Thursday, August 6, 2020
Aug. 6, 2020

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In Our View: Harm to science more than just Sharpie revision

The Columbian
Published:

While President Donald Trump’s Twitter spats and derisive nicknames for critics draw much attention, the administration’s war on science goes largely unnoticed.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is wisely attempting to draw attention to that battle in calling for an investigation into what has become known as Sharpiegate. While that kerfuffle is a relatively minor and almost comical scandal, it reflects the serious damage the president is doing to the federal government.

You likely know the story by now. As Hurricane Dorian approached the U.S. a couple of weeks ago, Trump tweeted out a warning that Alabama might be in the storm’s path. The National Weather Service office in Birmingham quickly clarified that Alabama would see no impact from Dorian, and the president spent the next several days insisting he was correct. He even produced a map — apparently altered with a Sharpie — to support his position.

That was absurd but relatively harmless — simply another example of Trump’s thin-skinned response to criticism. But then the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration got involved, castigating the weather service for, essentially, being correct in disputing the president. The New York Times reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire NOAA staff who did not back Trump’s statements about the hurricane.

As Cantwell said: “The Trump administration’s attacks on science get more and more harmful and outrageous every day. We cannot allow science to be censored by politics or politicians.”

Such censorship is modus operandi for the administration. In 2017, Trump nominated Barry Myers as NOAA director. Myers was the CEO of AccuWeather, a family business that competes with federal weather services. His nomination has not yet been considered by the Senate.

The Interior secretary is David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for oil and gas firms whose desires stand in direct conflict with the department’s mission. The Environmental Protection Agency administrator is Andrew Wheeler, also a former lobbyist for energy companies. The Health and Human Services secretary is Alex Azar, a former drug industry lobbyist. In these departments and elsewhere, Trump has appointed ideologues and sycophants who have little interest in using scientific study to develop policy.

The president repeatedly has undermined intellectual honesty in favor of promoting his particular view of the world — a view often in conflict with reasonable evidence. As Robert Gebelhoff of The Washington Post wrote: “The administration has suppressed, blocked or ignored scientific research on the environmental effects of mining in national forests, the dangers of asbestos, the status of endangered species, the effect a citizenship question would have on the U.S. Census, the safety of children’s products and countless other issues.”

Scientists — people who have spent their professional lives developing expertise — have routinely been undermined by an administration that is replacing the swamp of Washington, D.C., with intellectual rot. That likely was to be expected from an administration that in its earliest days defended the use of “alternative facts,” but it should be a concern to anybody who has an interest in government making decisions based upon reliable information — which should be all of us.

Cantwell’s call for a hearing on Trump’s undermining of science is likely to be ignored by the Republicans who control the Senate. But it should be followed by an outcry from an enraged public.

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