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.
Trump’s inauguration crowd today vs. Obama’s in 2009. pic.twitter.com/QSZXJjhSR8
— Sadie Dingfelder (@SadieDing) January 20, 2017
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:
With @Interior accounts, including @USGS, banned from @Twitter, this would be a very bad time for a natural disaster to befall us. https://t.co/qkQVUTRedj
— Ron Schott ⚒ (@rschott) January 21, 2017
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.
FULL: @seanspicer: “We’re going to hold the press accountable.” pic.twitter.com/nK51t16Kpf
— Fox News (@FoxNews) January 21, 2017
Ah, but Mr. Spicer, the press is going to hold you accountable too. I love this headline:
White House press secretary attacks media for accurately reporting inauguration crowds https://t.co/HaJhPnSwWN pic.twitter.com/WVDgBKzOxy
— CNN (@CNN) January 21, 2017
Spicer said they aren’t going to take it, this insistence on verifiable facts that delegitimize the Trump administration. I love this reaction:
You absolutely will take it. You dished it for 8 years. You work for us, now. Welcome to performance reviews. https://t.co/tc2tPAoYWF
— Heather Archuletta (@Pillownaut) January 22, 2017
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:
The strategy here is to delegitimize the press because that’s a way to delegitimize facts they don’t like.
— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) January 21, 2017
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.”
The alt-right administration brings you the alt-fact https://t.co/6aQxGXpNKf
— David Frum (@davidfrum) January 22, 2017
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.)
If you have any doubt what’s going on, it’s this. pic.twitter.com/G3xBdjqDcN
— Sheril Kirshenbaum (@Sheril_) January 22, 2017
“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.
Re: the proportion of politics to science in my feed, I fear my hand is being forced. I’m unwilling to be quiet about our American tragedy.
— Callan Bentley (@callanbentley) January 23, 2017
This. We’re apparently not supposed to react to the fact that many GOPers want scientists gone. https://t.co/cwYtNCitJw
— Chuck Bangley (@SpinyDag) January 23, 2017
I will not “stick to science” when fascism is waltzing into the halls of power. You don’t have to agree with me but you won’t shut me up.
— Katie Mack (@AstroKatie) January 21, 2017
So many “stick to astronomy” replies today. But once Trump and the GOP congress destroy science what will I stick to then?
— Phil Plait (@BadAstronomer) January 22, 2017
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.
Curious. Those of you who do science communication, tell me why you’re not tweeting about politics, given the implications for science.
— Callan Bentley (@callanbentley) December 20, 2016
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:
First, they came for the environmental research. But my research was not funded by the EPA, so I said nothing. https://t.co/0gAEtOqRoP
— Terry McGlynn (@hormiga) January 24, 2017
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.
I would suggest that is is less the Trump administration which needs to be engaged and more the American electorate. I cannot believe that the entire Republican party voted to allow the valuation of federal public lands to be considered to be nil for the purpose of any bill. That effectively means that a Congressional bill to give away federal lands – including National Park lands – need not be vetted as to the value of that land for any current use. And we all know that federal lands have multiple uses which are valuable for all sorts of reasons. But not to a Republican.