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In times like these, scientist says, academics shouldn’t be afraid to “get political”

Jul 28, 2017

Politicians and the industries that support them have always cast doubt on science that works against their goals. But in recent years politicians have shifted from casting doubt to simply calling science they don’t like a hoax.

Andrew Hoffman is a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and the Education Director of the Graham Sustainability Institute. He recently authored an article published in The Conversation titled, “When politicians cherry-pick data and disregard facts, what should we academics do?

Hoffman says that in the age of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” scientific literacy should play a bigger role in political conversations.

“The stakes just continue to get raised as science is used as a weapon, selectively chosen, cherry-picked, to make arguments that are often just flat-out wrong,” Hoffman said.

When President Trump explained his reasoning for withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, he blamed the agreement for causing job losses, weakening industries such as paper, cement, iron and steel manufacturing, as well as natural gas and coal mining industries.

According to Hoffman, Trump was citing one study authored by the economic consulting group NERA. NERA has since issued a press release saying the President misused and mischaracterized data from the report, which was not conducted for the Trump administration.     

While political spin is nothing new, Hoffman says scientists and academics should start playing a larger role in informing the public because “it’s coming to our doorstep.”

“This is manifesting itself in cuts in funding at the state level … and it’s happening at the federal level. The cuts in Trump’s budget to the National Institute of Health,” Hoffman said. “And that’s actually had Mark Schlissel have to step forward and say, ‘Hey wait a minute, this is going to hurt the University of Michigan. I think it’s time for us to start to step in.'”

Hoffman says there’s a tendency among academics to resist “getting political." That's an argument he doesn’t buy.

“Anytime that research leads to a conclusion that challenges the way people think or behave, it is by definition political. Face it,” Hoffman said. “Deal with it.”

Hoffman points out very few members of congress hold advanced degrees. If there were more people in Congress with a deep understanding of science, Hoffman suggests the legislative branch, and its policies, would be better off.

Hoffman also offered brief responses to common criticisms against science and academics.

Mistakes are made in scientific research, so scientists shouldn’t be trusted.

“That’s an argument that’s often used,” Hoffman said. "'Look at this one mistake and throw out the entire model.’ And that’s nonsense. Science corrects. We have retractions. We have peer review. Mistakes are going to be made, but that doesn’t mean throw out the entire endeavor.”

Scientists are arrogant, they don’t want to listen to common sense or practical politics. 

“There’s no question some scientists are arrogant,” Hoffman said. “But I would caution people to note the difference between arrogance and having a solid, evidence-based opinion and presenting it. It’s a matter of tone.”

All professors and the universities for which they work are liberal.

“That’s true,” Hoffman said. “Liberals do outnumber conservatives on college campuses … but we also have something called peer-review, which is designed to take bias out of this work. I’d like to point out that the fact is most farmers and ranchers are conservative. That doesn’t mean my vegetables and meat themselves are conservative."

You scientists use fossil fuels yourself, so you can’t be serious (about climate change).

“That is true as well,” Hoffman said. “I think that we have an obligation, those of us that understand the issues around climate change to be authentic and try to reduce our carbon footprint. But solutions to climate change require broad-level scale ... and we can’t do that by moving into a cave and wearing a hair shirt. We have to be a part of society.”

Listen to the entire conversation with Professor Andrew Hoffman above.

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