Draining the Brain

A healthy human brain depicted on the left, and an Alzheimer’s addled brain depicted on the right. The American Political Brain is in the throes of a neuro-degenerative disease that will leave us less innovative, less competitive, and unable to made decisions based on reliable evidence.

The most definitive way to diagnose Alzheimer’s Disease, a severely degenerative disease of the brain, is an autopsy. Of course, the symptoms show up earlier – memory loss, personality changes, physical changes, and differing degrees of diagnosis are achievable with cognitive tests and scans of the brain. But distinguishing Alzheimer’s from other neuro-degenerative diseases of aging is still a difficult medical challenge. All such diseases do have one thing in common: they ravage the mind of the afflicted, ruining that life and the lives of those around them, until there is no more of the original person left. There is only the burden of intact memory born by those who remember the person, and the emotional and financial hardship, born out of love and devotion to the person, in caring for that person whose brain is utterly savaged.

When Donald Trump ran for President, he famously promised to “drain the swamp” – the swamp being Washington D.C. and the metaphor intended to convey that he will remove corruption and gridlock (due to entrenched interests) from government. It is the height of delicious irony that the claim of D.C. being built on a swamp is an utter myth, based on a tiny drop of truth (a very small part of what is now D.C. was once marshy land), and yet forms the basis of a (hollow) political slogan.

While Trump has failed to do what he pledged – in fact, he introduced even more special financial and business interests into D.C. while actively encouraging and cultivating petty partisan deadlocks and even rifts within his own party – he has succeeded in doing something else: draining the political brain of the United States.

The symptoms are apparent, but I fear America will only realize the extent of the degeneration when the Trump administration is a by-gone era and an autopsy of his legacy reveals the extent of the disease. I fear we may learn that this singular act of depleting the nation’s science policy capabilities also destroyed America’s competitiveness and leadership in the world, at the same time making it impossible to even sustain the innovation economy required to achieve his isolationist “America First” policy platform. But as with the Alzheimer’s patient, the most definitive diagnosis would come too late to save the patient or the family. Can we as a nation reliably diagnose the illness now, and rush to treat?

Unlike Alzheimer’s or other neuro-degenerative diseases, Americans have a chance to prevent the disease from spreading by engaging their representative lawmakers and arguing loudly and publicly for the brain drain to stop.

The symptoms of America’s neuro-degeneration are everywhere. Federal policies are best when served by a robust and reliable set of policy advisers who stand ready to provide feedback on policy ideas. Trump and his administration have worked actively to deprive the American People of exactly that set of advisers.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt addresses coal miners on April 13, 2017. Coal is a failing industry in the U.S., almost entirely due to cheap natural gas and coal’s inability to burn clean without costing consumers at least 4 times more than normal, dirty coal-fired power plants. Coal, when burned normally, exposes Americans to far more radioactivity than nuclear power. This failing industry is being propped up by an interventionist federal government that is picking winners and loser not based on science or economic policy, but based on who voted for the President during the election in 2016. Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images and from the article in Ref. 2.

The Environmental Protection Agency, whose activities rely on robust scientific information (to avoid swinging too hard toward the partisan left, with their rabid brand of environmentalism, or toward the partisan right, with their rabid brand of capitalism), has been deprived not only of scientific leadership but also of credentials and credible voices in its advisory bodies. Witness Scott Pruitt [1], who has zero scientific training and, in fact, is a partisan advocate of the rabid right-wing version of capitalism I mentioned above – business and its interests above all else, with no accounting for the economic cost of business’ actions nor for when natural resources are altered, compromised, or consumed. Pruitt is a tangle of plaque affixed to the top of the EPA. Since that brain controls all the functions of the body of the EPA, the body has withered and waned.

One sign of this withering from the top is the claim that Pruitt is considering a “red team/blue team” strategy (c.f. [9]) to attack climate science from within EPA. What is a “red team/blue team strategy”? It’s a strategy where two teams are assembled. One is to prove the claim, and one is to refute the claim. So, for instance, the “blue team” might be tasked with proving the claim that climate is changing and that humans are the cause; the “red team” is to disprove that claim. Sounds reasonable, right?

Except it’s the opposite of science. It’s speech-and-debate, but not science. In speech-and-debate, the loudest and most passionate argument – not necessarily the right one (right from the perspective of “aligned with indisputable facts”) – wins. In science, debate is a part of the process to error-correct, but it’s only a part. In fact, every day in research there are thousands of organic red teams and blue teams struggling to assess findings in laboratories. That process has been playing out since the 1800s on climate change, and the consilience of thousands and thousands of studies is clear: humans are changing the climate by heating the earth using greenhouse gases produced from burning fossil fuels.

Pruitt’s red team/blue team strategy is unnecessary, because it’s already been done and the verdict has been in for decades. But there is a deeper and even more fatal flaw in this strategy: this strategy needs an arbiter, someone to call the winner and the loser. Who will that be? Pruitt? Pruitt has no training in the scientific method (evidenced by even proposing such a counter-scientific idea). The President? All choices are flawed, because each of the clearly positioned arbiters has revealed themselves to be biased in favor of a conclusion: climate change either isn’t happening, or even conceding it is, it’s not people causing it.

But the brain drain is not limited to the people at the top, or their misguided attempts to circumvent the actual scientific process to get the result they want. They are also cutting off the ears to spite the head. Witness the collapse of the EPA’s science advisory board, encouraged by Pruitt and his agency allies by actively dismissing members of the board from their duties [2]. This behavior also provides the opportunity to note another agency that should be relying on the best scientific information, but isn’t: the Department of the Interior.

Ryan Zinke addresses the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Photo from EPA/Mike Reynolds and appeared in Ref. 3. Zinke is balancing his agency’s budget by cutting science and staff. He claims this is “what a balanced budget looks like.” Of course, one can also create a balanced budget by increasing revenue and supporting science and staff, as anybody with basic business training would know, but that doesn’t get discussed – which is odd for someone with degrees in business.

Interior is led by Ryan Zinke, who holds a B.S. in geology. Those credentials, which admirable as a foundation, make him as much of an earth scientist as a B.S. in psychology makes a person a medically licensed practicing psychiatrist – it doesn’t. However, it gives him infinitely more preparation in basic science compared to Pruitt, who holds undergraduate degrees in political science  and communication. Zinke, a mirror of Pruitt, has dismissed over 200 advisory panels to the Interior Dept.. This starves land management decisions of the kind of scientific input that would guarantee a more robust federal land policy. In general, Zinke, as have other agency heads unfriendly to science-driven policy, has also proposed deep cuts to staff in his agency [3], further hampering  its own mission. You don’t have to like federal land policy to be worried about this; in fact, if you are already skeptical of federal land policy, you should be horrified at the idea of new policy-making absent the use of reliable, verifiable facts. It is science that exclusively is able to achieve such reliable information through its methodology. There is no other way of knowing that holds a candle up to this, and abandoning science advising is further evidence of the rotting of the American political brain.

But these are not the only symptoms. Such signs and portents have been gathering for months. The President unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, an agreement to which we signed on because it allowed us to set whatever targets, as a nation, we choose to aim for in reducing carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gas) emissions. For another agency position, the President selected the former Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, whose science credentials are limited to a B.S. in Animal Science (see my comment above about Zinke’s credentials). That would be less worrying than the Zinke credentials except that Perry heads an explicitly science-driven and science-oriented agency: the Department of Energy. The agency’s primary mission is nuclear stewardship, but it also has the core mission of supporting every one of the United States’ National Laboratories – the crown jewels of basic research infrastructure in this country.

It doesn’t help that Perry lied during his confirmation hearing when he stated his feelings on the existence of, and human role in, climate change. As Governor and as a U.S. Presidential Candidate, Perry had previously denied that climate change exists, or is human-induced, or both [4]. Perry has referred to climate science as a “contrived phony mess” in his book, “Fed Up!” which he published in 2010. In a seeming self-contradiction – perhaps a heartening one – at the same time he led Texas to legitimately diversify its energy portfolio (Texas is a large fossil fuel and renewable energy state).

Then, at his confirmation hearing, he softened his stance on the existence and causes of climate change – seeming to have a “come to science” moment – to appease the Senators who would have to approve his nomination.

At his confirmation hearing for the energy secretary position, Perry brought up the politically sensitive topic, saying he believed the climate is changing and “some of it” is caused by “man-made activity.” He added then: “The question is how we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth.” [5]

But then, once he was given power in the executive branch, he reversed his position yet again [5], revealing himself to be willing to say anything to have been confirmed.

Asked in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” whether he believed that carbon dioxide was “the primary control knob for the temperature of the Earth and for climate,” Perry said that “No, most likely the primary control knob is the ocean waters and this environment that we live in.” [5]

So now it’s no longer that “some of it” is “man-made activity,” it’s all “ocean waters and this environment that we live in” – which, of course, misses the big point that the reason ocean waters and other environmental features play a huge role in climate change is because they absorb heat and CO2. Those actions cause global temperatures to rise and affects the chemistry of the oceans, making them less hospitable to crucial forms of life (corals, plankton, fish, etc.).  And the scientifically established reason the waters are hotter and more acidic? Human-produced CO2 from human-burned fossil fuels. He came to science just to get confirmed, and now the mask is off.

Drain the Political Brain

My own frustration (and snark) aside, the pattern should be clear: in just 5 months, Trump has drained the brain of the United States’ political institutions, making them far less able to serve the American People with policies that are based on sound evidence and achieve something that is forward-looking.

There are promising spots – the National Institutes of Health are still being led by Francis Collins, an actual scientist who won the Nobel Prize for mapping the human genome – but even in an Alzheimer’s-riddled brain there are pieces that still function. That doesn’t make the brain healthy, nor does it mean the body goes undamaged. Collins is a clump of neurons still firing bright in an otherwise dark tangle of partisan plaques and “tau,” the biological mess that accompanies Alzheimer’s in the human brain.

Former OSTP White House staffer Elle Celeste tweeted this photo when she said goodbye – along with all the last OSTP White House staff – on June 30, 2017. Ref. 7.

The latest news is that the last White House staff in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) have departed [6][7]. Those staffers were leftover from the Obama administration, and have not been replaced. The White House, if it has a hallway where once OSTP staffers discussed science and science policy, is now silent and free from the active debate and discussion.

This means they are also free of the signs of a healthy representative democracy. Science and liberty have gone hand-in-hand in the U.S. since its founding almost 241 years ago, and the reason the U.S. has become such an advanced nation is because of that regard for science and its role in a constitutional democracy like our own. Now the halls where once OSTP staff stood ready to provide input to the President likely echo only with the footsteps of partisans walking swiftly past those empty rooms.

The head of OSTP normally serves as the Presidential Science Adviser. No President since I was born has been without an OSTP director or science adviser, even one left over from the previous administration (George W. Bush only appointed his science adviser later in 2001, but up to that point held onto a member of Clinton’s advisory team – he was never without scientific advice, nor was Obama before Trump). Trump stands alone – literally and figuratively – when it comes to science advice. There is no head of NASA. There is no head of OSTP. These agencies are hemorrhaging staff. The brain is addled. The personality of American executive governance is altered.

Can we recover?

For now, all hope may lie in simply keeping the heart pumping blood. That hope comes thanks to a government of separate but co-equal branches. The House Appropriations Committee has largely rejected the proposed FY18 budget cuts that came from Trump [6]. This is just the first step in the Congressional budget process, but it’s a glimmer of hope that the Legislative Branch, knowing the benefits of science to the nation better than the executive himself, will light the way forward. They have their own science advisory staff, and the National Academies stand at the beck and call of Congress should is desire clear scientific assessments of policy alternatives. Perhaps the Congress will direct clearly not only the scale of the budgets, but the expected spending directions in those budgets – that might set some requirements on the agencies that force staff changes… or, more to the point, staff hiring that is presently ignored or neglected by the executive branch.

There are fiscal, economic, and scientific oddities in certain aspects of the House budget proposal. This is not abnormal. For instance, the House has cut the Department of Energy’s renewable energy research program cut while at the same time providing money for fossil fuel research. This is strange because the fossil fuel industry has plenty of profit it can spend on research and development, and it doesn’t need the feds to provide such spending. In contrast, the fledgling renewable energy industry still has basic science needs and doesn’t have the revenue stream to both grow their business and solve their problems (which would promote cost reductions in the long term). Renewable sectors would benefit far more from federal basic science grants or direct spending on such research at national laboratories.  All-in-all, this is a small dark spot, one that might get resolved in the Senate or in budget reconciliation. We’ll have to wait and see.

Keeping the heart pumping may not be enough. All the money in the world won’t help science policy if agency staff positions go unfilled. Pump as much blood into the brain as you like – if the neurons don’t work, it doesn’t matter. The Legislature seems to stand ready to pump the blood. Will Trump  and his allies continue to rip out the neurons?

Write your Congressional representatives now and ask them to call on President Trump to stop “draining the brain” of America.


July 2, 2017: The very day after this was published, the Washington Post printed a story [9] based on internal EPA agency information that suggested Pruitt and others (e.g. Perry) may be crafting a strategy intended to cast doubt on climate science in an organized federal effort to sow doubt nationwide about the reliability of peer-reviewed, international, climate science findings whose consilience is singular: the earth’s climate is changing, and humans are to blame because of the burning of fossil fuels and their creation of greenhouse gases when burned. I added to the above writing the mention of Pruitt’s “red vs. blue” strategy, which circumvents the scientific method and is flawed because it requires an arbiter to function. I also added Perry’s quote from before he testified in front of the Senate regarding how climate science is a “contrived phony mess.”


[1] I have written about Pruitt and his views before, and there and in other related writings you will find links to original resources citing his complete and utter misunderstanding or misrepresentation of climate science.

[2] “EPA dismisses half of key board’s scientific advisers; Interior suspends more than 200 advisory panels“. J. Eilperin and B. Dennis. The Washington Post. May 8, 2017.

[3] “The Energy 202: How low can the Trump administration make staffing levels go?“.D. Grandoni. The Washington Post. June 26, 2017.

[4] “Trump taps former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to head Energy Department he once vowed to abolish“. J. Eilperin and S. Mufson. The Washington Post. December 14, 2016.

[5] “Rick Perry just denied that humans are the main cause of climate change“. S. Mufson. The Washington Post. June 19, 2017.

[6] “Science division of White House office left empty as last staffers depart“. J. Alemany. CBS News. June 30, 2017.

[7] https://twitter.com/elleabella1112/status/880870684485984256

[8] “House Science Spending Bill Resembles Last Year’s, Rebuffing Many Trump Cuts“. AIP FYI Bulletin. June 30, 2017.

[9] “EPA chief pushing government wide effort to question climate change science.” S. Mufson. The Washington Post. July 2, 2017

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