Alternative science: The importance of informed policymaking

You’ve probably heard the phrase “alternative facts” by now. Suddenly, “alternative” is part of our vocabulary as a popular characterization for falsehoods that are portrayed as facts.

However, one of the most dangerous alternatives may be “alternative science,” which can cause damage through ill-informed policies and public deception.

One example of alternative science is the case of Dr. Paul McHugh, retired professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. He has used his platform to introduce misinformation about LGBTQ people into areas of policy-making all the way up to the Supreme Court.

McHugh published a special report on sexuality and gender in The New Atlantis, a bioethics journal that is not peer-reviewed. The report, which was disavowed by his colleagues, challenges the belief that LGBTQ individuals are “born that way.” Use of this report in policymaking runs the risk of increasing stigmatization of the LGBTQ community.

Another example of alternative science is climate change denialism. Climate change deniers have focused on influencing opinions of the public and political stances of legislators, often through social media strategies and financial backings, respectively. Meanwhile, the National Center for Science Education has described the act of denying climate change as pseudoscience.

Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, recently launched a program to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change and give voice to denialists. Misleading the public leads to the public demanding inept policies, whereupon politicians are then obligated to those constituents if waves of deception sweep far enough.

The March for Science, a series of non-partisan rallies and marches held in over 600 cities worldwide, called for “political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest.” These marches were a global response led by individuals cognizant of the importance of science.

Fortunately, not all hope is lost. A possible vaccine against the recent alternative science epidemic may be to introduce more stringent guidelines and higher standards for the scientific evidence that is used in policymaking.

Using science as the basis for policy can help policymakers speak from a place of fact and not emotion. Policies that touch the lives of every American should make use of peer-reviewed data and scientific consensus. In cases where evidence is not available, well-informed analyses should be established by non-partisan groups and diverse stakeholders. Alternative science may represent fallacy, but the damage done is very real.

 –By Cody Brannan, graduate student of Bioscience and Health Policy at Rice University interning with the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine

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