This Is Not How Science Works

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Last week, a draft of a Department of Energy study on electric grid reliability leaked. Though its final version could change, it essentially found that an increased reliance on renewable energy sources, including solar and wind, have not made the grid less stable. Instead, electric grids are “more reliable today” than before the ongoing adoption of renewable energy, due to better planning and other factors.

The grid study was commissioned by Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in April, and carried a laughably transparent goal: undermining support for renewable energy, and boosting support for fossil fuels. The idea here was that because solar and wind power are intermittent, adding these energy sources to an already-aging electric grid might destabilize it. But Perry was ignoring plenty of previous research on this topic, which has found the concern to be minimal. This is a risk when you do science backwards, when you put conclusions before data: observable reality might not agree with your predetermined conclusion.

But the DOE study gives us a glimpse into an emerging Trump Scientific Method that places predetermined conclusions front-and-center. The method something like this: Observation, hypothesis, experimentation, theory, denial, tantrum, alternative theory unsupported by either observation or experimentation, contrived experiment or debate aimed at undermining what was previously established by experimentation, continued tantrum. Repeat until the heat death of the universe.


Though the DOE study has already highlighted the absurdity in this approach, the most egregious example to surface of late is EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s idea for a “red team-blue team debate” on climate science. Pruitt, who all but admitted recently that his entire goal is to dismantle the EPA, has suggested collecting a group of scientists and having them debate objective reality, perhaps on television. He is apparently already staffing up toward this goal.

“There are lots of questions that have not been asked and answered [about climate change],” Pruitt told Reuters earlier this month. “Who better to do that than a group of scientists... getting together and having a robust discussion for all the world to see.”

So true! You know what would be even better? Even more scientists—like, thousands and thousands of them—could study the climate over a period of decades, submit their findings to journals and subject them to robust peer review, and then collect those carefully reviewed findings into massive, thorough documents summarizing all the available knowledge on this incredibly complex topic. Just spitballing here.

A red team-blue team debate would paint the false picture that an “is it real?” conversation about climate change is ongoing in the scientific community, and could help smooth the road for rollbacks of the Clean Power Plan, and the Paris Agreement pullout Trump has promised. If scientists are debating the topic, then shouldn’t we ease back on these drastic measures? Just to reiterate, there is zero such debate on the reality of human-caused climate change going on today in science.


Once you spot the Trump administration’s convoluted take on the scientific method, it starts showing up everywhere. The EPA has put off a regulation making it harder for power plants to dump toxic metals into public waterways, ostensibly to “reconsider” the rule’s cost and feasibility—though, like every EPA reg, its costs and benefits were studied before it was finalized. The agency also withdrew a request for data on methane emissions after a few states complained, and will rethink whether such data is even necessary, obviously with the goal of finding it not necessary.

Ryan Zinke’s Department of the Interior is “reviewing” some National Monuments, in what some fear is a smokescreen for an inevitable sell-off of public lands—ignoring the fact that monuments are reviewed, often by conservationists as well as by experts within the federal government, before designation. No president has ever tried to revoke National Monument status, and if Trump decides to, the move will certainly end up in court.


Congress is also getting in on this approach, with the HONEST Act, a bill that would require the EPA use only publicly-available science and data to do anything at all. It basically presumes government scientists are concocting fake results in underground lairs. Those same scientists have said it would hamstring the agency to a damaging degree. Oh, and the author of the HONEST Act, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, has recently decided to shift his firm hoax-based position on climate change toward a “warming is good!” alternative, a conclusion he jumped to by ignoring mountains of evidence to the contrary.

At the White House, a failure to understand how science gets done isn’t that surprising, given that the administration has abandoned scientific expertise in favor of industry. Scientific advisory boards have been disbanded, the Office of Science and Technology Policy remains drastically understaffed and without a director, and scientists in various corners of government have been so dicked around that they’re starting to blow the whistle on some shady practices.


This is not, of course, the first time science and the White House haven’t gotten along. Politicians often ignore or try to undermine science that runs counter to a policy position, or to the needs or wants of constituents and (mostly) donors. But in general, there has been some sort of check on anti-science attitudes coming from the White House. Ronald Reagan failed to mention the AIDS crisis until 1985, in spite of clear scientific and public health imperatives to act. But Congress pushed back, by adding tens of millions of dollars to what the White House requested to study the issue. George W. Bush’s team famously tried to mangle an EPA report on climate change in 2003, but in that case, the EPA administrator wasn’t on board with the project: Christine Todd Whitman, who was appointed by Bush, called that interference “brutal,” and resigned not long afterward.

Trump, meanwhile, has installed the most anti-science group of zealots imaginable to run his scientific agencies, and the current Congress has shown no interest in fighting their agenda. Decades of research be damned, here come Perry and Pruitt and Zinke saying ‘Well, hang on, if we run the experiment again, maybe the apple will fall up.’


It won’t, though. Science is far from flawless, but the method isn’t random. We’re watching an administration try to rewrite a timeworn approach to knowledge gathering, and it won’t end well for any of us.

Dave Levitan is a journalist, and author of the book Not A Scientist: How politicians mistake, misrepresent, and utterly mangle science. Find him on Twitter and at his website.