Respect for science in jeopardy in polarized U.S., Nobel winners say

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Reuters) - Two of the U.S. scientists awarded the Nobel prize on Tuesday for opening up a new era of astronomy by detecting gravitational waves said they hoped the attention would make Americans less inclined to dismiss scientific consensus in favor of politics.

California Institute of Technology physicist Barry Barish poses outside his home after winning the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics, which he shares with Caltech's Kip S. Thorne and MIT's Rainer Weiss, in Santa Monica, California, U.S. October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

A trio of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) won the Nobel prize for physics for a half-century of work that confirmed the presence of the ripples in space and time predicted by Albert Einstein.

The win, the second of the week by U.S. scientists, comes as the administration of President Donald Trump has proposed cutting funding for science research and expressed skepticism over climate change.

That reflects skepticism among the broader American public, where a growing number of people reject scientific findings on issues from whether climate change is man-made to the safety of vaccines.

“We live in an epoch where rational reasoning associated with evidence isn’t universally accepted and is in fact in jeopardy. That worries me a lot, said Rainer Weiss, an emeritus professor of physics at MIT, and part of the team honored on Tuesday.

“If this gives people who are not me but others the credential to be able to stand out and say, ‘Listen to this,’ that is valuable,” Weiss, who won half the $1.1 million prize, said in a phone interview.

Barry Barish of Caltech, also an emeritus professor of physics, sounded similar concerns.

“Anything that makes us take more seriously scientists, or economists, or chemists, or physicists or biologists, I think is helpful in times when things get distorted because of people not paying attention to all the facts,” Barish said by phone.

“It’s crazy that we happen to have a country where it depends on what political party you are in whether you believe in climate change or not,” Barish said. “We have an administration right now that so far seems to be very anti-science.”

Efforts to reach the third of the team, Kip Thorne, also of Caltech, were unsuccessful.

Polls of U.S. voters show that Democrats are about twice as likely as Republicans to believe global warming is caused by humans.

One in three Republicans told a Reuters/Ipsos poll from Sept. 1 through 28 that they believed global warming is caused by mostly or totally by human activity. Nearly three out of four Democrats believe the same.

The poll included 3,992 respondents and has a credibility interval, a measure of accuracy, of 2 percentage points.

Skepticism about science is not limited to climate.

A 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 10 percent of Americans believe the risks of vaccines outweigh their benefits, with 17 percent saying parents should be able to choose not to vaccinate their children even if doing so creates a health risk for others.

During his election campaign, Trump described climate change as a hoax invented by the Chinese to make U.S. industry less competitive. As president he said he would pull out of the Paris climate accord, saying it was damaging to business.

Weiss’ team was the second group of U.S. scientists to be honored by the Nobel committee this week, after another trio won the 2017 Nobel prize for medicine on Monday for unraveling molecular mechanisms that control our internal body clocks.

Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Susan Thomas