Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Pruitt, who lied to Congress about his collusion with oil-industry lobbyists, made an unexpected biblical reference at a recent event regarding the agency’s science advisory boards. Unfortunately, he got the Bible all wrong.
The context was Pruitt’s announcement last week that scientists who have received EPA funding within three years can no longer serve on the agency’s 12 scientific advisory committees. While that may sound like a smart conflict-of-interest provision, its actual effect will be to exclude the majority of scientific experts from serving on the committees, and to replace them with industry “experts” instead.
The move was typical Trump-Pruitt: putting the foxes in charge of guarding the henhouse, letting industry regulate itself, junking science.
What wasn’t typical was Pruitt’s bit of biblical exegesis. Quoth Deacon Pruitt:
“In the Book of Joshua there is a story about Joshua leading the people of Israel into the promised land after Moses passed away. And Joshua says to the people of Israel choose this day whom you’re going to serve. And I would say to you this is sort of like the ‘Joshua Principle’ that as it relates to grants to this agency, you are going to have to choose either service on the committee to provide counsel to us in an independent fashion or you can choose grants, but you cannot do both. That’s the fair and great thing to do.”
While it may be unusual for an EPA administrator to cite the Bible, Pruitt’s account of Scripture is correct. His interpretation of it, however, is 180 degrees backward.
The passage Pruitt is citing is Joshua 24:15, which comes at the very end of the book (Joshua dies 14 verses later) after the conquest of the land of Israel, which had been home to the Amorites, Perrizites, Canaanites, Hittites, and others, before Joshua’s armies annihilated them.
After recounting the good things that YHVH, god of the Israelites, had done, Joshua offers the people a choice: Serve YHVH exclusively, or don’t serve him at all. This was indeed the innovation (for better or for worse) of biblical monotheism. Unlike other gods like Baal, Anat, El, Asherah, and others prevalent in the region, YHVH, Joshua explains, is a “jealous” god who insists on being served alone. You have to choose.
Thus far, Pruitt’s scriptural analogy is accurate. The Israelites can serve YHVH or serve other gods, but not both. You can serve on the science advisory committee, or you can receive EPA grants, but not both.
Only—the meaning is exactly backward. By barring EPA-funded scientists from science advisory committees, Pruitt’s new policy blocks the vast majority of academically affiliated scientific experts from serving. All such experts rely to some extent on government funding; it’s a big part of how the scientific community works.
And remember, these scientific advisory boards don’t decide on individual grants—that would indeed be a conflict of interest. They review the science of the agency, and effectively vouch for the science the agency puts out, not unlike the advisory boards of peer-reviewed scientific journals. They have names like the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), and the Science Advisory Board (SAB). There are already tight conflict-of-interest rules in place.
So who’s left, when you remove all the scientists? Well, that’s easy: People who don’t depend on government funding, because their funding comes from industry instead.
Everybody in the community knows this dynamic. Most science Ph.Ds either get an academic job and hustle for government or foundation grants, or you go work for a corporation—maybe a pharmaceutical company, or a chemical company, or energy, or whatever. (Increasingly, with government funding disappearing, universities are themselves having to turn to industry for funding, a highly controversial practice.) There’s nothing sinister about that—it’s just how the field works.
But that’s the point. Joshua was talking about loyalty—about who you’ve got to serve, in Bob Dylan’s felicitous phrasing. If you work for a chemical company, your loyalty is to them. You’re their employee; you serve their interests in exchange for the salary and benefits they give you. You serve your company’s profits.
The fundamental principle of the scientific community, however, is that scientists serve the truth. That’s a lofty bit of rhetoric, to be sure, but it is actualized by a set of standards and practices that apply around the world. Universities don’t pressure professors to shade the data one way or the other, or bury studies with results they don’t like. The tenure system exists to ensure that, to make it extremely difficult to fire professors for reasons other than misconduct.
So what Pruitt has established is exactly the opposite of what the Book of Joshua demands. The right analogy to the would-be polytheists aren’t academic scientists pledged to truth—it’s industry scientists who work for profit. They’re the ones who serve two masters: the profits of their bosses, and the interests of the people who the government is meant to protect.
This policy isn’t the “Joshua Principle.” It’s the Herod Principle. King Herod was supposed to be king of Judea, but his salary (so to speak) was paid by the Roman Empire, and his true loyalty was to it. Herod, like industry scientists, grew quite wealthy, and like large multinational corporations, he built many grand edifices. But while he made shows of loyalty to the Jews he reigned over, these were empty; indeed, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod went so far as to order the massacre of Jewish children to prevent Jesus from coming of age.
Of course, industry-paid scientists won’t be massacring any children. But they have already endangered many lives, pushing Pruitt to eliminate the regulation of chlorpyfiros (produced by Dow Chemical), gut clean-water rules, and, of course, turn the clock back on climate change, which every independent scientist agrees is an existential crisis, but which energy companies would like to ignore. These decisions will cost lives, now and in the future.
In the wake of Pruitt’s off-the-cuff statement, some secularists have complained that a government official quoted the Bible. But religious people should be even more upset, because Pruitt didn’t just quote the Bible; he used it to justify the taking of life, and twisted its words into the exact opposite of what they mean.