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Return of the Know-Nothings?

By: , Posted on: November 9, 2016


There have been a good number of articles about the implications of a Trump win for science, research and academia, but what about how the Trump presidency might affect the profession of chemical engineering?

Clearly many Trump supporters have something in common with those who voted for Brexit. They seem as angry, disaffected, and willing to believe that the clock can be turned back. They seem to have the same distrust for technocrats, globalisation, and the accepted facts of a matter in legislative circles.

I’m not that trusting of economists myself at a macroeconomic level. Any discipline whose axioms are as demonstrably false as that “dismal science” isn’t really a science at all. There are however such things as real sciences, and real knowledge.

This is nothing new of course. In the 1840s, the American Party (also known as the “Know-Nothings”) became popular on a wave of anti-immigration sentiment (it was the Germans and Irish who were supposedly the problem back then). The party eventually imploded on the issue of slavery, and the antislavery know-nothings joined Trump’s own party (if we can still call it that).

The know-nothings didn’t actually believe they knew nothing. It was more of a fight club thing- they were sworn to deny membership of the organisation in this was if asked about it in its early clandestine days.

Trump having got in, it seems clear that knowing nothing will be raised to another level by his empowered followers. To continue with the Fight Club theme, we might call this Project Mayhem.

Chuck Pahaniuk helpfully gave him a way to structure the week during Project Mayhem:

  • Arson Committee – meets on Mondays
  • Assault Committee – meets on Tuesdays
  • Mischief Committee – meets on Wednesdays
  • Misinformation Committee – meets on Thursdays

However, despite the seeming anti-rationality of so many of his supporters, we should not assume that a Trump win means less money for scientific research as a whole. Hilary said that she believes in science as if that differentiated her from Trump, but Trump is keen to spend on scientific research too. Clinton’s claim to believe in science is about whether she believes in anthropogenic climate change.

If she wins, it will be good news for climate change researchers. Trump claims to disbelieve in the science of climate change, and predictably favours more showy projects like space exploration, and close-to-market research.

We might be more concerned about what Trump’s supporters believe in, and what President Trump might have to do to satisfy them. Like the naïve Brexit voters who though that all EU migrants would be deported the day after the Brexit vote, some of his supporters are hopefully going to be disappointed by a Trump presidency. Many seem manifestly anti-reason, never mind anti-science and engineering.

But to finally arrive at my point, what do professional chemical engineers have to fear from Trump? Maybe not that much, as we are pretty versatile. That is the point of chemical engineering. We have skills which will still make us useful after a nuclear holocaust, or a zombie apocalypse. I think we can weather a Trump presidency.

There aren’t that many of us working in industries dependent on climate change subsidies, and those working in oil and gas might well benefit from a relaxation of controls on extracting and burning fossil fuels. Those presently not working in those sectors having been laid off due to low oil prices might have been tempted to hold their noses and vote for Trump.

Narrow self-interest may therefore have tempted many Chemical Engineers to vote for the Chump. It may well be that he is no less self-interested himself, and ultimately stands for nothing other than having his name on the list of past presidents, and perhaps on the side of a rocket to Mars. Those who are intended to suffer most from a Trump presidency are not the members of my versatile, internationally demanded profession.

There is however more to politics than narrow self-interest. I would personally simply not wish to live in a country where the forces of unreason were unleashed in the way the Trump win will predictably do. We have had a little taste of that in the UK recently, and anything we can do, I’m sure the US can do bigger.

Read more posts from Sean Moran, The Voice of Chemical Engineering

About the author

sean moranProfessor Moran is a Chartered Chemical Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he co-ordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

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