Mail-in ballots being processed in Oregon.

In Narrow Election Results, Scientists See Loss Just the Same

“You’ll never have an election count on November 3,” U.S. President Donald J. Trump told a meeting of the Council of National Policy, a conservative activist group, in August. “You’re not going to be able to know the end of this election, in my opinion, for weeks, months, maybe never,” he said.

Whether Trump’s most dire prognostications will materialize remains to be seen. But with several pivotal states still counting ballots and party officials on both sides girding for what may be a series of protracted legal battles over results, the 2020 U.S. presidential election has thus far delivered on a long-foretold promise of rancor and indecision. What’s clear even now, however, is that while former Vice President Joe Biden appears to be inching closer to victory, many scientists see the apparently razor-thin margin separating the candidates — as well as the lack of a clear repudiation of Republican leadership in Congress and elsewhere — as a fundamental loss just the same.

“What I see is people rejecting reality, and opting more for a reality show,” Michael Lubell, a physicist at the City College of New York who tracks science policy, told Nature News the day after the election. “And that to me is frightening.”

Indeed, while the scientific community is not typically known for its overt political gestures, the months leading up to this week’s historic election saw a rising chorus of condemnations of the last four years. From the New England Journal of Medicine, which decried the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in an October 8 editorial, to the journal Nature, which endorsed Biden a week later, and Scientific American, which bucked 175 years of precedent to do the same in its October issue, numerous scientific organizations and publications had characterized the 2020 election as a referendum on evidence itself. From climate change to the coronavirus, and on myriad issues in between, the experts argued, the Trump administration and its patrons in the Republican party had spent four years sidelining scientific expertise in favor of wild partisan conjecture, conspiratorial thinking, and other assorted bunkum.

Enough, they seemed to say, was enough.

“We share deep concern, along with many others in the scientific community,” wrote Nicholas Dirks, the president of the New York Academy of Sciences, less than two weeks before voting began, “about attacks on or basic misrepresentations of science.”

When all the dust has settled, Biden may well prevail. But if these experts were convinced that the vast majority of the American electorate shared their concerns, the results, which saw huge numbers of voters turn out in continued support for Trump, seemed to suggest otherwise. Even control of the U.S. Senate, which has substantial power to facilitate or stymie a president’s agenda — and where science-minded voters had hoped for, and perhaps even expected, a Democratic wave to purge a sufficient number of climate-denying, Covid-dismissing Republicans — still hangs in the balance. There was no such wave.

“It’s making me do a serious re-analysis of how I can make a difference,” Miami-based physician Krishna Komanduri told CNBC in a piece published Friday morning. Komanduri was one of several health care professionals interviewed who expressed dismay at Trump’s strong showing — despite what many consider his disastrous handling of the pandemic. “I went to bed Tuesday night feeling a real sense of helplessness and sadness,” Komanduri said.

Speaking to Nature earlier in the week, Athene Donald, a physicist at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., expressed similar disappointment. “It is depressing to see that the American electorate have not heeded the evidence of the last four years to give a strong message about the damage being caused by Trump’s actions and behavior,” he said, “for their own country as well as the wider world.”

That sentiment took on a particular poignancy on Wednesday, as the United States formally withdrew from the global climate pact forged in Paris in 2015 (see below) — one of many bits of science-based environmental policy established by predecessors that the Trump administration has sought to undo. Election Day, meanwhile, saw the second-highest daily total of new coronavirus cases recorded — 91,530 — with scientists warning of a dire winter to come. On Thursday came a new record: 120,000 new Covid-19 cases recorded in a single day.

“For some researchers, the fact that the election has come down to the wire is evidence that scientists simply aren’t connecting with the general population,” Nature News declared. The assertion was punctuated by a quote from Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes: “We have a lot of work ahead of us,” she said.

Also in the news:

• As predicted by statewide polls in Arizona, Democrat Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, won his Senate bid this week, beating the incumbent Republican Martha McSally. Kelly’s campaign was helped by $1.3 million in donations from the political action committee 314 Action, which formed in 2016 with the aim “to elect more scientists to Congress, state legislatures, and local offices.” In all, 314 Action endorsed 13 national candidates and 121 for state and local races. On the national level, less than half of 314 Action’s candidates won. Along with Kelly, winners included John Hickenlooper, a geologist who won a Senate seat in Colorado; Cori Bush, a nurse who handily won the House seat for Missouri’s 1st District; and Nikema Williams, who swept the race for Georgia’s 5th District with more than 85 percent of the vote. National candidates who didn’t win seats were Barbara Bollier, a physician, who lost the Senate race in Kansas; Alan Gross, an orthopedic surgeon, who lost the Senate race in Alaska; and losses for seats in the House from Adair Ford Boroughs, a former math teacher and lawyer in South Carolina, Chris Bubser, a biotechnologist in California, Nancy Goroff, a professor and chemistry Ph.D. in New York, Cynthia Wallace, a mathematician in North Carolina, and Cameron Web, a physician in Virginia. (Multiple sources)

• European governments have reimposed measures aimed at controlling the spread of SARS-CoV-2 as cases of Covid-19 surge across the continent. The World Health Organization reported Tuesday that Europe experienced a 22 percent increase in new cases and a 46 percent increase in deaths in the preceding seven days compared with the week before. Several countries, including England, France, and the Czech Republic, have announced mandatory nationwide lockdowns similar to those imposed in March, which prohibit people from leaving their homes except for essential trips. Others, including Italy, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, Netherlands, and Greece, have enacted partial or local lockdowns, curfews, closures of certain businesses, and limits on social gatherings. After a summer during which rules where eased, holidays were celebrated, and officials remained hopeful a second wave could be averted, public health experts are now scrambling to keep caseloads from overwhelming hospital systems and to formulate sustainable long-term plans. Lockdowns and shutdowns, while blunt tools used to great effect in some nations, particularly in Asia, have become a point of contention among public health experts with some researchers arguing that the measures’ economic and social harms outweigh their benefit. (Science, BBC News)

• The year’s intense ocean-borne storm cycle continued this week as Super Typhoon Goni slammed into the Philippines on Sunday, killing at least 20 people. The storm, weakened to a tropical depression, later made landfall in Vietnam. Thousands of miles away, Hurricane Eta hit Nicaragua Tuesday as a deadly Category 4 storm before moving into Honduras Wednesday, also as a tropical depression. Eta is now expected to reach Cuba on Sunday and South Florida by Monday. If it does make landfall in Florida, that would make this the most active hurricane season in U.S. history. Goni, meanwhile, is on record as the most powerful storm to form in the last four years, with peak winds estimated at 195 miles per hour, comparable to a powerful category 5 hurricane. Thousands remain without power in the Philippines, with some areas so damaged that restoration is not expected until late December. And another tropical storm, Atsani, is predicted to batter the islands over the weekend. A growing body of research suggests that global climate change plays a role in the increasing intensity of such storms, with an amplification of storms of Category 3 or greater expected to continue. (The Washington Post)

• On November 4, the U.S. officially pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, over three years after President Trump first announced the United States would withdraw in June of 2017. The deal seeks to keep climate change from leading to a 2-degree-Celsius-rise in global temperatures, an increase that experts warn will cause catastrophic changes to our environment. U.S. Sen. Ed Markey declared abandoning the agreement would likely lead to “more superstorms and wildfires, more climate displacement.” Out of the nearly 200 countries to sign onto the Paris agreement, the United States is the first to pull out. The U.S. is currently listed as the second largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, behind China, and there is concern that its withdrawal may limit the potential impact of the Paris deal — even more so if lack of U.S. involvement demotivates other nations from attempting to meet their climate commitments. Presidential candidate Joe Biden has stated he intends to rejoin the Paris agreement, if elected, but climate policy experts such as Michael Oppenheimer at Princeton University in New Jersey caution that the U.S. will likely “need to work to regain trust.” (Nature)

• On Tuesday, Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to decriminalize the possession of all drugs, including cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin. The law, which received support from 59 percent of voters, does not legalize any drugs, but rather does away with jailing for petty possession. Starting in February, law enforcement will instead give violators the option of paying a $100 fine or being referred to addiction treatment. Across the country in Washington, D.C., voters approved a ballot measure to decriminalize the use of magic mushrooms and other psychedelic drugs, though the initiative must still be approved by Congress. With four other states legalizing recreational marijuana, advocates say they’re hopeful for a change in laws at the federal level. Looking to Portugal, which decriminalized the use of small amounts of illicit drugs in 2001, health experts suggest many of the benefits of decriminalization may come from better treatment for substance-use disorder. According to The New York Times, after Portugal passed its new law, opioid overdoses decreased, along with “new cases of diseases associated with injection drug use, such as hepatitis C and HIV.” While some data suggest decriminalization could lead to some negative consequences as well, more research is needed. (Multiple Sources)

• And finally, after a nearly century-long absence, the gray wolf is set to return to western Colorado. On Thursday, Proposition 114 — a ballot referendum that requires the state’s Parks and Wildlife department to reintroduce wolves along the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies — passed narrowly, buoyed by strong support from urban voters. The referendum comes a week after the Trump administration announced plans to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list. With the measure, Colorado will become the first state to have reintroduced wolves at the behest of voters, rather than federal wildlife officials. The referendum was largely opposed by farmers, ranchers, and hunters, who argued that it could endanger rural economies dependent on livestock and hunting. And scientists have questioned whether or not wolf restoration can ever repair the ecological damage caused by so long an extinction. Colorado officials will now have until the end of 2023 to gather public input, hold statewide hearings, and finalize a plan for reintroduction. (The Colorado Sun)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, Frankie Schembri, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

Tom Zeller Jr., a former New York Times staff writer and editor, is the editor in chief of Undark magazine.