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Science advisor to President Kennedy Jerome Wiesner (at right)

I wrote this a few years ago — at the very beginning of the Trump administration, just for the record, and well before any hint of a pandemic — as a piece of a book project that eventually fizzled. It is based on reasonably extensive archival research in a few presidential libraries and two academic archives, as well as interviews with two people who have served as the science advisor to the president. With a new science advisor likely on their way to the White House soon, I thought I’d post it now, for anyone interested in a bit of science-in-government history. …

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I am driving someone else’s car out into Plague Town. The country roads are narrow, one lane, always at risk of seeing some behemoth tractor filling the horizon, forcing me on to occasional slim strips of grass and gravel serving as a “passing lane.” I am tense.

But then I am staring into the rearview mirror at the placid and content face of the best dog in the world. I am substantially less tense.

It is someone else’s dog. Like the car is someone else’s car, and the house we pulled away from a few minutes earlier is someone else’s house, and the sheets my wife and I sleep on are someone else’s sheets, and the country we look out at each morning is someone else’s country. I am driving in this unfamiliar car on these unfamiliar streets in order to shop for other people, or drop other people’s packages off at the post office. As I get into town I see a few masks, but not enough. I see some people distanced appropriately, but not all. The tension reasserts. …

Back in early March, the internet rejoiced. An avalanche of schadenfreude thundered off of screens everywhere, for lo, Martin Shkreli was going to jail.

The country’s most punchable pharmaceutical executive was sentenced to seven years in prison, and as despicable as Shkreli may be, that gleeful reaction may not have quite fit the crime. It makes sense, though, when we realize: this wasn’t just about him. When the judge’s gavel dropped, Shkreli became an embodiment of our need for consequences for maleficence. The reason we cared so much about that little Rumplestiltskin motherfucker wasn’t about Shkreli, but about everyone else.

Over the last couple of years, the country has found itself in a sort of reorganization of the concept of “consequences.” Infractions that once seemed obvious, with easy and predictable outcomes, have turned into out-of-reach jokes, things to angrily flail at while the perpetrators skate by; other bad actors, meanwhile, are suddenly facing downfalls that would have been unthinkable in a previous era. We find ourselves powerless and all-powerful all at once, and collectively confused about what to do about it and where we’ll end up when the dust settles. …

Climate change isn’t like anything else we report on. You can act like it.

At the World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco a few weeks ago, one session featured a House of Commons-style debate on various issues. It involved a bunch of writers and editors walking back and forth across the room in order to take one side or another, punctuated by “hear hear!” and “boo!” as needed. One of the questions: If you worked for a newspaper that began an advocacy campaign to battle climate change, would you support such a move?

I changed sides *twice* as the discussion on this one played out, but at the end I found myself one of only a sprinkling of people still on the “yes, I would support it” side of the room. The moderators asked for my reasoning, since they spotted me scampering back and forth as others spoke. I answered, more or less: I imagined an advocacy campaign for trying to stop the asteroid careening toward the Earth, and I figure that would be pretty easy to support. …

Imagine the last eight years of American politics as any online article or YouTube video. Scroll down to the comments, and there may be a few actually thoughtful ideas in there, but you’ll have to dig for them — being thoughtful takes, well, thought. Nihilistic shouting doesn’t, so that’s what wins top billing. Because one side — the left — spent too much time on meaning, on philosophy, on actual efforts to make things better, the right stuck its flag in practicality. …

Thirty-six years ago yesterday, Republican candidate for President Ronald Reagan was asked about sulfur dioxide emissions. I could pick a few different options for “the moment when the Republican Party abandoned science,” but you could do a lot worse than this one.

Here’s how the Gipper answered:

“I’m not a scientist and I don’t know the figures, but I just have a suspicion that that one little mountain out there has probably released more sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere of the world than has been released in the last 10 years of automobile driving or things of that kind that people are so concerned about.” …

Here’s a tweet:

The House Science committee’s news release accompanying said tweet meandered around some bullshit jurisdictional nonsense regarding cybersecurity, but the take-home is simple: The committee, and most specifically Congressman Lamar Smith, are using a body intended to help guide and oversee U.S. science-related policy and practice to continue a politically motivated witch hunt that the FBI has already put to bed.

Since Smith took over the committee a few years ago, this is what it does. It issues subpoenas to scientists to try and cow them into silence regarding climate change, invites dangerously unqualified witnesses to testify at hearings, and reaches its oily tentacles into realms of politics and life that an actual “science” committee has no business in. …

At least in the last few decades, “Republican Politician Gets Science Wrong” was not exactly an earth-shattering headline. From Reagan stumbling around acid rain through Doctor Rand Paul bungling vaccine issues, the GOP has established a truly damaged relationship to scientific topics. Donald Trump, though, has taken this to a new level.

Trump’s brand of scientific missteps is not subtle or nuanced — he goes full-on conspiracy theorist. He says global warming is a hoax created by China. He has called the idea that asbestos causes cancer a “con.” He says there isn’t really a drought in California, and that the government is behind that lie. …

The two major party presidential candidates, along with Green Party candidate Jill Stein, submitted their answers to Science Debate’s 20 questions on everything from nuclear power to vaccines. This came as a surprise to me — I assumed Donald Trump wouldn’t feel any need to amble anywhere close to scientific topics, given his general lack of knowledge and conspiracy-based opinions on the issues. And yet here we are.

Many others have already analyzed some of the responses, and have noted that on at least a few topics, Trump managed to at least sound coherent and in line with his own and GOP doctrine. But not on everything. Let’s play a quick game — try and guess which specific topic the following paragraph was in answer to, keeping in mind that the questions are actually quite…


Dave Levitan

Science journalist. Find examples of my work at

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