Author: Prof. Lawrence M. Krauss
Last week, the Space, Science, and Technology subcommittee of the House of Representatives tweeted a misleading story from Breitbart News: “Global Temperatures Plunge. Icy Silence from Climate Alarmists.” (There is always some drop in temperature when El Niño transitions into La Niña—but there has been no anomalous plunge.) Under normal circumstances, this tweet wouldn’t be so surprising: Lamar Smith, the chair of the committee since 2013, is a well-known climate-change denier. But these are not normal times. The tweet is best interpreted as something new: a warning shot. It’s a sign of things to come—a declaration of the Trump Administration’s intent to sideline science.
In a 1946 essay, George Orwell wrote that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” It’s not just that we’re easily misled. It’s that, by “impudently twisting the facts,” we can convince ourselves of “things which we know to be untrue.” A whole society, he wrote, can deceive itself “for an indefinite time,” and the only check on that mass delusion is that “sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality.” Science is one source of that solid reality. The Trump Administration seems determined to keep it at bay, and the consequences for society and the environment will be profound.
The first sign of Trump’s intention to spread lies about empirical reality, “1984”-style, was, of course, the appointment of Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of the Breitbart News Network, as Trump’s “senior counselor and strategist.” This year, Breitbart hosted stories with titles such as “1001 Reasons Why Global Warming Is So Totally Over in 2016,” despite the fact that 2016 is now overwhelmingly on track to be the hottest year on record, beating 2015, which beat 2014, which beat 2013. Such stories do more than spread disinformation. Their purpose is the creation of an alternative reality—one in which scientific evidence is a sham—so that hyperbole and fearmongering can divide and conquer the public.
Bannon isn’t the only propagandist in the new Administration: Myron Ebell, who heads the transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency, is another. In the aughts, as a director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, he worked to kill a cap-and-trade bill proposed by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman; in 2012, when the conservative American Enterprise Institute held a meeting about the economics of a possible carbon tax, he asked donors to defund it. It’s possible, of course, to oppose cap-and-trade or carbon taxes in good faith—and yet, in recent years, Ebell’s work has come to center on lies about science and scientists. Today, as the leader of the Cooler Heads Coalition, an anti-climate-science group, Ebell denies the veracity and methodology of science itself. He dismisses complex computer models that have been developed by hundreds of researchers by saying that they “don’t even pass the laugh test.” If Ebell’s methods seem similar to those used by the tobacco industry to deny the adverse health effects of smoking in the nineteen-nineties, that’s because he worked as a lobbyist for the tobacco industry.
When Ebell’s appointment was announced, Jeremy Symons, of the Environmental Defense Fund, said, “I got a sick feeling in my gut. . . . I can’t believe we got to the point when someone who is as unqualified and intellectually dishonest as Myron Ebell has been put in a position of trust for the future of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the climate we are going to leave our kids.” Symons was right to be apprehensive: on Wednesday, word came that Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, will be named the head of the E.P.A. As Jane Mayer has written, it would be hard to find a public official in the United States who is more closely tied to the oil-and-gas industry and who has been more actively opposed to the efforts of the E.P.A. to regulate the environment. In a recent piece for National Review, Pruitt denied the veracity of climate science; he has led the effort among Republican attorneys general to work directly with the fossil-fuel industry in resisting the Clean Air Act. In 2014, a Times investigation found that letters from Pruitt’s office to the E.P.A. and other government agencies had been drafted by energy lobbyists; right now, he is involved in a twenty-eight-state lawsuit against the very agency that he has been chosen to head.
It gets worse. As this piece was going to press, word came that Trump’s likely choice for Secretary of the Interior is another climate denier, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a congresswoman from Washington State. McMorris Rodgers has made false statements about the scientific consensus on human-induced climate change; if confirmed, she would be able to further distort public perceptions on this issue by controlling how the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service communicate to the public about climate change. McMorris Rodgers is a long-standing opponent of regulations on emission of greenhouse gases and an ardent advocate for the exploitation of public lands for fossil-fuel production. She would now be in a position to oversee use of federal lands for coal, oil, and gas production, potentially reversing the current moratorium on federal coal leasing, as well as making decisions on offshore oil drilling. McMorris Rodgers has even voted against tax credits for production of renewable electricity. She is about as friendly to the production of fossil fuels as a legislator can be.
The unfolding disaster at the E.P.A. represents only one front in the Trump Administration’s wider war on science. If one way to undermine science is to mindlessly dispute its methods and findings, another is to deprive it of funding, which is what Bob Walker, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign on space policy, is advocating. Walker wants to defund NASA’s earth-science efforts, which he has characterized as “politically correct environmental monitoring.” As the astrophysicist Adam Frank explained recently, in the Times, NASA’s earth-monitoring programs, which incorporate at least fifteen earth-science satellites, do more than investigate climate change; they provide data relevant to agriculture, shipping, medicine, and more. In fact, they are essential for understanding and forecasting weather—which is not to be confused with climate—including extreme weather events that threaten people’s lives. Shutting NASA out of that research prevents it from anticipating and predicting events with wide-ranging consequences.
And the Trump Administration is on course to undermine science in another way: through education. Educators have various concerns about Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education—they object to her efforts to shield charter schools from government regulation, for example—but one issue stands above the rest: DeVos is a fundamentalist Christian with a long history of opposition to science. If her faith shapes her policies—and there is evidence that it will—she could shape science education decisively for the worse, by systematically depriving young people, in an era where biotechnology will play a key economic and health role worldwide, of a proper understanding of the very basis of modern biology: evolution.
DeVos comes from a religious family with a long history of supporting fundamentalist religious groups, including the notoriously anti-science group Focus on the Family. Her family has a net worth exceeding four billion dollars, and they have used that money to establish a foundation which has donated hundreds of thousands to pro-life pregnancy centers that lie to women about the risks of abortion. In 2006, DeVos’s husband, Dick, ran unsuccessfully for governor in Michigan, and, as Jane Mayer wrote last month, “the DeVos family doubled down on political contributions and support for conservative Christian causes” after he lost.
Along with her husband, DeVos is an active member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, a small Protestant denomination with the stated belief that “all scientific theories be subject to Scripture.” According to the church’s official statement on science, “Humanity is created in the image of God; all theorizing that minimizes this fact and all theories of evolution that deny the creative activity of God are rejected.” DeVos attended Calvin College, which is owned and operated by the Christian Reformed Church. She majored in business administration and political science. (She does not have a degree in education.) And although she has not spoken out directly on issues such as evolution and the Big Bang, her husband advocated teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in science classes during his 2006 gubernatorial campaign. “I would like to see the ideas of intelligent design—that many scientists are now suggesting is a very viable alternative theory—that that theory and others that would be considered credible would expose our students to more ideas, not less,” he said. Given her strong support of his campaign, and their joint investment in both conservative and religious causes, as well as her own religious background, it is reasonable to expect that her views do not significantly diverge from his. (DeVos did not respond to requests for comment.)
There is nothing respectable about the idea of “teaching the controversy,” as intelligent-design advocates describe it. We don’t teach modern astronomy by suggesting to students that they feel free to decide for themselves whether the sun orbits Earth or vice versa; instead, we teach them how scientists discovered the realities of our solar system, despite considerable pressure to renounce their own discoveries. Similarly, students should be encouraged to understand that evolution is not some principle laid down on high by a conclave of scientists; they should explore the various empirical tests to which it has been subjected for more than a hundred and fifty years. The purpose of education is not to validate ignorance but to overcome it. It should be easy, therefore, for Congress to make sure that DeVos isn’t planning to drive our educational system off a scientific cliff. During her confirmation hearings, DeVos should be asked whether she thinks it’s appropriate to teach intelligent design alongside evolution in biology classes, or whether young-Earth creationism should be presented alongside the reality of a 4.5-billion-year-old solar system in physics class. An answer in the affirmative to either question should disqualify her as the highest federal government official overseeing public education in this country. If Congress doesn’t exercise its obligation to insure the competence of Presidential appointees like DeVos, then voters need to hold them accountable in the next election.
Taken singly, Trump’s appointments are alarming. But taken as a whole they can be seen as part of a larger effort to undermine the institution of science, and to deprive it of its role in the public-policy debate. Just as Steve Bannon undermines the institution of a fact-based news media, so appointments like Ebell, Pruitt, McMorris Rodgers, Walker, and DeVos advance the false perception that science is just a politicized tool of “the élites.” (Lamar Smith, one presumes, will continue in his role on the House Science Committee.) Science is the one domain in human life where bias and prejudice are systematically eliminated; now those very forces are set to undermine the practice of science in America. It is not only scientists who should actively fight against this dangerous trend. It is everyone who is concerned about our freedom, health, welfare, and security as a nation—and everyone who is concerned about the planetary legacy we leave for our children.