24 January 2017

Science policy in the Trumpocene

Posted by Callan Bentley

It looks like the Trump Administration is going to be tough on science. We all suspected that, but since Friday’s inauguration (now proclaimed by the new president as a “Day of Patriotic Devotion,” seriously taking a page from North Korea), there have been several incidents that raise serious, serious concerns. I’ve not been shy about expressing my upset and disdain on social media, though I worry that speaking honestly about dishonesty will end up hurting me. It may also cost me followers who came for the geology but didn’t want to stay for the political consternation and resistance. It may bring down the ire of powerful people on me. Yet somehow, I find myself unwilling to roll over and accept the erosion of reason and democratic principles. This conversation is moving fast, and much of it has played out at high speed on Twitter over the past 94 hours.

First up, there was a retweet by the National Park Service Twitter account of the now-iconic unflattering comparison of the National Mall under the crowds of Obama’s inauguration vs. Trump’s.

This was a petulant move by whatever NPS employee did it, given everyone’s understanding of how thin-skinned the commander-in-chief is known to be. It may have been a calculated act to show off that hypersensitivity, and I wonder at what cost (i.e., if the employee was fired as a result). Anyhow: it remains true that it was, in fact, true. Using verifiable data, the free press reported on the fact that Trump’s inauguration was relatively anemically attended. But that didn’t square with El Comandante’s view of his own importance, and so therefore the data must be suppressed. The administration slapped a “cease and desist” social media notice on the Department of the Interior.

This is pretty foolhardy, as Ron Schott pointed out immediately thereafter:

Then, of course, they doubled down on the situation, insisting that the numbers were higher than they were. Press secretary Scott Spicer’s first act in his new job was to trot out this lie in a brief, histrionic statement to the White House press corps.

Ah, but Mr. Spicer, the press is going to hold you accountable too. I love this headline:

Spicer said they aren’t going to take it, this insistence on verifiable facts that delegitimize the Trump administration. I love this reaction:

Spicer’s official lie was a fairly extraordinary move, considering how easily falsfied it was. One wonders why on Earth they would do such a thing: it seems so stupid to squander one’s credibility in this way, especially so early in the game. But Ezra Klein supplies one chilling answer for why they might opt for this approach:

In other words, it may be a calculated, strategic act that lays the foundation for future dismissal of inconvenient facts.

The next day was Sunday and another representative of the new administration, Kellyanne Conway, appeared on Meet The Press, where she affirmed the false numbers Spicer quoted, and explained that these were “alternative facts.”

If you’ve read George Orwell’s 1984, you’ll recognize what’s going on. (If you haven’t read it, now’s probably a good time.)

“Alternative facts!” It was so gleefully, blatantly dishonest that it triggered an avalanche of discussion on Twitter. I was inspired to take this Bizarro “war is peace, black is white” folklore and apply it to geology, leading to the hashtag #SpicerGeoFacts. Check out some of the lovely blatant falsehoods there.

Not everyone is happy that people who have previously devoted themselves to science communication are sullying their output by discussing the political situation.

Exactly. Back in December, I asked my science communication Twitter followers who eschewed political statements why they refrained from discussing politics. 74 people responded. For most, it was just a category difference: half said it’s just not what they do with Twitter. A significant proportion feared retribution, as do I, but I feel secure enough in my position that I’ll speak truth to power regardless.

Another item, consonant with the rest: Yesterday, along with the general federal hiring freeze, it was announced that the EPA could no longer publish materials to its websites, nor interact with the press, nor give previously-scheduled presentations without checking in with the White House first. Furthermore, all their grants were to be “frozen.” This should worry every scientist. As Terry McGlynn powerfully points out:

My fellow Americans, whatever your guiding principals and moral compass, your respect for free markets and/or individual rights, we have serious issues in which science needs to guide our public policy: Antibiotic resistance | Climate change | Artificial intelligence. Yet the man who assumed the Presidency four days ago has consistently displayed a preference for bombast over facts, and he has staffed his administration with individuals who reject scientific insights on issues like global warming, vaccines, and biodiversity. The past four days have been a really worrisome barrage of falsehoods and anti-science moves. It’s scary. I am pessimistic about what it portends. I want to counter the pollution of our national dialogue. We have urgent matters to discuss, hazards to guard against, tipping points to be avoided, conflagrations in need of dousing. But the flow of quality information is being choked off. It strikes me as risky in the extreme.

What would the ideal environment look like in order to determine science policy? I would say it begins with a commitment to facts, quantitative and qualitative. Second, each conversant must commit to falsifiability – they must be willing to have their mind change on the basis of facts, compelling argument, or a re-prioritization of value trade-offs. When we can’t even share the same respect for facts, where on Earth does that leave us? When changing one’s mind is seen as a sign of weakness, how can we discuss anything? The promise of understanding the world through empiricism is unprecedented in its potential. The promise of democracy to provide a just and thoughtful form of governance is as good a system as can be imagined, but it relies on honest discourse to function. The death of facts leads to the demise of democracy. It breaks my heart.

How can science engage with the Trump administration on issues of critical national interest? I’m open to suggestions.