“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
That quote was first given by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but it has been repeated time and time again ever since. As time goes on, I feel that its repetition only becomes more and more relevant to our modern day.
As others have stated before, we seem to live in an era without common facts. Turn on CNN, then Fox News, and it will appear as if you’ve witnessed two opposite universes. Open Twitter, and it will appear as if our president lives in his own. Have a conversation with your neighbor across the aisle, and it will appear as if you can’t even agree on the time of day.
We rely on common facts and our ability to find them. If we can’t identify the problems that we face, and if we can’t evaluate the solutions to them, then we can’t truly move forward. We need to have a shared commitment to fact-finding and an equally shared commitment to the facts we find.
When it comes to ensuring our nation’s environmental security, our commitment to fact-finding relies on our commitment to science. We need science to monitor and evaluate our world, to recognize the problems that face it and to design the solutions that can save it. However, the current presidential administration has decided to ignore science, to defund science, to lambast science and to attack science. Our president and his party are destroying our efforts to find common facts, common problems and common solutions.
The Union of Concerned Scientists keeps an updated list on its website, titled “Attacks on Science,” detailing the strategies that the Trump administration has used to degrade the role of scientific facts in our government. The list demonstrates an unprecedented level of anti-science initiatives on behalf of an American president.
Over the past three years, the Trump administration has removed scientific governmental data from public view. It has censored press releases on climate change. It has ended studies ranging from the health risks of coal to offshore oil effects. It has barred public officials from attending certain energy and environmental conferences. It has cut funding from science-based governmental agencies such as the NOAA. It has suppressed reports on the health risks of specific household chemicals and on environmental impacts to streams and wetlands. It has dissolved certain scientific advisory panels. It has published and refused to correct misleading and erroneous reports advocating harmful policies.
These are just a few examples from a list that spans five pages full of attacks on science. This is disastrous.
Let me make this clear. The president of the United States is actively tearing down the institutions that make it possible for our citizens to recognize key problems that we face as a nation. Our president is taking a system based on employing highly educated scientists doing diligent research to produce evidence-based findings, and he’s replacing that system with one based on political actors making political decisions.
Due to President Trump’s attacks on science, if formaldehyde in household products is causing increased risk for cancer in children, we won’t have the ability to publicly identify those risks and alleviate them. If scientists find that counties in southeastern Wisconsin are violating air pollution rules, we won’t have the ability to hear from them and to act on their warnings. If an international conference is introducing new innovations in clean energy, we won’t have the ability to learn from them and gain from them.
When we remove science from our discourse, we lose sight of what’s working and what’s not, of what’s urgent and what’s not, of what’s true and what’s not. Science holds our politics accountable and prevents us from creating our own universes and creating our own facts. It brings us together in acknowledging common facts and common problems that can’t (or shouldn’t) be divided into partisan opinion. When we lose science, we lose that ability to come together to find common ground and common progress on subjects like environmental protection, public health, infrastructure and beyond.
As a scientist, I understand that science isn’t always perfect, and it isn’t always a great headline. But it is important.
So, as this president continues to make noise and continues to denigrate our national institutions, we have to remain diligent in standing up for science, in paying attention, in holding our elected officials accountable, and in ensuring that our political beliefs remain rooted in evidence-based facts, because our republic and our world depends on it.
Doug La Follette is a scholar, author, longtime environmental advocate, former state senator and the current Secretary of State of the State of Wisconsin.