven days there were more than 80 such accounts.

"Seems" because there is, of course, a verification problem. For self-evident reasons, any government employees associated with such accounts are likely to feel the need for anonymity. And because we live in a world where "fake news" plays a real part, it is probable that some of these accounts are the creations of individuals who are not actually federal employees. For example, as NPR points out, there are multiple accounts claiming to be associated with EPA employees.

But considering the documented fears of verified government employees and the fact that this from of resistance was started on official government accounts, it seems certain that many, if not most, of these accounts are legitimate.

So are the fears that led to their creation. Despite near universal consensus among climate scientists that humanity activity has contributed to climate change, Trump has repeatedly referred climate change itself—never mind humanity's contribution to the phenomenon—as a "hoax." He has made scientifically baseless claims regarding Ebola, autism, cancer, and the ozone layer. Taken together, Trump holds a litany of views that the editorial board of Scientific American calls "shockingly ignorant."

With so many signs pointing to Trump's wanting to use his White House as a filter between government scientists and the general public, as well as appointing an array of like-mindedly ignorant individuals to head science and environmental departments (for example, in 2014 Governor Sonny Perdue, Trump's pick for secretary of Agriculture, called the prevailing views among climate scientists "ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality"), social media is only the first of what is likely to be a many-fronted assault by scientific community to defend itself against Trump's incursions.

One of the coming counterattacks will be the March for Science. "The March for Science champions publicly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity," reads the group's mission statement. "We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good, and for political leaders and policymakers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest."

Average Americans do not read scientific journals. When it comes to the state of scientific belief, at most they catch the occasional news story and skim an article making the rounds on Facebook. What more often makes its way to their consciousness is the government narrative—what the CDC says about infectious diseases, what the USDA says about agricultural practices, what the EPA says about the safety of drinking water.

It is self-evident that a citizen will be better informed about scientific consensus—and therefore be better able to act in light of the best scientific knowledge available—by hearing directly from scientists themselves than by having their scientific information filtered through a political prism that may be more driven by securing votes and generating profit than disseminating what may be inconvenient truths pertaining to current policy and practice.

When a government is impeding the free flow of information between its scientists and the general public, it is a likely symptom of an unhealthy relationship between that government and science. If left unchecked, the prognosis is dire. Just ask your friendly neighborhood scientist.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

 

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Last Updated : Wednesday, September 7, 2022