This week, the EPA stopped doing science.
As reported, clarified, and restated within a hectic 24-hour period, the Trump administration announced that scientific findings of the Environmental Protection Agency would be reviewed by political staff prior to being released.
“We'll take a look at what's happening so that the voice coming from the EPA is one that's going to reflect the new administration,” Doug Erickson, head of communications for Trump’s EPA transition team, told NPR Tuesday.
That, of course, is propaganda, not science. Science depends on the scientific method, which since the 17th century has required empirical evidence, scientific reasoning, and the objective presentation of data so that other scientists can verify or refute the conclusions drawn. If data is doctored for political purposes, it isn’t scientific data.
After some outcry, Erickson subsequently backtracked on his original claim, “clarifying” that he was only referring to existing information on the EPA website—such as its pages about climate change. Such “holds” would be normal for a presidential transition, but Erickson’s earlier comments suggested a much wider change in policy.
In fact, there is precedent for Erickson’s initial version. In 2003, when the George W. Bush administration tried to change an EPA climate change report to amplify the level of uncertainty, and swap out EPA’s own data for a study commissioned by the fossil fuel industry’s trade association, the American Petroleum Institute.
Two years later, it was later learned that those edits came from Philip A. Cooney, chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, a lawyer who had worked for the American Petroleum Institute itself and who had no scientific background. Cooney subsequently resigned, and was hired two days later by ExxonMobil.
The White House’s naked attempt at censorship was a scandal in 2005. It would become standard operating procedure in 2017.
Meanwhile, the Trump transition team has instructed employees at the EPA, the Department of Agriculture and the Interior Department to stop using their agencies’ social media accounts. In an amusing twist, that led to the rogue efforts of the Badlands National Park twitter team, which began tweeting—gasp—scientific facts about climate change. Those tweets were later deleted, and a new, unofficial account sprang up purportedly managed by National Park Service employees, which currently has 935,000 followers.
These policies fit neatly with the new administration’s core beliefs about climate change specifically and truth more generally.
First, it’s well known that Trump has been all over the map about climate change: it’s a Chinese conspiracy, it may or may not be real, or maybe it is somewhat real if Ivanka says so. The range is similar throughout the Right: moderates agree that climate change is real, conservatives deny it, and the alt-right says it’s a leftist conspiracy.
Of course, climate change is not a matter of opinion; it’s a matter of scientific consensus as to the validity, or not, of the theory in question. And on that count, the consensus is overwhelming. For example, one recent review found that of 928 peer-reviewed articles were published in scientific journals over a five-year period, all 928 adduced evidence proving the existence of human-caused climate change, with exactly zero showing evidence contradicting it.
But in this administration, with its “alternative facts” that contradict photographic evidence, outrageous conspiracy theories about voter fraud that emanate from cranks on the internet, attacks on journalism, bald lies about the efficacy of torture, and denial of basic constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and nondiscrimination, the principles of the scientific method are mere collateral damage from its wholesale attack on truth. It’s hard even to complain about censoring environmental science when the president of the United States is promoting outright lies, whether about voter fraud today or birth certificates in 2011.
Still, climate change is a uniquely perilous context for Trump’s assault on truth, because he is jumping on an existing bandwagon: the campaign, paid for with billions of dollars from the fossil fuel industry, to convince Americans that all the world’s scientists are wrong, and that what is obviously happening to our planet is either not happening, or isn’t our fault. Toward this end, the fossil fuel industry has paid fake think tanks—most importantly the Heartland Institute—that clothe the industry’s message in pseudo-scientific garb, fake scientists to publish bogus articles, and an army of publicists.
These efforts have worked. As of last October, only 48% of Americans “believed” what 100% of peer-reviewed climate science articles stated: that the climate is changing due to human activity. And that has largely tracked partisan affiliation. Meanwhile, only 27% are aware that “almost all” climate scientists say that human behavior is chiefly responsible for climate change—which 93% of American Association for the Advancement of Science members indeed say.
That last data point is worth considering. Just as the Trump administration has created “alternative facts” to contradict objectively verifiable ones, reported by journalists with professional standards of conduct, so it is now joining the fossil fuel industry in creating alternative science.
But as with myths about Benghazi, or the Clinton email server, or voter fraud, or vaccines, the alternative can quickly become the mainstream, especially when they are amplified by Fox News, Breitbart, and the rest. Moreover, in the case of environmental science, the government has the power of the purse; it’s easy to imagine academic institutions losing federal support if they deviate from the party line on climate or a host of other issues.
The primary casualty here is, of course, the stability of the biosphere, already reeling because of global climate disruption. But a secondary casualty is the notion of science itself—now demoted, like journalism, to a matter of opinion.
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But in Trumpland, there’s no difference between the two.