At the time, none of us could possibly have known that the anti-intellectual, completely uninformed and totally arrogant comments made by a parochial politician in Texas would become, eight years later, the anthem of a presidential administration.
Back then, the comments made by Don McLeroy, chair of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE), as extreme as they were, seemed almost quaint, the rantings of an angry man out of touch with the scientific reality imposed by the modern world.
In 2009, McLeroy was fed up with the advice scientific and educational experts kept giving the SBOE about evolution. As a young Earth creationist, McLeroy was opposed to evolution on ideological grounds and he didn’t much care for the opinions of experts, opinions that were based on science rather than ideology. Finally, in a March, 2009 meeting of the SBOE, McLeroy erupted and made his position absolutely clear. "Somebody's got to stand up to experts," he exhorted.
Somebody, indeed. The SBOE became that “somebody” and voted down virtually all expert recommendations and exposed Texas students to creationist dogma and drivel for many years. (As an aside, the SBOE partly came to its senses just this year and modified its stance on creationism.)
Now, in an act of breathtaking hubris for even the Trump administration, McLeroy’s call to arms has been taken up wholesale by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ron Zinke. As reported by the Washington Post Pruitt has opted to replace half of the members of the Agency’s Board of Scientific Counselors while Zinke has suspended more than 200 of his department’s advisory boards.
The opening paragraph of the Washington Post’s article explained the import of these actions concisely and clearly:
"Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department are overhauling a slew of outside advisory boards that inform how their agencies assess the science underpinning policies, the first step in a broader effort by Republicans to change the way the federal government evaluates the scientific basis for its regulations."
Read the end of that last sentence again: “the first step in a broader effort by Republicans to change the way the federal government evaluates the scientific basis for its regulations.”
The intent of these moves can be starkly seen in a Republican proposal to reduce the budget of the Board of Scientific Counselors by 84 percent. The Washington Post explained that “The document said the budget cut reflects ‘an anticipated lower number of peer reviews.’”
With academic experts being purged from the Board and with significantly less input from experts around the country, how will the work of the EPA be evaluated? The answer is as simple as it is distressing: Not based on scientific merit.
The Board’s role is not supposed to be political. Rather it was created as a scientific panel to advise the Agency on the rigor and integrity of the research being conducted by the Agency. Similarly, the Department of the Interior’s advisory boards were created to provide technical advice, advice requiring subject matter expertise.
But, like McLeroy in Texas, Republicans in Washington have long been frustrated that the best available scientific information doesn’t conform to their ideological agenda. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), for example, thinks it’s critical for non-academics to be added to advisory panels.
Scientific expertise isn’t everything – but it most assuredly is something, something very important. Scientific expertise alone shouldn’t determine public policy, but it absolutely should inform public policy.
When we dismiss the experts and their accumulated knowledge, we do so at great risk to the public. And while it might feel very good to some in the short term, we’ll be living with the consequences for generations to come.
Now’s the time to make it clear that this movement from science to ideology is unacceptable to those of us who care about the world in which we live and for those of us who understand that while we can create our own opinions we can’t manufacture our own scientific reality.