A couple of weeks ago I was watching some clips from the 1983 TV miniseries "V" on YouTube, and I suddenly realized that part of it was powerfully reminding me of recent events. If you're not familiar with "V", in a nutshell, one day a fleet of huge alien spaceships appears and deploys over cities all over the Earth. The apparently human-looking aliens explain that their mission is benign, and a period of friendly contact begins, despite ominous signs like the aliens' fascistic-looking red uniforms and omnipresent display of a vaguely swastika-like symbol. Behind the scenes, however, they are subverting and taking over the world's governments and media. Suddenly, it is announced that a global conspiracy of scientists against the aliens has been discovered. To thwart this menace, the world's now alien-dominated governments declare martial law and "ask" the aliens to help enforce it. Scientists everywhere are demonized and persecuted. Most people, uneasy with events but swayed by the pro-alien propaganda filling the media, go along with the new reality. The aliens have reduced Earth to a de facto
colonial possession and now set about stealing its resources.
When I originally saw the show, the fake scientist conspiracy seemed like one of the least credible elements in it. Surely no one would believe claims of such a conspiracy and turn against the scientific community, and even aliens would realize that?
But look what's happening now.
The right wing in the US (and to a more limited extent in some other English-speaking countries) has been settling into an anti-science stance for some time. It started with their alliance with fundamentalist Christianity, which rejects evolution. Their hardening commitment to global-warming denialism created a similar conflict with another scientific consensus. More generally, their embrace of non-fact-based dogmas in fields from economics to human sexuality requires a general hostility to the entire concept of testing claims against real-world evidence.
Given the rejection of evolution and global warming, the fact that almost all scientists in the relevant fields accept those things practically demands
that the denialist assume they're all in some sort of conspiracy to hide the truth, and I've actually seen some wingnuts claim that climate scientists worldwide are in fact conspiring to perpetrate a vast hoax, supposedly motivated by getting research grants (this doesn't make sense, but anyone smart enough to notice that probably wouldn't be a denialist in the first place). Growing evidence that homosexuality is a natural phenomenon is dismissed as part of the liberal/Satanic conspiracy of scientists and pop entertainment
to "normalize sin". And so it goes.
It makes sense that the aliens in "V" would seek to discredit and ultimately destroy the Earth's scientific community. They aren't really as human as they look, and Earth's human population is a potential food supply for them -- and scientists would be the most likely people to discover these facts and be able to prove them. But there's a more general principle here. If you're pushing a set of ideas which is at odds with objective reality, then people trained in deducing facts from evidence and proving them -- scientists -- are your natural enemies. They're the people most capable of reasserting that objective reality and backing up what they say about it -- of authoritatively declaring not just "I disagree" but "you are wrong".
This natural tension has recently crossed the line into open attack in ways we haven't seen before. The most alarming was the Trump team's request to the Energy Department for names of scientists who had worked on Obama's anti-global-warming initiatives. To their credit, department officials refused, and Trump's people eventually backed off from the request -- but the message was one of intimidation and denunciation. Climate scientists, it made clear, are out of favor with the new powers that be, and the future may bring further moves against them and their defenders. To their
credit, government scientists recognized from the start that the incoming administration was likely to be hostile, and have been copying climate data
to computer systems outside the government's control to make sure it is preserved.
There are other signs that Trump's regime will be hostile to science. He's chosen a global-warming denialist
to head the EPA and a denialist propagandist
to manage the transition. His VP choice, Mike Pence, is a fervent Christianist best known for his anti-gay stance, but also aggressively ignorant about science
. Most recently Trump chose a prominent anti-vaccine nutjob
to chair a commission on vaccine safety. All this will play well with the troglodyte Republican voting base, with its suspicion of education and expertise generally, but it also legitimizes such attitudes in the eyes of a broader public which lacks such prejudices but is honestly uninformed about the issues.
All this will not be good for the country. Political interference in science never is. The Nazi regime banned the works of Darwin
and rejected much of the innovative physics of the day as "Jewish"; many scientists fled Europe for the United States, and some of them helped us, rather than the Nazis, build the first atomic bomb. Stalin's support for the charlatan Lysenko, and persecution of real geneticists who opposed him, caused the USSR to fall far behind the West in the field of genetics. Religious domination of Europe during the Dark Ages, and its rejection of the Classical scientific and philosophical tradition, brought a thousand years of stagnation. The Middle East followed the same path after the rise of Ash'arite theology around 1100, with similar results. It wouldn't surprise me if a lot of American scientists, with an eye on the incoming administration, are already looking into opportunities in other countries -- and if things get as bad as Trump's moves so far suggest they will, that trend will escalate.
Incidentally, the original script of "V" -- fake scientist conspiracy and all -- depicted an indigenous fascist take-over of the US, and was only later re-written as science fiction with aliens as the villains. While this made it more entertaining and probably more plausible to the audiences of the time, the message comes across the same. I've always emphasized pop entertainment's power to encourage positive social change, but sometimes its role is to serve us a warning.