Science is hard. At least, it seems to be for Donald Trump, who this week gave contradictory, off-topic, and sometimes garbled answers to a science questionnaire distributed by Science Debate, a non-profit that urges scientific literacy and accountability from political candidates.
“Science is science.” — Donald Trump, 2016
The survey on the 20 “most pressing” scientific issues of our time, ranging from internet freedom to climate change to mental health, is intended to give voters and reporters an idea of where the candidates stand. Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the Green Party’s Jill Stein all responded.
“Science is central to policies that protect public health, safety and the environment, from climate change to diet related diseases,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement accompanying the candidates’ responses. “Reporters as well as voters should use these statements on science to push the candidates for more details on how they intend on addressing these many societal challenges.”
It’s worth examining this answer from the Republican nominee and pondering what, if anything, is revealed:
My administration will work with Congress to establish priorities for our government and how we will allocate our limited fiscal resources. This approach will assure [sic] that the people’s voices will be heard on this topic and others.
This is Trump’s entire answer to a question on oceanic health. It certainly says nothing about offshore drilling, ocean acidification, algal blooms, coral bleaching, or overfishing. It describes, to some extent, how Washington works (the president and Congress establish priorities and allocate funding). But the approach described assures no one — nor does it ensure anything. It’s difficult to ascertain what he is even writing about.
Trump’s answer to the biodiversity question is much longer, but it is almost as vague. It is worth reading in full, but the short version is that presidents have over-reached, unelected regulators are corrupt, elected representatives are also corrupt, we need “shared governance,” and a Trump administration will balance everyone’s needs. Again, there are no policy suggestions and no acknowledgement of why biodiversity is important.
But in a polarized, post-fact world, climate change is the science question of our time. Scientists have determined that runaway greenhouse gas emissions, largely from burning fossil fuels, are threatening catastrophic, irreversible climate change. Again, Trump offers no suggestions.
“There is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of ‘climate change,’” Trump begins. Scare-quotes aside, this is actually true. We are constantly learning more and more about the effects of a warming climate, the emissions rates of greenhouse gases, and the interaction between land use and climate change. As we learn more, we can make better decisions about how to protect a livable environment. As we learn more, we can make better decisions about where to focus our mitigation efforts.
But Trump spends the rest of his answer pondering what we might find out:
Perhaps the best use of our limited financial resources should be in dealing with making sure that every person in the world has clean water. Perhaps we should focus on eliminating lingering diseases around the world like malaria. Perhaps we should focus on efforts to increase food production to keep pace with an ever-growing world population. Perhaps we should be focused on developing energy sources and power production that alleviates the need for dependence on fossil fuels. We must decide on how best to proceed so that we can make lives better, safer and more prosperous.
On the one hand, this isn’t the worst answer Trump could have given. (That would be: It’s a hoax perpetrated by China). On the other hand, Trump fails to demonstrate a basic understanding that the issues he is bringing up are all directly related to and exacerbated by climate change. Water? Check. Vector-borne disease? Check. Food production? Check. Energy? Check. While we need to address these issues, we need to acknowledge that addressing climate change will do more to protect the livable environment than any other single issue.
In contrast, Clinton’s answers — unsurprisingly, for a candidate who has more than 130,000 words of policy on her campaign site — were much more detailed. For climate, she offers a three-pronged approach that includes transitioning to clean electricity, improving building efficiency, and reducing transportation oil consumption.
Trump takes the opportunity to outline a few, brief policy ideas, such as a public education program on “the values [sic] of a comprehensive vaccination program,” a strong space program, and development of “every possible energy source.”
Several times, Trump emphasizes the need to protect clean water resources, saying it “may be the most important issue we face as a nation for the next generation.” Clean water, as a pillar of actual life, is incredibly important. It would be difficult to find anyone — Republican, Democrat, black, white, young, old — who did not acknowledge the importance of clean water. But in the United States, clean drinking water has been largely protected by the work of the EPA under the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. At the moment, the agency is in a court battle to save the Waters of the United States rule, which would protect drinking water sources for a third of Americans.
Trump has said he would dismantle the EPA, which raises the question of how, exactly, his administration would protect the country’s drinking water at all.
His other answers are filled with contradictions.
Under the question about mental illness, Trump takes a holistic approach, calling for national, local, and familial roles in mental health care. “We must ensure that the national government provides the support to state and local governments to bring mental health care to the people at the local level,” he writes. “This entire field of interest must be examined and a comprehensive solution set must be developed so that we can keep people safe and productive.”
“Examine” “develop” — these are words that sound suspiciously like research and policy. But don’t be misled. Trump is not always for more research — even when it comes to health.
“The implication of the [public health] question is that one must provide more resources to research and public health enterprises to make sure we stay ahead of potential health risks,” he writes. “Our efforts to support research and public health initiatives will have to be balanced with other demands for scarce resources. Working with Congress — the people’s representatives — my administration will work to establish national priorities and then we will work to make sure that adequate resources are assigned to achieve our goals.”
Congress, ironically, is in the middle of a fight about Zika prevention funding.
“Science is science and facts are facts,” Trump writes at the end of the survey. “My administration will ensure that there will be total transparency and accountability without political bias. The American people deserve this and I will make sure this is the culture of my administration.”
The American people do deserve science without political bias, but Trump has written nothing about how he will achieve it.
Trump is often criticized for speaking off the cuff, but in this chance to clearly lay out his positions on science, readers are left with more questions than answers.
If this were a take-home, open-book science test, Trump just failed.