Jul 14th 2017

How We Triumph In the Age of Ignorance

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

We face a crisis of ignorance in this country, with potentially tragic consequences both at home and abroad. But not all is lost. We can avoid disaster by using this crisis to understand where we went wrong, and from that insight identify opportunities to correct our course.

The fundamental problem we face, the essence of what ails us, is a growing disdain for fact over fiction.

Rational thought, critical thinking, objective truth, evidence and data have become the enemy of the right. The GOP celebrates ignorance as a badge of honor. Republicans have declared war on reason. This has consequences. When facts do not matter, if we cannot agree on an objective reality, we lose the ability to solve problems through reason and dialogue. If we do not accept evidence and robust data as the essential tools that we can appeal to verify or falsify claims, we have no common language or mechanism to distinguish between fantasy and fact. We cannot arbitrate between competing claims or evaluate the benefits or costs of technological and scientific advances. When we normalize and welcome ignorance we cede leadership to countries embracing the future; we jeopardize our economy, security, health and the resources that sustain us.

For the first time since WWII, the White House has no access to science advisers. The Office and Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Presidential Council on Science and Technology (PCAST) are unstaffed. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dismissed key scientists from its scientific advisory board. The Senate committee overseeing NASA and science funding is now chaired by Ted Cruz, who is proudly anti-science. In the House, the Committee on Science, Space and Technology is chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith, one of Congress’ most outspoken climate change deniers and vocal anti-science champions. At no point in our history have we ever before witnessed this level of overt and organized animosity toward progressive thinking.

White House Science

If you harbor the idea that science input to the Oval Office is unimportant, consider the sweeping mandate imposed on OSTP with its creation by Congress in 1976. The science office is directed to advise the President on the impact of science, engineering and technology on the economy, national security, homeland security, health, and the environment. In addition, OSTP was created to advance foreign relations and foster international cooperation. An active and engaged White House science office offers to the President the ability to evaluate how discoveries in science at home can be used to promote American interests abroad, and how innovations elsewhere can impact us at home.

As a former Assistant Director for International Science and Technology at OSTP, I can attest to the global reach of the office. Science cooperation is a powerful tool of diplomacy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we negotiated the first treaty between the United States and the new state of Russia, opening the door to much wider cooperation in critical areas like protection of the nuclear arsenal. We negotiated a new science cooperation treaty with China when tensions were otherwise rising. We created the international Megascience Forum to ease the American burden of funding large-scale science projects.

These responsibilities are important, and have real impact even if not immediately obvious. Securing loose nukes is not sexy but the consequences of failure would definitely ruin your day. But science also has powerful influence on daily life as well, particularly in the area of health. Only with a robust scientific enterprise and effective leadership can we tackle issues like vaccine development, gene therapy, stem cell research, cancer treatment, newly arrived tropical diseases, antibiotic resistance, epidemics, and Alzheimer’s. When threatened with an outbreak of Ebola or Zika, we turn to science for help. We rely on advances in engineering to address the growing crisis of infrastructure collapse across the country. We depend on the development of ever-more powerful computers to handle exponential growth of the internet and to create vital simulations for defense strategies, weather analysis and economic forecasts. We depend on advances in engineering and science to transition to renewable energy.

We can see that in fact science, technology and engineering impact almost every aspect of our lives, making the absence of leadership all the more striking. With a White House hostile to science, with no council of scientific advisers, the United States has cast itself adrift. We have the President of the United States at a G20 meeting isolated and ignored as an ineffective buffoon, out of touch with reality. With Trump’s disdain for science echoed by leaders in the House and Senate, the United States has become a laughingstock, a country incapable of leading not only on climate change but on virtually all major issues critical to an ever-connected world in which science and rationalism play increasingly important roles. Trump, McConnell and Ryan have us in a race to the bottom, rejecting the scientific enterprise that fueled this country’s rise to greatness.


Anybody who lived through the bad old days of weekly smog alerts in Los Angeles understands viscerally the positive impact of environmental regulations. Catalytic converters, fuel economy standards, lead-free gasoline and factory scrubbers have made the air breathable and the mountains visible. Strict regulations on ground pollution have given us clean water. Vigorous standards on sewage control saved our beaches and coastal waters from the fate of a horrible goo. But all of these solutions were vigorously opposed by those who claim environmental cleanup cost jobs and harm the economy. Only with impartial input from scientists, providing objective data, could we overcome those faulty arguments.

If you take clean air and water for granted, don’t. You enjoy those benefits now because EPA had, until now, support at the highest levels of government since its inception in the Nixon Administration. No longer. To understand the importance of the EPA, the role of science at the agency, and the consequences we will face with Pruitt’s efforts to gut it, we need look only at the example of how we treated lead in the environment.

This is a story about lead, yes, but as you read along feel free to substitute “climate change” as the headliner because the story is the same, in fact is the same for almost every major environmental issue. This is a story of why we need the EPA, why arguments against it miss the mark, and how science and technology save the day.

Let’s begin the tale with a look in the distance, at Beijing, China. The air pollution there is now so dense that the sun is blocked to the degree we would find in the aftermath of a nuclear winter. Small toxic airborne particles are 24 times levels considered safe. Tall buildings are obscured by toxic clouds of smog. The atmosphere is so bad that it exceeds the world’s scale for air pollution toxicity. Breathing has become risky behavior for children, who are exposed to pollutants at levels 40 times recommended limits. Exposed children are at higher risk for cancer, anxiety, depression, attention-deficit disorders, respiratory problems and permanent lung damage. Adults too suffer a myriad of pollution-caused ailments, including an epidemic of cancers. The countryside is no escape. Chinese farmers are “almost four times more likely to die of liver cancer and twice as likely to die of stomach cancer as the global average…”

Beijing air is what happens when the environment is forsaken on the altar of economic growth. The strategy is shortsighted, unless you manufacture face masks. Beijing air is what happens when we oppose reasonable government regulation — such as removing sulfur and lead from gasoline.

Beijing air is what happens when standards for clean air and clean water no longer rely on data but ideology or the whim of industry.

Allow me to pause here for a source break. Since we are data driven, note that the dates and sources for quotes below about the history of regulating lead are found here. Also, the full history of the phase-down of lead in gasoline is captured in a report authored by Richard Newell and Kristian Rogers. The economics of the phasedown is expertly described by Joel Schwartz, Hugh Pitcher et al. in a paper published in 1985.

Back to the story’s beginning. In 1965, Clair Patterson published the first study to demonstrate that high levels of lead in the environment (water, air, soil) were man-made and constituted a potential health threat. The American Petroleum Institute using the same tactics they would later employ against the mandate to remove underground gas and oil storage tanks (to protect ground water), and more recently with their climate change denials, countered with the claim that “the mass of evidence proves unquestionably that lead isn’t a significant factor in air pollution and represents no public health problem in any way.” (Wall Street Journal, Sept. 9, 1965). 

A few months later, in December of that same year, Harriet Hardy of MIT argued that small doses of lead could be a contributing factor to disease, and cited studies that suggested links between lead and mental retardation. (New York Times, Dec. 16, p. 22, 1965). Advocates for lead claimed in testimony from Robert Kehoe (an industry-sponsored scientist) that, “There is not enough lead in our environment to be a health hazard to anybody. Those who say there is are ignoring the substance of the scientific work that has been done.” (Washington Post, Dec. 19, p. A14, 1965). This went back and forth, until the pendulum began to swing decidedly against the industry. In 1971, Ethyl Corp. officials claimed to be victims of a “witch hunt,” (sound familiar?) complaining that environmentalists were using “scare tactics” (chorus line) by blaming lead for the fall of the Roman Empire. By 1977, the evidence for lead’s ill-effects on health was beyond doubt (just as conclusions now about climate change are beyond doubt). Testing by public health scientists showed causation between high levels of lead in children’s blood and brain damage, hypertension and learning disorders. Later, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that leaded gasoline is the greatest source of atmospheric lead pollution. In June 1980, the courts affirmed in Lead Industries Association v. EPA that EPA regulations for the phase-out of leaded gasoline could be implemented.

So industry leaders first disputed that lead in gasoline was the source of lead in the water and atmosphere (somewhat like those who now claim that climate change is a hoax); when that proved unviable, they said, sure, but lead in the environment was not a health hazard (sure, climate change is real but not caused by human activity, a natural variation of no concern). When that proved untrue, they argued that opponents were organizing a witch hunt using scare tactics to mask the horrific economic consequences of regulating lead (environmentalists were scaring the public about climate change to advance an extreme left-wing agenda of eco-terrorism). Today you don’t hear anyone arguing we should still have lead in our gasoline. Why? “Thousands of tons of lead have been removed from the air, and blood levels of lead in our children are down 70 percent. This means that millions of children will be spared the painful consequences of lead poisoning, such as permanent nerve damage, anemia or mental retardation.” By 1983 we also learn that the benefits of the lead phase-out exceeded its costs by $700 million in just a few years.

Let us not forget in the face of this economic and public health success that the predictions of economic ruin and regulatory overreach were quite stark as industry tried to rally opposition to regulating lead – just as the petroleum industry is crying foul about climate change and denying claims about economic benefits accrued by addressing the problem. I have seen no apologies or admissions of error about the conservative position on lead; just silence. That silence is deafening given the stridency of the opposition, and how incredibly wrong they were. Here are just a few examples, and keep these in mind every time you hear an industry spokesperson or conservative politician speak out against climate change or any other major environmental or health issue:

· Oil industry representatives testified to EPA that the lead phase-down would cause them to lose profits, prevent them from funding future oil exploration, and make gasoline unaffordable.

· In 1970, the petroleum industry was putting out stories that removing lead from gasoline would cause everyone’s car engines to erode or explode. That, in turn, would destroy the economy, all because “a bunch of pointy-headed scientists, doctors and public health officials” were spreading “chicken-little panic” about a “purely hypothetical and overblown danger.”

· One lead additive manufacturer ran an ad in major newspapers in December 1973, later picked up in a Washington Post article, claiming the lead phase-down would waste one million barrels of oil a day.

· Phillips Petroleum estimated that producing unleaded gasoline would consume between 300,000 and 600,000 barrels of additional crude oil a day and require from $8 to $15 billion in refinery capital investment.

Of course none of that nonsense proved to be true; the only truth is that removing lead from gasoline caused no economic disruption, but did result in important health, environmental and economic benefits.

Just as with removing lead from gasoline, the benefits of addressing climate change will well exceed the costs in spite of the hollow threats of doom from industry and right wing politicians. The EPA estimates that cleaner-burning fuel yields a net benefit the economy of about $19 billion annually as a consequence of lives saved, fewer days missed at work due to illness, and lower medical costs. Cries of pain about caring for the environment are not compelling. The right has nothing but tired arguments proven wrong again and again that caring for the environment costs jobs and ruins the economy.

Who do you believe? Who has more credibility — scientists at the EPA with no ax to grind, and who reach conclusions from verifiable data, or industry and conservative politicians who offer no evidence to support their views and who clearly have ulterior motives. Yet as obvious as this is, we find ourselves with Trump and Pruitt returning to the days when industry makes bogus claims about the terrible cost of environmental protection and politicians bow to pressure from industry; déjà vu all over again. Standards for clean air and clean water no longer rely on data but political exigency; vehicle and fuel standards are skewed to favor industry rather than where the data lead; pollution standards and enforcement are guided by political contributions instead of measurable metrics. With no appeal to data, we retreat from clean and renewable energy in favor of coal. We’ve come full circle back to dirty air and water for the sake of greed. This is what happens when ideology is given more weight than science; this is what happens when we eliminate the science council at the EPA. Remember Beijing.

Alphabet Soup

The importance of science and technology in our daily lives is not restricted to what happens at the White House and EPA. The same feats of science daring are found at the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). From medical advances to predicting tomorrow’s rain storm to creating standards for commerce, these agencies influence our lives daily in deep and meaningful ways. Trump threatens them all.

Hope for the Future

Trump and his gang present us with a grim reality at the moment but we can take command of our future. The underlying cause of all this grief is clear, as is the solution. The problem today is that one-third of voting Americans have forsaken reason and embraced ignorance as their guiding light; they watch Fox News and continue to support Trump. They have lost the ability to think critically, to evaluate evidence and weigh it accordingly. We cannot reason with Trump supporters because reason has no currency in their fact-free faith-based world; we must defeat them. Any hope for reconciliation is delusional. Our task is to unite the remaining two-thirds of the electorate who seek an objective truth, who rely on data, evidence, and verifiable proof to inform an opinion and who modify beliefs with advances in our understanding of our world.

We have fought before those who reject science; we can do it again.

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