Sharpie-gate really matters.
Yes, President Trump’s erroneous insistence that Alabama would be hit by Hurricane Dorian — and his ham-handed alteration of an official map to support his mistake — has spawned countless hilarious memes. But the larger implications of this incident are far more serious. It starkly symbolizes this president’s ferocious war on any facts or findings that contradict his warped view of the world.
He’s single-handedly destroying the ability of his own government to make sensible policy because he refuses to accept the work of professionals — scientists and economists, intelligence analysts and agronomists — who remain dedicated to their standards of independent nonpartisanship.
Three former administrators of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made this point about weather forecasting in the Washington Post, but their words apply to all information produced by government researchers.
“Even a hint that a forecast or warning was influenced by politics would undermine the public’s trust and the ability to respond quickly and effectively under potentially life-threatening conditions,” wrote Jane Lubchenco, D. James Baker and Kathryn D. Sullivan. “If political appointees overrule trained scientists, imposing political concerns on scientific matters, they endanger public safety as well as the credibility and morale of the agency charged with protecting that safety.”
When Trump inflates the size of his inaugural crowds, or denies hush-money payments to former girlfriends, he’s being outrageous, but not dangerous. But when his delusions undermine government policy, the consequences can be deeply damaging.
When he insists that trade wars are “easy to win,” or that tax cuts pay for themselves, the results can be fiscal disaster. When he denies that Russia tried to help him win the last election, he cripples our ability to protect the integrity of future elections.
No issue illustrates Trump’s war on facts better than climate change. Maria Caffrey was a climate scientist for the National Park Service who documented the potential danger to coastal parks from future sea level increases. After Trump took office, she writes in The Guardian, senior park service officials “tried repeatedly, often aggressively, to coerce me into deleting references to the human causes of the climate crisis.”
After a long battle, Caffrey’s report was published, but she was forced out of her job. “Politics has no place in science,” she writes. “I am an example of the less discussed methods the administration is using to destroy scientific research. ... The current administration may only last a matter of years, but its actions may potentially impact our planet for centuries.”
As an analyst in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Rod Schoonover produced a report “on the national security implications of climate change” for the House Intelligence Committee. But his superiors truncated his live testimony and blocked the submission of his written conclusions.
“The White House trampled not only on the scientific integrity of the assessment but also on the analytic independence of an arm of the intelligence community,” Schoonover writes in the Post, after resigning from “the institution I loved.”
Lewis Ziska, a plant scientist for the Department of Agriculture, documented “how rice is losing nutrients because of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” writes Politico. Department officials tried to bury his findings, “which raised serious concerns for the 600 million people who depend on rice for most of their calories.”
“You get the sense that things have changed, that this is not a place for you to be exploring things that don’t agree with someone’s political views,” Ziska told Politico. “That’s so sad. I can’t even begin to tell you how sad that is.”
The political leadership at NOAA bent to the president’s pressure, contradicting their own analysts and issuing a statement supporting Trump’s fallacious claims about the risk to Alabama. But the professionals in the agency are fighting back and defending their integrity.
Craig McLean, NOAA’s chief scientist, said the heads of his own agency had acted “inappropriately and incorrectly” when they undermined their staff’s forecast that Alabama was not in danger. “My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science, but on external factors including reputation and appearance — or, simply put, political,” Mclean wrote.
“I have a responsibility to pursue these truths,” he added. “I will.”
McLean speaks for a vast army of professionals — judges and journalists, analysts and researchers — who share his determination. The best way to constrain the Lord of the Lies is to pursue the truth, wherever it leads.