“An endorsement of scientific thinking must first of all be distinguished from any belief that members of the occupational guild called ‘science’ are particularly wise or noble.
“[A] call for anyone to think more scientifically must not be confused with a call to hand decision-making over to scientists.
“A respect for scientific thinking is, adamantly, not the belief that all current scientific hypotheses are true.”
—Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress, page 390-91
The Founding Fathers went to extraordinary lengths to prevent the rise of tyranny in America. One of the main tools they used was to structure government in a way that prevents any one branch from acquiring too much power. That tool is known as checks and balances, which gives each branch a way of checking the power of other branches, thus maintaining a balance of power horizontally across the federal government and vertically between the federal and state governments.
This roadblock to tyranny has been under attack by statists for a long time, and is accelerating today, especially by the collectivist Left. The latest attack comes at us in the name of science. In op-ed appeared in the 10/6/19 New Jersey Star-Ledger, Scientists need protection from political interference.* Preet Bharara and Christine Todd Whitman** wrote:
Regardless of President Donald Trump’s fate in the impeachment inquiry, his presidency has exposed serious fissures in our system of government that require repair — especially when it comes to the integrity of government research.
This isn’t the first time this administration has retaliated against scientists for doing their jobs.
So it’s not scientists that need protection. It is government scientists--that is, taxpayer-funded research. The authors give examples, such as:
The Interior Department moved a climate scientist to an accounting role after he stressed the dangers of climate change to Alaska’s Native communities. A recent tally by the Union of Concerned Scientists listed more than 120 attacks on science by the Trump administration.
The Trump administration’s abuses are extreme, but this White House is far from the first to lay siege to government scientists. Our new report documents how the current and previous administrations have manipulated the findings of government scientists, suppressed government research they did not like from reaching the public, retaliated against career government scientists for upholding the integrity of their work and invited special interests to help shape government research.
For instance, political officials at the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration made last-minute changes to a report highlighting the dangers of fracking on drinking water by playing down the risks.
In 2008, NASA’s inspector general published a report describing how the agency’s public affairs office suppressed climate-change science and barred a top scientist, James Hansen, from speaking to the media. During this episode, a politically appointed public affairs officer rejected an NPR producer’s request to interview Hansen, arguing that his job was “to make (President George W. Bush) look good.”
Do you notice a theme here? Do you smell politics? All of these objections involve in some way the most politicized issue of science there is today—climate change. Yet, Bharara and Whitman demand “protection” from “political interference”:
First and foremost, Congress should pass scientific integrity standards for the executive branch and require agencies to create policies that guarantee these standards. These policies would apply both to employees and contractors who conduct research for the federal government directly, as well as federally funded research and development centers. At their most basic, these standards would ensure that the science conducted at these agencies is free from politics, ideology and financial conflicts of interest.
First, let’s be clear. There is no such thing as government science. There is only government-funded science. But the funding comes from taxing private economically productive individuals. The funding is then used to hire private scientists. Incredibly, the authors assert:
Government science matters. It put Americans on the moon. It helped create the internet. And today, it helps the government protect the environment, improve our water and food safety, and provide the economic data that help businesses and investors make wise financial decisions. It provides advance warning when we’re in Mother Nature’s dangerous path.
So achievements of the private sector, of the “employees and contractors and research and development centers” whose only connection to the federal government is their funding, are brushed off as “government science”.
Which brings us back to the politics. Notice that the most egregious examples of “executive branch abuse” revolve around an Environmentalist agenda mainly aligned with the collectivist Left, the Democrats.
Why are Trump’s “abuses” automatically wrong? Isn’t it possible that the scientist who “stressed the dangers of climate change to Alaska’s Native communities?” is over-stressing the dangers to support a political agenda? Why were Obama’s “last-minute changes to a report highlighting the dangers of fracking on drinking water by playing down the risks” wrong? What if the scientists overplayed the risks to drinking water due to an animosity toward fossil fuels driven by climate change beliefs? On what basis can anyone claim with a straight face that scientists are themselves “free from politics, ideology and financial conflicts of interest?” Why is “fossil fuel funded” science suspect, but politically funded science not?
Far from “abuses”, I would call Trump’s and Obama’s actions a legitimate form of checks and balances. Why are the government-paid scientists and their work sacrosanct? Are they immune to personal biases? What if a scientist’s findings are politically slanted, or worse, geared toward satisfying the biases of the politicians they rely on for their funding or their very jobs?
What if these presidents brought in other scientists from outside the “government science” establishment who may have a different perspective and/or disagree with the supposedly infallible government scientists? Why are government-paid scientists’ findings to be taken at face value, but privately funded science findings are not?
The deification of science as the be-all and end-all guide to government policy, as is now happening regarding climate, is a dangerous trend in America. Marxism’s “scientific socialism” led to 100 million murders under communist regimes. American Progressives’ early 20th Century embrace of eugenics science led to racist policies in the U.S. and culminated in Nazi extermination policies.
The government's career scientists are not elected. They are not appointed by an elected president. Yet their work has an enormous influence on policy. Look no further than climate science, which has been co-opted by a major political party that seeks to ride an alleged “climate crisis” into the power to impose a transformative society-wide socialist agenda on America. Yet career government climate scientists are to be granted the exalted status of being shielded from “political interference”, meaning they are not accountable to the elected president or his appointees?
I think this is completely backwards. The Executive Branch of the American government is accountable to the voters. Therefore, the agencies under the jurisdiction thereof, and all of their employees, appointed or career, directly employed or contracted, must be accountable to the executive branch.
The conclusion that “No one political party has a monopoly on science [and that] Congress should demonstrate as much by shielding government scientists and their work from politicization” is shocking. Like it or not, government-funded science is political, because government funding of anything is the very definition of politicization. If you don’t want politicization, fire all of the government-employed scientists and stop all government funding of scientific research, direct or indirect.
Until then, the ability of elected presidential administrations to scrutinize and question the “government science” and the employees that generate that research under its jurisdiction is what should be protected. No one political party should have a monopoly on science, for sure. But neither should any one branch of government. Administrations must be free to disregard or “suppress” these scientists' conclusions, and to seek independent private scientific input—as Trump has done in regards to climate change—or consult other fields of thought such as energy, economics, or political philosophy. Otherwise, congressional politicians who actual authorize the funding for these agencies will be able to monopolize the science for its own political purposes. It’s fine to publicly scrutinize the actions and policies of presidential administrations. But simply cutting the executive branch out of the equation is dangerously wrongheaded. We desperately need the checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches. We need protection from dogmatic “science” as much as from politicized science. The proposal to shield “government scientists” from accountability to the executive branch is a slap in the face to our elections, to the voters, and to the system of checks and balances that is vital to our self-governance.
Steven Pinker, a foremost champion of science, advises us that a belief in science does not translate into the cult-like “position that ‘science is all that matters’ or that ‘scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems.’” The idea that “power should be transferred to the culture of scientists,” he warns, is a “lunatic position.” [p. 390] Yet, that seems to be where Whitman and Bharara lean towards. These two have held important political positions and are now co-chairs an organization called the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy housed at the Brennan Center for Justice. They should know better.
* [This a reprint of a Washington Post article “In Age of Trump, the Integrity of Government Research is in Shambles,” which is locked behind a paywall.]
** [Christine Todd Whitman, president of the Whitman Strategy Group, was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and governor of New Jersey. Preet Bharara is the former U. S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. They are co-chairs of the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy housed at the Brennan Center for Justice.]
The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters & Climate Change, second edition--Roger Pielke Jr.