Eating the Seed Corn: Science Policy Links for the week of April 9-14, 2017

Signs and portents abound in rhetoric from the current executive branch of the United States. Science, the only known way of establishing reliable information about the natural world, should be essential as a part of policy decision making. I try to highlight places where science and science-related agencies in the US have abandoned policy making based on the most reliable information available about the natural world. This is for just the week of April 9-14, 2017.

  • Scott Pruitt, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, continues to march forward with a governing philosophy based on achieving a specific political outcome, independent of the facts about how human behavior impacts the environment – specifically, the entire climate of planet Earth:
    • Fact Checker: Pruitt’s claim that China and India have ‘no obligations’ until 2030 under Paris Accord“. Glenn Kessler. April 14, 2017.  The Washington Post. Scott Pruitt tries to build a case for abandoning the Paris Accord based on his complete misunderstanding of national obligations in the treaty. The Washington Post investigates.
    • Trump’s EPA chief Scott Pruitt calls for an ‘exit’ to the Paris climate agreement“.  Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis. The Washington Post. April 14, 2017. Pruitt makes the case for “exiting” the Paris Accord. Rather than embracing the economic opportunities that diminishing the old way of fueling economies might bring, he instead abandons the power of the free market in a misguided attempt to prop up the worst parts of the fossil fuel energy industry. He makes the case based on a complete falsehood that will appeal to some desperate sectors of America (e.g. places affects by the closure of coal mines due to competition with natural gas) but which has nothing to do with reality.
  • National Academies Releases Sweeping Review of Research Misconduct and ‘Detrimental’ Practices“. American Institute of Physics FYI Bulletin. April 12, 2017. Science is a process for establishing reliable information, and each stage of the process is flawed but together, and repeated over and over, they work to ferret out unreliable information. The NAS have released a report recommended ways the current way of implementing science in the US could be improved. Science is about improving by identifying flaws and errors. Finding them doesn’t make science weaker; in fact, that makes science even stronger as a way of knowing. Other systems, like political thought, that don’t admit error and instead shift blame are permanently flawed.
  • Obama’s ‘clean coal’ investments are now helping Trump officials push fossil fuels“. Chris Mooney. The Washington Post. April 13, 2017. Ironically, the push to develop coal power plants that sequester much of their carbon output was provided by the Obama administration, and now Trump and his administration constantly tout “clean coal” – but they forget to tell the American public it will cost them about 4x more for clean coal than standard coal, and so they hide the economic reality behind an equivocation that sounds good and means nothing. And the push to mine more coal is NOT with the intend to burn it cleanly, nor price the cost of mining it (e.g. health effects on miners) into the cost to consumers. In fact, right-pricing coal this way would only boost the economics of alternatives to fossil fuel and for cleaner burning, easier-produced non-coal fossil fuels like natural gas. And, after all, it was natural gas that already cost the coal industry the very most jobs over the past 10 years.
  • …Why Americans Increasingly Reject Expertise“. Diane Rehm. “On My Mind”, a podcast. April 14, 2017. Her guest, Tom Nichols, discusses his work entitled “The Death Of Expertise: The Campaign against established knowledge and Why it Matters.” Authority and expertise are NOT the same thing, though Americans often confuse them. A person can speak from authority but have no expertise in what they claim. Think a businessperson making claims about vaccine safety. How is it that Americans started to reject expertise? Diane and her guest-host explore this with Nichols. Nichols himself brings an interesting perspective on this issue, as he is professor of national security affairs in the National Security Decision Making Department at the US Naval War College.

Signs and Portents: Starving the Limb

President Trump addresses the U.S. Congress on Feb. 28, 2017. His scripted speech focused on a vision of a flourishing America, including science, while reducing the expenditures and scope of the federal government, the primary source of basic science funding.

On Tuesday, February 28, President Donald Trump gave his first address to a bicameral meeting of Congress. While not a “State of the Union” address – a President in office only 5 weeks is in no shape to discuss the state of the union over which they preside – this marks a moment when the President can lay out more specifics about their vision for legislating and leading in the United States. President Trump’s heavily scripted speech, a departure from his more typical off-the-cuff style of speaking, lasted about one hour. I read it with an eye toward focusing on issues related to science and science policy. The speech, in some ways, contrasts with the coming actions on science policy and science funding. While Trump laid out grand themes about the kinds of technology and medicine that might be possible in the future, reflecting on the nation’s first centennial for inspiration, his government’s actions behind-the-scenes and… soon, I expect… in the light of day seem to contrast markedly with that vision. Let’s have a look at some of the contradictions of words and actions, typical of the 6-week-old Trump presidency and the campaign that preceded it, on matters related to science and science policy.

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US Presidential Candidates on Science and Policy – Innovation

What is Innovation? Is it something you can't define but you know it when you see it? Let's see how the candidates tried to define what is needed to keep innovation alive and thriving in the United States.
What is Innovation? Is it something you can’t define but you know it when you see it? Let’s see how the candidates tried to define what is needed to keep innovation alive and thriving in the United States.

Scientific American recently published the responses they received from many US President Candidates regarding questions on science and scientific matters. In this post, I apply the skills we expect from the practice of good argument and scientific thinking to assess the questions and the responses.

Let’s focus on the “Innovation” question for this round.

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Ritter on Writing

Photo from the Josh Ritter Wikipedia page (Ref. 1)

I very much enjoyed this interview by Eric Danton with musician Josh Ritter. I was impressed by his perspective on being a writer, especially in moments of personal crisis. Referring to the end of his marriage, Ritter says,

“This was an important moment for me, it was a big moment in my life, and I felt like if I didn’t write about this I was betraying what it was to be a writer,” he says. “To get to this point in my career and not write about that, felt foolish.” He also tried not to censor what he was writing, which led to some raw moments.

For more, check out the interview: