It is hard to imagine two people more polar opposite than Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Perhaps someone will eventually write a book comparing these two men because that is what it would take to adequately explain the myriad ways that they are mirror images of one another. But I’d like to take just a moment today to zero in on one big difference that could have a dramatic effect – not only on how our federal government works – but how it will affect the American public.
One of the things that is not often mentioned about our current president is that he is a genuine science nerd. We’ve seen that in myriad ways over the course of the last eight years – most notably in how he has done so many things to inspire young people to study science. A couple of months ago, Obama was the guest-editor of WIRED magazine. In his editor’s note, he explained his love of science.
I love this stuff. Always have. It’s why my favorite movie of last year was The Martian. Of course, I’m predisposed to love any movie where Americans defy the odds and inspire the world. But what really grabbed me about the film is that it shows how humans—through our ingenuity, our commitment to fact and reason, and ultimately our faith in each other—can science the heck out of just about any problem.
When it comes to governing and policymaking, that is why you’ll find this statement on the web site of the Office of Budget and Management:
The Administration is committed to a broad-based set of activities to better integrate evidence and rigorous evaluation in budget, management, operational, and policy decisions, including through: (1) making better use of data already collected by government agencies; (2) promoting the use of high-quality, low-cost evaluations and rapid, iterative experimentation in addition to larger evaluations examining long-term outcomes; (3) adopting more evidence-based structures for grant programs; and (4) building agency evaluation evidence-building capacity and developing tools to better communicate what works.
This is an example of how President Obama is less driven by ideology than he is by pragmatism. His statements to Republicans over the years about his willingness to consider their proposals if they could demonstrate their effectiveness was not so much a kumbaya call to bipartisanship as it was an attempt to call them out. He knew their only plan was obstruction and that they didn’t really have any pragmatic solutions (see: Obamacare).
On the opposite end of the continuum, we have president-elect Donald Trump – who is busy filling the federal government with people who are incompetent and/or conspiracy theorists. That is why Ed Yong wrote, “How Trump Could Wage a War on Scientific Expertise.” He zeros in on how Trump has joined conservative Republicans in their efforts to undo government regulations. After discussing the various laws that have either been enacted or are under consideration to do so, he says this:
The cumulative effect of these acts would be to “gut the scientific foundation of many of our landmark health and public safety laws, like the Clean Air Act,” says Halpern. “They’re not going after the laws directly but going after how the government can use science to fulfill those laws.”
If all this happens, it will be more than just a war on regulation. It will be a war on expertise itself, on the role of science in informing American society.
This is all part of the larger disagreement between liberals and conservatives about the role of government. I have often said that the best way to advance a liberal agenda is to ensure a government that works. That is precisely why conservatives want to abandon science. If government doesn’t work, they hope to demonstrate (as Reagan once said) that government is the problem, not the solution.
As an example, yesterday I questioned whether or not the Trump/Bannon infrastructure plan had been taken off the table. The last thing people like Mike Pence and Paul Ryan want to see is a massive government program that works to repair our failing infrastructure while it also creates jobs. When even people like Bannon and Limbaugh suggest that it would actually work, that means that it is a dead-ender for conservative Republicans.
What all this comes down to is, for Republicans, being anti-science is a feature, not a bug.