When Trump attacks science, he attacks the heart of the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is a “scientific paper,” but our President purges the government of science and scientists

CREDIT: ARCHIVES.GOV
CREDIT: ARCHIVES.GOV

“Science is my passion, politics is my duty.” The man who said that was Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence.

So while team Trump is the most anti-science administration in U.S. history, it’s worth remembering this week that the Declaration’s drafters were undeniably men of science.

In sharp contrast, Trump has embraced the most anti-scientific climate denial imaginable — and surrounded himself with a team of deniers who have purged science from government websites and removed scientists from EPA advisory panels to make space for industry advocates.

In his most consequential anti-scientific act, Trump abandoned the Paris climate deal, whereby 190 nations had unanimously banded together to save themselves (and us) from catastrophic climate change.

In his book on the Declaration, historian Gay Wills even calls it a “scientific paper,” and explains that “the Declaration’s opening is Newtonian. It lays down the law.”

Jefferson’s masterpiece famously begins “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people,” to break free of tyranny and “assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them,” they should explain why they are impelled to do so:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The double appeal to “Nature” — including the explicit appeal to “the laws of Nature” in the first sentence — is particularly salient. After all, Sir Isaac Newton’s landmark 1687 text, “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” famously lays out his three laws of motion, which many at the time called the “laws of nature.”

How familiar was Jefferson with the Principia? Very. Jefferson had studied it so closely he even wrote a letter identifying what he calculated to be a tiny mathematical error in it. For nearly two decades — including the entire time he was vice president and president — Jefferson was also president of the nation’s oldest scientific society, which was founded by the great American scientist Ben Franklin.

Jefferson and Franklin grounded the Declaration in the scientific laws of nature. That’s clear from a crucial edit made by Franklin. As Historian Walter Isaacson explained in biography of Franklin:

The most important of his edits was small but resounding. He crossed out, using the heavy backslashes that he often employed, the last three words of Jefferson’s phrase “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” and changed them to the words now enshrined in history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

Rough draft of the Declaration
Rough draft of the Declaration

The truths were “self-evident,” which is to say axiomatic.

Today, it is the laws of nature, studied and enumerated by scientists, that make clear we are poised to render those unalienable rights all but unattainable for billions of humans on our current path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions. It is the laws of nature that make clear Americans can’t achieve sustainable prosperity if the rest of the world doesn’t, and vice versa.

Our founding fathers firmly believed we had an equal duty to future generations. “The most succinct, systematic treatment of intergenerational principles left to us by the founders,” which is how The Constitutional Law Foundation described Jefferson’s famous September 1789 letter to James Madison.

The key question for Jefferson was very simple: Must later generations “consider the preceding generation as having had a right to eat up the whole soil of their country, in the course of a life?” Soil was an obvious focal point for examining the issue of intergenerational equity for a Virginia planter like Jefferson.

The answer to Jefferson was another self-evident truth: “Every one will say no; that the soil is the gift of God to the living, as much as it had been to the deceased generation.”

It is immoral for one generation to destroy another generation’s vital soil or its livable climate. Hence it is unimaginably immoral to Dust-Bowlify their soil and ruin their livable climate irreversibly for many centuries, if not millennia. Yet that is what Trump’s policies would put us on track to do. That’s clear from many recent studies, including a 2015 NASA paper.

Not many people will be pursuing “happiness” under those conditions — especially when you realize they’d also be dealing with sea level rise of 4 to 6 feet or higher, extreme weather of all kinds, and much of the ocean turned into a hot, acidic dead zone.

Billions will be struggling with constant threats to life and liberty. Trump’s policies will create more wars, hundreds of failed states like Syria, and millions of refugees at our own doorstep.

We live in perilous times. We must all hang together or, as President Trump would have it, we will surely all hang separately.