Donald Trump may have purged the White House website of references to climate change and promised to withdraw the USA from international climate agreements but judging by his administration’s latest decree to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) it seems his gross ignorance of and disregard for global warming and its effects are just part of a more widespread disdain for science. Environmental science may be the first victim but anyone who has seen Trump’s knee jerk comments on a range of issues might reasonably infer that all science is now ‘up for grabs’, particularly where it interferes with his administration’s beliefs.
In case you’ve missed it, the Trump administration has apparently issued an edict which prevents anyone in the EPA from putting out press releases, and dictates that “no new content can be placed on any website”, until it has been “checked” by hand-picked political appointees. The implication is obvious – anything which doesn’t support the Trump narrative, and particularly any data or analysis which contradicts his wild assertions will never see the light of day (on official websites at least).
It is already a given in the rational world most of us occupy, that Trump and his acolytes prefer invented ‘facts’, fake news and conspiracy websites rather than verifiable information and reputable/responsible sources. But his administration’s decision to effectively censor the US EPA and have its scientific data and commentary ‘vetted’ by like-minded supporters goes well beyond Trump’s penchant for ‘alternative facts’. It is both a vote of no confidence in the professionalism and trustworthiness of that esteemed organisation, and an attack on the independence and the integrity of science generally. Clearly it is a dangerous precedent – not just because it undermines a respected scientific organisation and is a head-on assault on freedom of information, but importantly because it undermines the credibility of the EPA, and gives heart to those who prefer their own ‘wisdom’ (often based on scant, incorrect or ill-considered information at best) to systematic, testable and scrupulous scientific research and analysis.
The USA has some of the largest, best resourced, and most reputable scientific organisations in the world and we can but wonder how long it will be before they too are subjected to ideologically sponsored attacks. As Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel pointed out (Fairfax press 6/2/2017) the communist tyrant Joseph Stalin did a similar thing during his tyrannical reign in the USSR. The Chief Scientist reportedly told an audience at the ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy that such political control was comparable to Stalin’s promotion of Trofim Lysenko’s ideas on genetics and evolution in the USSR. Dr Finkel suggested that Trump’s clumsy attempt to constrain the EPA “is reminiscent of the censorship exerted by political officers in the old Soviet Union. Every military commander there had a political officer second-guessing his decisions. Soviet agricultural science was held back for decades because of the ideology of Trofim Lysenko. Stalin loved Lysenko’s conflation of science and Soviet philosophy and used his limitless power to ensure that Lysenko’s unscientific ideas prevailed.” Lysenko’s influence was disastrous for Russian agriculture.
Trump and his cohorts channelling one of the world’s most despised tyrants, the communist dictator Joseph Stalin? Who would have thought it? My guess is that plenty won’t be surprised, but many will be both appalled and alarmed. Trump may not be the Devil incarnate, but Australians and reasonable people across the globe should be both alert and alarmed, lest the proud ignorance that is already pervading the Trump administration be allowed to spread.
As Edmund Burke is incorrectly reputed to have said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Science is far from perfect but without responsible, independent, well funded scientific bodies, the world will be a far worse place. If we do nothing, it will be at our peril.