Un­der­min­ing science is a hall­mark of the Trump pres­i­dency

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - Dan Ro­dricks

Given the ridicu­lous side-show that just passed be­fore our eyes — the pres­i­dent tweet­ing in­ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion about the path of a hur­ri­cane, then spend­ing days try­ing to prove he was right and, in the process, politi­ciz­ing the govern­ment agency re­spon­si­ble for weather fore­casts — it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber what hap­pened in Galve­ston on Sept. 8, 1900.

His­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive is es­sen­tial in the time of Don­ald Trump be­cause we need to re­mem­ber what govern­ment is sup­posed to look like, and what it could be again, once this pres­i­dency ends and the tem­pest passes.

One-hun­dred-and-nine­teen years ago, a hur­ri­cane hit Galve­ston, on the Texas coast, and the re­sult was cat­a­strophic. The storm flat­tened the city and killed at least 6,000 peo­ple and pos­si­bly twice that many, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates, mak­ing it the dead­li­est hur­ri­cane in U.S. his­tory.

In those days, fore­cast­ing the nation’s weather was still a science in de­vel­op­ment. At first a re­spon­si­bil­ity of the mil­i­tary, the weather ser­vice be­came a civil­ian agency un­der the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture in 1890. Ten years later, as the Galve­ston hur­ri­cane de­vel­oped, the U.S. Weather Bureau was still build­ing a net­work of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, pri­mar­ily by tele­graph. And there were other rea­sons why Galve­ston did not have enough warn­ing about what was com­ing its way. His­to­ri­ans say Amer­i­can me­te­o­rol­o­gists ig­nored re­ports from their coun­ter­parts in Cuba and got the storm track wrong. By the time they re­al­ized the hur­ri­cane was roar­ing west, in­stead of north, it was too late.

The Galve­ston catas­tro­phe made clear that the Amer­i­can peo­ple de­served a bet­ter weather fore­cast­ing sys­tem, and that the govern­ment needed to take the fos­ter­ing role. So the weather ser­vice ramped up its vig­i­lance. Over the next three decades, it started us­ing air­planes and weather bal­loons to con­duct at­mo­spheric re­search. It started is­su­ing three-day fore­casts and de­vel­op­ing bet­ter ways to com­mu­ni­cate them. It pro­vided fore­casts for farm­ers, com­mer­cial avi­a­tion and the mil­i­tary. Most im­por­tantly, it es­tab­lished a hur­ri­cane warn­ing cen­ter.

The Weather Bureau be­came the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice un­der the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion (NOAA) in1970. Un­til last week, when NOAA knocked the NWS Birm­ing­ham sta­tion for its pru­dent con­tra­dic­tion of Trump’s warn­ing that Hur­ri­cane Do­rian would hit Alabama “much harder than an­tic­i­pated,” no one could imag­ine that the agency’s fore­casts might be politi­cized. We’re talk­ing about the weather, af­ter all. It is what it is, not what the pres­i­dent says it is.

There is a lot of mis­trust in in­sti­tu­tions to­day, but, while it is not per­fect, Amer­i­cans gen­er­ally trust the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice to be grounded in ob­jec­tive science, not in po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions.

That’s the rea­son for the out­rage about the NOAA state­ment. It’s why Dan So­bien, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees Or­ga­ni­za­tion, felt a need to tweet an as­sur­ance that “the hard-work­ing em­ploy­ees of the NWS had noth­ing to do with the ut­terly dis­gust­ing and disin­gen­u­ous tweet sent out by NOAA man­age­ment.”

“It makes me speech­less that the lead­er­ship would put [Trump’s] feel­ings and ego ahead of putting out weather in­for­ma­tion ac­cu­rately,” Michael Halpern, a deputy di­rec­tor at the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists, told The Wash­ing­ton Post. “If we’re politi­ciz­ing the weather, what is there left to politi­cize?”

Trump has at­tacked govern­ment agen­cies — the CIA and the FBI, for in­stance — and tried to cur­tail the im­por­tant work of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. His aban­don­ment of Amer­i­can lead­er­ship on cli­mate change is a re­jec­tion of govern­ment ac­tion in­formed by science.

A pres­i­dent is sup­posed to be the leader and cham­pion of a fed­eral sys­tem that serves and pro­tects the pub­lic. Ex­cept for his racist push against im­mi­gra­tion, ra­tio­nal­ized as mak­ing Amer­ica safe from an “in­va­sion” of Cen­tral Amer­i­cans, Trump shows lit­tle in­ter­est in a govern­ment that ac­com­plishes any­thing what­so­ever. He ap­points the in­com­pe­tent or cor­rupt to head fed­eral agen­cies and leaves nu­mer­ous va­can­cies. He sab­o­tages the health in­sur­ance sys­tem es­tab­lished un­der his pre­de­ces­sor. His ad­min­is­tra­tion has been stead­fast in try­ing to undo as many en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions as pos­si­ble.

Trump is not the first anti-govern­ment pres­i­dent. Ron­ald Rea­gan, elected in 1980, came into of­fice with a warn­ing for the Amer­i­can peo­ple: “Govern­ment is not the so­lu­tion to our prob­lem; govern­ment is the prob­lem.”

That mes­sage, a Repub­li­can creed, pushed against the his­tory of the 20th Cen­tury: It was govern­ment that lifted peo­ple out of the mis­ery of the Great De­pres­sion, govern­ment that mounted the forces that de­feated fas­cism, that built roads and high­ways, schools and libraries, and the state uni­ver­si­ties where veter­ans were able to get an ed­u­ca­tion. Pub­lic health cam­paigns erad­i­cated dis­eases. Govern­ment agen­cies worked to make our food, air and wa­ter safe, and to warn us about hur­ri­canes.

The episode over the track of Hur­ri­cane Do­rian won’t break the pub­lic’s trust in the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice. No one should be wor­ried that maps of the next Cat­e­gory 5 will have to be ap­proved by the pres­i­dent and sub­jected to his Sharpie.

Still, the taint of pol­i­tics — that NOAA could es­chew science, even for a mo­ment, to de­fend a mis­take or mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion by a nar­cis­sis­tic pres­i­dent — is there.

So while the whole thing seemed at first like a joke, there’s a lot more to take from it, and it’s not funny. It points up Trump’s scorn for (and will­ing­ness to abuse) the fed­eral agen­cies and the peo­ple within them, those who be­lieve in science, the rule of law and competent, dili­gent ser­vice to the pub­lic good. Un­der­min­ing all of that is one of the most de­struc­tive as­pects of this pres­i­dency, and it will stay that way un­til the tem­pest passes.

AP PHOTO

A large part of the city of Galve­ston, Texas, was re­duced to rub­ble af­ter it was hit by a sur­prise hur­ri­cane Sept. 8, 1900. Thou­sands of peo­ple were killed by the storm, the worst nat­u­ral dis­as­ter in U.S. his­tory.

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