The war against science

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When Donald Trump nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, he promised Pruitt would “restore the EPA’s essential mission of keeping our air and our water clean and safe.” But Pruitt has a track record of doing just the opposite.

In 2009, the EPA issued a landmark finding that six greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, “threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.” Scientific consensus around that fact was by then well-established, but the EPA’s “Endangerment Finding” crucially allowed the agency to regulate emissions from cars and power plants under the Clean Air Act.

{mosads}Polluting industries and attorneys general from red states quickly mounted lawsuits to challenge the Endangerment Finding. Pruitt was one of them. They argued the finding wasn’t valid because, among other reasons, the EPA “delegated” the decision to other agencies, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In reality, the EPA had simply referred to existing, peer-reviewed scientific evidence to draw its own conclusions.

The three appeals judges of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., seemed baffled. “This is how science works,” they wrote, unanimously dismissing the lawsuit. “EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question.”

The lawyers, of course, were familiar with how science works. But they were willing to pretend otherwise if it meant preserving the business interests of their corporate allies. (In Pruitt’s case, his campaign contributors Alpha Natural Resources and Peabody Energy were co-parties on the lawsuit).

The war on science isn’t really against science, per se. It’s about keeping the game of politics in the arena of belief rather than knowledge by denying facts at all costs.

The United States has a rich tradition of anti-scientific movements dating back to the anti-Darwinist backlash of the early 20th century, when Tennessee passed a law forbidding public schools from teaching “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible.”

William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted a biology teacher named John Scopes under that law, was the most prominent of the early anti-science warriors. He famously declared, “I do not think about things I don’t think about.”

Throughout the middle of the century, the pro-science forces seemed to be winning thanks to the urgent necessity of war and space superiority. Then in 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire, which led to popular validation of scientists’ concerns about industrial pollutants.

President Richard Nixon created the EPA the following year. But it quickly became clear how expensive environmental regulation would be. Nixon, initially a supporter, changed his mind, citing the cost. In 1972, he vetoed the Clean Water Act, and Congress overrode him.

But Republicans aren’t the only ones willing to ignore scientific evidence when it’s convenient. As science writer Shawn Otto notes in his book The War on Science, both the left and the right are guilty. For example, left-wing “back-to-Eden” naturalists reject evidence that genetically modified crops and vaccines are safe and effective.

There’s been alarm at Trump’s recent directives to employees of the EPA, Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services not to post on social media or speak to reporters. The order is especially troubling considering their work is publicly funded. But Trump isn’t doing anything his predecessor wouldn’t do: Barack Obama invented these forms of what journalism groups in a 2015 letter called “essentially … censorship.”

But Otto writes that right-wing groups have been more powerful because they have more skin in the game.

“The antiscience of those on the right — a coalition of fundamentalist churches and corporations largely in the resource extraction, petrochemical and agrochemical industries — has far more dangerous public policy implications because it’s about forestalling policy based on evidence to protect destructive business models,” Otto writes, adding: “The right generally has far more money with which to spread disinformation and attack science.”

Now they have their greatest champion yet, and he lives in the White House. There has never been an American president more contemptuous of observable phenomena than Trump. His “alternate facts” range from denying having said things he just said to repeatedly calling climate change a hoax.

His cabinet has similar tendencies. Vice President Mike Pence isn’t so sure about evolution, and neither is Energy Secretary nominee Rick Perry. HUD Secretary nominee Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, doesn’t believe a “multitude” of standard vaccines are useful. Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO, wouldn’t admit that human activity is causing climate change.

Scientists were so convinced that President-elect Trump would start deleting climate data as soon as he took office that they began frantically copying it onto a secure server. Four days after his inauguration, Trump ordered the EPA to delete the climate change page from its website.

Scientists and citizens are so horrified that more than 800,000 people have joined a private Facebook group that spawned the March for Science, a Women’s March-style show of force. There’s been some legitimate concern, however, that hordes of scientists marching on Washington will only reinforce right-wing conspiracy theories about the politicization of scientific inquiry.

It’s still too early to tell what Trump may ultimately do. Optimists are looking to his infrastructure spending plans and his willingness to listen to Al Gore and Elon Musk as reasons to hold out hope that a Trump administration won’t entirely unravel decades of progress. But the evidence isn’t very convincing.

Ben Wolford is the editor of Latterly, a magazine reporting on social justice issues globally. He has written on a number of health and science topics for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, The Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Al Gore Barack Obama Donald Trump Healthcare Mike Pence Science

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