In its 175-year history, Scientific American had never felt the need to take a political stand. In 2020, for the first time, the popular science magazine has endorsed Joe Biden for the US presidency. But 2020 is the year of the pandemic, where ignoring the science behind a pathogen has had real consequences in terms of lives and livelihoods. And the head of the most powerful government in the world has decided to blame the victims of a natural disaster in the largest state in his country, coming up on an election.
The intensity and frequency of wildfires in California has caused consistent damage in America’s most populous, richest and politically significant state. Donald Trump, speaking to people whose homes and natural surroundings have been devastated, blamed the blazes on people and authorities not “raking the forest floor” or “clearing dead timber”. When it was pointed out that there is a near universal scientific consensus that both the frequency and intensity of the wildfires has increased due to climate change, Trump stated, “I don’t think science knows”. The response of his rival for the US presidency has been to label the president a “climate arsonist”.
The essence of science is based on the distinction between what David Hume called fact and value — truth and opinion. Confidence is a great thing in a public figure, but politicising what many would think is unpoliticisable — a natural disaster — Trump may end up being beaten at his own game. “Climate arsonist”, though hyperbolic, is bound to have a bit of resonance in the middle-class California suburbs that saw their homes and surroundings engulfed in flames and smoke. In fact, blaming an all-pervasive problem like climate change could have helped Trump escape the blame. But he blamed the victims instead. On the heels of his alleged (mis)management of COVID-19, the president’s lack of respect for scientific truths might bear a political cost.
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