Grand Ostrich Party
How the War on Science Is Really Fought
This week’s march claims to be non-political, but the reality is that the war against science is being fought by the Republican Party in ways you don’t see.
The March for Science has emphasized throughout that it is non-partisan (in part, no doubt, to protect the government employees and scientists who are participating). “Yes, this is a protest, but it’s not a political protest,” one of the lead organizers has said.
But the reality is that a million people would not be marching were it not for the Trump administration’s war on science, and that it’s the Republican Party that, for decades, has attacked the scientific method from economic or religious perspectives. What, beyond the incendiary rhetoric, does the “war on science” really mean? Here are three of its fronts.
1. Disregarding Science
The first, and most obvious, of the Trump administration’s anti-science efforts has been to disregard science itself—both in terms of its conclusions and its methods.
Exhibit A: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Pruitt is under investigation by his own agency for disregarding the scientific consensus on climate change in his March 9 statement to CNBC that “I would not agree that [carbon dioxide] is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” Trouble is, the EPA’s scientific integrity policy requires EPA officials “respect the findings of the broader scientific community,” which includes the consensus of literally 100 percent of climate scientists on the causes of climate change.
The EPA’s Science Integrity Officer, an Obama holdover, is reviewing the comments to determine whether there is evidence to refer the matter to the Office of the Inspector General.
(Pruitt also baldly lied to Congress regarding his use of a private email account to conduct Oklahoma state business; that statement is being investigated by the Oklahoma Bar Association, which has the power to disbar Pruitt if they find that he misrepresented the facts.)
But the EPA is just getting started. Without regard to the evidence of their effectiveness, the EPA has proposed eliminating or freezing anti-smog rules, power plant regulations, fracking regulations, mining pollution rules, even the popular Energy Star program. The unproven assertion that these regulations cost jobs has taken precedent over the evidence-based impacts that the regulations have. Science has taken a back seat to “jobs,” itself a euphemism for profits.
Pruitt specifically overruled a planned regulation of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that EPA’s scientific studies conclusively showed to be a carcinogen—even though the regulation was at the “final agency action” stage. A twenty-year veteran of the EPA who resigned in January told the New York Times that the agency was “ignoring the science that is pretty solid.” Dow Chemical, which markets the chemical under the name Lorsban, cheered.
The Trump administration has also wielded the power of the purse to decimate scientific research. It has proposed slashing research budgets at NASA, the National Institute of Health, and the Department of Energy.
At the EPA, the Trump budget calls for “zeroing out” all climate-related programs, closing two of ten regional offices, and one leaked planning document proposed eliminating all scientific research at the agency, presumably relying on private sources—in particular, industry-funded sources—instead.
2. Disregarding the Scientific Method
It’s not just the content of science that Pruitt’s EPA is casting aside; it’s the scientific method itself, which relies on evidence, skepticism, peer review, observable facts, and as much independence from opinion as possible. The era of “alternative facts” flies in the face of everything science stands for.
When the Trump administration disputes the observed size of inauguration crowds, that, too, is a war on science. When the administration says that a fossil-fuel-focused energy plan will create jobs—when, in fact, the solar industry employs more people than the coal industry—that, too, is a war on science. And when, in a single Time magazine interview, Trump says that Muslims celebrated 9/11, that three million undocumented people voted in the election, that Ted Cruz’s father was in on the JFK assassination, that there was a terrorist attack in Sweden, and that President Obama wiretapped his phone, his wanton disregard for how truth is established threatens the foundation of the scientific method itself.
Trump’s cabinet also includes more religious fundamentalists than any in American history: Pruitt, Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos, Rick Perry, and Ben Carson have each espoused belief systems that disregard scientific evidence in favor of literalist religious dogma. Of course, an individual’s religious faith is distinct from his or her public role—but it’s easy to understand how Pruitt’s religious fundamentalism and his radical anti-science beliefs might inform each other.
In this regard, the Trump administration’s war on science is not new. As documented in books like Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science and Shawn Otto’s The War on Science, the GOP has fought scientific consensus for decades, on issues ranging from smoking to evolution, drug use to gun policy, pharmaceuticals to climate change. As those books describe, the opposition to science unites two of the three wings of the Republican Party, big business and anti-science religious fundamentalists. Even the third faction, populists, have lately jumped on board, goaded by anti-elitist and anti-intellectual sentiment, even though they often disproportionately bear the costs of eviscerated health and environmental regulations. Crusading against science is a Republican perfect storm.
3. Attacks on Scientists
Finally, the “war on science” has occasionally become almost literal, particularly in the last few years. As tracked by the nonprofit Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, climate scientists in particular have been attacked and harassed by pro-industry groups—or semi-anonymous fronts for them. Prominent scientists have had their emails hacked and publicized. They have been investigated by Congress, and their funding has been threatened.
Lauren Kurtz, Executive Director of CLSDF, told The Daily Beast that the most common way scientists are attacked is when industry-funded groups use state and federal open records laws to intimidate scientists, cause them massive expense, and, essentially, go on a fishing expedition.
“If you get hundreds of thousands of pages of someone’s emails,” Kurtz said, “you can find something to make them look bad.”
Case in point: Penn State scientist Dr. Michael Mann, who helped create the famous/infamous “hockey stick” graph showing the increase in carbon dioxide emissions over the last two hundred years. The front group “American Tradition Institute,” funded by the Koch Brothers, filed a request for anything and everything Mann had ever emailed, including private emails that had nothing to do with his research.
Mann ultimately won, but it took three years and over $100,000 to fight them off. That’s peanuts for the Kochs, and the American Tradition Institute has since rebranded itself as the “Energy & Environment Legal Institute” and continues to file nuisance lawsuits and documents requests to intimidate, embarrass and silence scientists. Doing your job and following the facts is now grounds for getting doxxed by Charles and David Koch.
And then there’s litigation. According to Kurtz, one scientist was sued for defamation and conspiracy for writing a paper evaluating the work of a “climate skeptic.” With CLSDF’s help, the scientist won—but, again, only after spending time and money to defend himself.
Finally, there’s the government itself. In the executive branch, Kurtz said, “scientists are feeling like the federal government is making it harder to do their jobs.” And climate deniers in congress are investigating scientists, again fishing for any phrase that could be taken out of context or used to discredit climate scientists. This tactic works; during the “climategate” email hack, one scientist’s description of a “trick algorithm” (as in, a clever, time saving trick) was used as evidence that scientists were tricking the government into some sinister climate agenda. Do the million Marchers for Science know all of these details? Surely not. They just know that ignoring science is bad for our health, bad for America, and bad for the Earth. I wonder—if more people knew how bad the war on science has really gotten, more than a million would be hitting the streets this Saturday.