How “Evidence-Based” Became a Dirty Word

Published Dec 3, 2019

Dr. Jacob Carter explores the consequences of the Trump administration’s attacks on science.

In this episode
  • Colleen and Jacob explore various attacks on science that have happened under the Trump administration
  • Jacob lays out the what he thinks needs to change to get science back on track
  • We look back at previous administrations for the source of attacks on science
Timing and cues
  • Opener (0:00-0:28)
  • Intro (0:28-2:26)
  • Interview part 1(2:26-13:22)
  • Break (13:22-14:20)
  • Interview part 2 (14:20-24:08)
  • This Week in Science History Throw (24:08-24:12)
  • This Week in Science History (24:12-27:30)
  • Outro (27:30-28:30)
Related content
Show credits

This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Colleen: Jacob, welcome to the podcast.

Jacob: Thank you for having me.

Colleen: So, you've been tracking attacks on science by the current administration, and the number is staggering. What constitutes an attack on science?

Jacob: An attack on science, as the way that we define it, is any time there is undue political interference in a science-based issue regarding a government decision. So, the first part of the criteria is that that decision has to have some sort of scientific basis. There are government decisions that are made, believe it or not, that are not based on science.

So, when we're talking about undue political interference, it's sort of the second part of the criteria. This is any time that a political official is basing a decision that should be based on science on political ideology. So, that would include scientists being censored, scientific reports being suppressed, scientific data or results being manipulated to fit a political idea. Basically, a political decision that's being made that is not in line with the best available scientific evidence.

Colleen: So, when you say manipulating the science, is that cherry-picking what you wanna focus on or is that actually changing the text of a report? What exactly is that?

Jacob: It could be either, or. So, cherry-picking data, which we've actually seen happen in Endangered Species Acts or listing assessments. So, there was actually a peer review of a report on the gray wolf and whether or not the government should de-list the gray wolf across the entire United States.

So, currently, it's de-listed in a couple of states but the Administration is trying to de-list this endangered species across the entire nation. And so, there's a due process that the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is the federal agency that looks at these endangered species assessments and assesses whether or not a species should be listed under the Endangered Species Act or whether or not it should be de-listed.

And part of this process, and they had this new process that they added onto to this listing or de-listing process, was to do a peer review of the risk assessment by academics or experts that know about that species and conservation of that species.

So, in this peer-review process, what the experts actually saw was that the Administration have been cherry-picking data. So, basically, selecting the studies, the data out there, some of them, right, but not all of them, to basically make a case to de-list the gray wolf. Whereas, the scientists said, after this peer-review, that there was not a strong case.

So, that's one example of how you can manipulate scientific results to fit what you want in your political agenda. But it could also be tailoring information taxed in a scientific report as well. And we saw that under the George W. Bush Administration, for example, when they wanted to downplay the connection between humans and climate change. And that happened directly at the level of the White House.

Colleen: So, you raise an interesting point. This is not something that's new. It's not just happening in this administration. Does it happen in every administration or...?

Jacob: That's a great question and one that we have tried to answer. And so, me and one of my colleagues, Emily Berman, we've looked back at every administration dating back to the Eisenhower Administration. And what we found is that the answer to that question is yes.

Under every administration, we can find some example of where there has been political interference in science-based decision-making. It doesn't matter if it's a Republican administration, it doesn't matter if it's a Democratic administration, everybody politicizes science-based decision-making. And that's because science is really powerful.

Science is still our best system of gathering knowledge. And everybody knows that. Political officials know that. And so, they want science on their side. And if that means that they need to cherry-pick results, if they need to suppress scientists, if they need to hide scientific reports to fit their political decisions, they will do it.

Colleen: You actually worked at the Environmental Protection Agency before coming to UCS. What did you do there and what could you see from inside the agency?

Jacob: So, I was a post-doctoral fellow with the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. And I was brought on to work with the...what is now the Office of Land and Emergency Management at the Environmental Protection Agency. So, if you're not familiar with what this office does, they oversee our waste management, our recycling programs. They also oversee the cleanup of sites that have a lot of chemicals that are cancer-causing, for example.

So, Superfund sites is a good example of this. So, these are sites that industries have usually left behind that have chemicals that are generally the most hazardous chemicals known to mankind. And I was brought on as a climate change scientist to work specifically to see if climate change would be impacting these contaminated sites in the future.

So, one thing that I was charged with doing was incorporating climate change into future flood risk because we know that climate change is making floods progressively worse. So, we're seeing more frequent and more extreme floods. And we believe that is tied to climate change.

Colleen: You did work on a survey recently or within, the past year, of scientists...I believe it was at the EPA, were there other agencies as well?

Jacob: Yes. We surveyed 16 different science-based federal agencies in this survey.

Colleen: And what were you...what sorts of information were you gathering?

Jacob: We were gathering lots of information, but information that pertain to getting the pulse on the state of science according to the federal scientific experts who work within that federal agency. So, we wanted to know what were the strongest barriers to their work.

Was it limited staff capacity? Was it limited resources? Was there political interference occurring in their work? What did they view as scientific integrity? Did they feel that the agency was adhering to a scientific integrity policy? Which is a policy that many of these agencies have in place to prevent this type of political interference in science-based decision-making from happening.

So, did the federal scientific experts feel like the agency was adhering to that policy? Did these federal scientific experts feel like there was censorship going on? Were they asked to omit certain words from their work that were viewed as politically contentious? Those types of things we were asking about, just to get a sense of, is this a work environment that is really friendly to federal scientists and the work that they're producing or is it not?

Colleen: And what did you find?

Jacob: Largely, across-the-board we find that, not to anybody's surprise, that it is not a great environment for a federal scientist right now. Federal scientists are being censored. We had over 1,000 scientists and, in our view, that's 1,000 too many, saying that they have been censored, that they have been asked directly either by political officials or even by their own managers who may be career officials who worked at the agency for a long time, to not say certain words that are viewed as politically contentious.

Colleen: Words like climate change?

Jacob: Words like climate change. But I think, you know, some other words that are particularly, in my view, really ridiculous like evidence-based, science-based. This was a case at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that issued a ban on seven particular words and that include evidence-based and science-based, which in the scientific community, are words that are not viewed as politically contentious at all, and that you use in your everyday work.

Colleen: I would think those would be non-negotiable words that scientists would use?

Jacob: Yeah. It was just really, really funny. I mean, in my mind, I think about, you know, an Italian chef being asked not to use the word, "Tomato," with ketchup.

Colleen: Or garlic?

Jacob: Yeah.

Colleen: You're right. Oregano. Forget it.

Jacob: So, what do you say? You know, like, "Hey, John. Could you get those little red things for me?" I mean, it just makes communication more difficult and it makes, you know, communicating your work especially difficult. But we actually do see scientists start to use different terminology without explicit orders to do so. And that is what we would call self-censorship.

Colleen: Right. That was my next question because it's one thing if you're being asked to leave something out but we've gotten to the point where scientists now are doing it on their own. So, tell me about that.

Jacob: So, scientists will self-censor when they have, and we know this from research, authoritarian leaders who are basically controlling the message. And here, it is the scientific message. And so, if you see a colleague, for example, that steps out on a limb and does use climate change, for example, and then, the administration fires that colleague.

If you're somebody who has a family and can't risk losing your job, you're not gonna step out on a limb like your colleague did. You're gonna find a workaround to maybe continue doing the work but you're not gonna use that term because you cannot risk your income. You cannot risk the support for your family.


Colleen: So, can you give me a few examples of attacks on science?

Jacob: Yes. So, I think one that is particularly egregious and... I want to talk a little bit more about ones that aren't climate change related because we know, I think, at this point that this Administration is not very friendly to climate change. And we do have a lot attacks on science that deal with climate change. But this one is another censorship issue but it deals with family planning.

So, the Administration asked doctors to not discuss with patients all the options for family planning. And specifically, not to mention abortion as an option for

their family planning. And this was done for participants in a program called Title X. These are generally low-income individuals who are supported by this program through Health and Human Services. And they have specific doctors that they have to go see.

And so, now those doctors within that program will not be able to speak with their patients about all the family planning options that are at their disposal. That is a form of censorship. I mean, can you imagine if the Administration did this for some kind of treatment for cancer, for example? "I'm sorry. You're not allowed to talk to your patients about this treatment" when maybe it's a very viable treatment and you're not getting it because the Administration doesn't like it. That doesn't make sense. We should be providing the public with the best available science that informs the best available health care.

Colleen: Do you have a top three most egregious examples of sidelining science?

Jacob: One that comes off the top of my head is one that we saw from the get-go, which was, at the time, Administrator Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency deciding not to ban chlorpyrifos, which is a chemical that is known to particularly harm children's brains and their development. So it leads to lower IQ, can lead to mental health issues later on in life. So, I think that was like particularly egregious because it's children.

Colleen: So, what is that chemical used for?

Jacob: It is an insecticide. So, it's used in a different crops, especially out in the west. And it particularly affects Latinx communities that live in California especially where these crops are dusted with this insecticide.

Another one that comes to mind because it happened recently but I think it just sort of illustrated the ridiculous nature of this Administration and their disdain towards science was Sharpiegate. So, the President drawing, with a Sharpie, an incorrect path of hurricane Dorian and really standing by that. But the Administration getting involved and actually requiring officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to stand behind that Sharpie marker decision was the real issue here.

The third, I would say, is dismantling Endangered Species Act protections. So, the Endangered Species Act has a listing process that has, for a very long time since the act was voted into legislation, to only be based on the best available science. The Administration recently changed that process such that economic considerations are now going to be a factor in determining whether or not a species is listed, which doesn't make any sense.

If there is a species at the brink of extinction, we shouldn't be pondering whether or not we're gonna save money by saving that species. Our priority should be saving that species. Especially because humans, many times unknowingly, depend upon the ecosystem services, benefits that these species provide to us. This could be a plant species that could hold a cure for Alzheimer's or cancer. And do we want that to go extinct if we haven't discovered that benefit yet?

There could also be unknown services that that plant or that particular mammalian species is providing to our ecosystem health that we haven't realized yet. But now, we're inserting money into the equation.

They also did some other things with the Endangered Species Act to attack it. No longer will climate change be considered on whether or not it factors into whether a species will become endangered or not. It also allows fishermen and hunters to fish or hunt species that are listed as threatened.

So, while they may not be endangered, so this is sort of a step below endangered, the species population is still being considered at risk. But now, even if it's at risk, you can go on fish and hunt that species for sport.

The Endangered Species Act was a bipartisan agreement when it was passed. There were very few legislators that voted against this legislation. And over 90% of Americans are in favor of the Endangered Species Act, yet the Administration completely dismantled this long-held process that everybody thought was great.

Colleen: So, Jacob, what is the answer here? How do we turn things around?

Jacob: When I'm talking about these attacks on science and I get this question is I tell the scientific community to continue to call their legislators, which I know people hear a lot, but it really does make a difference because scientists are the experts. They understand a lot about these issues and their legislators want to hear from them.

Something else that individuals can do when they're talking to their legislators is voice support for the Scientific Integrity Act. Agencies have scientific integrity policies which are in place to deter this undue political interference in the science-based decision-making process. The issue is that those policies are not codified.

So, they don't have a lot of teeth to them. Basically, they could be overturned at any minute. But if we have legislation in place, it would make it easier to hold individuals accountable when there is political interference in science-based decision-making, and that's exactly what the Scientific Integrity Act would do. So, voicing your support for that to get your legislators on board to support the Scientific Integrity Act and get that in place would help immensely.

Colleen: So, my final question is how quickly do you think we can turn things around?

Jacob: A lot of what's happened, I think, can be restored by bringing a lot of scientists back on. There were a lot of hiring freezes when this Administration took over. There were scientists who left. There were scientists who were fired and their positions have never been refilled.

And so, you already had a capacity issue before this Administration came in. Now, it's even worse. And so, I think a first step is just to get the workforce back on track because we need a lot of scientists to do the amount of science that our world needs right now to address the big issues.

I think the second step is to get the Scientific Integrity Act in place to make sure that the future of scientific integrity at these agencies has legislation at its backbone, to make sure that if these scientific integrity issues happen anymore, that those who are committing them can be held responsible.

In terms of some rules that have been dismantled or rolled back by the Administration that were science-based, that takes a little bit more time, just because the process of getting regulations back on track, you know, can take two to three years for the agency to develop those rules, to develop those regulations. They have to go through a public comment period. Then, the agency has to do its own review. It's a very lengthy process.

And so, any time that we’ve had rules dismantled like the Endangered Species Act one, that I just...I talked about earlier, that takes time, but it is something that is essential and we should absolutely do.

I think, a fourth step that I would take is getting the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is the White House's office of science policy, based to their science policy shop back in functioning order.

Colleen: Well, Jacob, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast.

Jacob: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

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