“Better to get your news directly from the president,” said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas.
It is early days in the Trump administration. (I know it doesn’t feel like it. Check your calendar.) But there have already been disturbing signs of how the administration intends to treat science and government scientists.
It is worrying that the agency has frozen its grant program, that the climate change page has been taken down, and that the spokesperson for Trump’s EPA “beachhead team” — none other than Doug Ericksen, the climate-denying, regulation-hating leader of the Washington state senate — told NPR that that EPA scientists will need to run any new scientific findings past the Trump team before they are published or publicized.
But allegedly these “freezes” on new agency grants and communications will end today. So, as Brad says, if you look at all these moves with maximum charity, you can still see them as more or less typical for a new administration. You can argue that it’s not yet time to panic, not yet clear whether Trump will launch a war on science to rival George W. Bush’s or Stephen Harper’s.
Still, color me pessimistic. For some reason, of all the disturbing stories this week, the one that struck me most as a harbinger of our science future is a goofy little story that most people didn’t hear about.
You can only trust Trump, says science guy
On Monday, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who has previously praised Trump’s “stamina” and “conviction,” gave a floor speech in the House in which lauded the president, celebrating his many accomplishments. According to Smith, you may not be familiar with those accomplishments, because the media won’t tell you.
“Better to get your news directly from the president,” Smith said. “In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”
Let that sink in.
Now, a pol kissing up to the president is not any big news, but Smith is a very particular kind of pol.
He is perhaps the paradigm representative of the tribal approach to epistemology that dominates on the far right today. Tribal epistemology evaluates facts, information, and narratives primarily on whether they are advantageous to the tribe in their war against the opposing tribe (in this case, liberals).
Tribal epistemology is inherently hostile to institutions that claim independent authority based on transpartisan norms and standards — the academy, science, and journalism, in particular. They see those institutions as tools of their enemies.
I’ll have much, much more to say about this kind of epistemology in a coming post, but suffice to say here, Smith is in a position to put the perspective into action.
But most significantly, Smith is the chair of the House Science Committee, which he has transformed into an aggressively partisan instrument, using its investigatory powers — including sweeping new subpoena powers granted by fellow Republicans in 2015 — to harass and intimidate individual scientists, agencies, and nonprofit organizations.
One of his more notable targets was scientist Thomas Karl of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who published research in 2015 showing that the much-hyped global warming “pause” hadn’t actually happened.
Smith began hassling NOAA, demanding not only the data and methods behind the paper (which were already posted on the internet anyway) but all email communications related to the paper’s research and publication (which NOAA refused to give). That led to giant brouhaha, during which Smith openly accused NOAA of fraud and threatened NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan (the first woman to walk in space) with criminal charges. You can read all about here and here.
Long story short, Smith makes Darrell Issa and Jason Chaffetz look like King Solomon.
Smith’s attitude toward science is the GOP’s attitude
Smith is for conservative media and against liberal media, for conservative science and against liberal science. He doesn’t acknowledge anything outside those categories.
In this, he is squarely in the mainstream of his party, which has long cultivated its own scientists and “experts” and pursued legislation that would bring independent scientific agencies under more direct partisan control. See, for instance, the REINS Act, which would submit all major science-based regulations to a vote of both houses of Congress.
Agencies like EPA were built, deliberately, to have a great deal of independence, so that scientists could do their work and regulators could assess that work without undue influence from lawmakers. Republicans like Smith don’t like that independence one bit — they think that the agency should produce conservative science when they are in charge — and they are doing everything they can to bring government scientists to heel.
Trump’s goals, it seems safe to say, are more likely to be executed when they line up with longstanding Republican goals. Putting government scientists under political control might just be one of those areas of alignment. It’s too soon to say, but I know which way I’m betting.