Fact Check: Science And The Trump Administration : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture How good is the Trump-Pence administration's knowledge of, and engagement with, science? Anthropologist Barbara J. King offers a reality check.
NPR logo Fact Check: Science And The Trump Administration

Fact Check: Science And The Trump Administration

President Donald Trump is joined by the Congressional leadership and his family before formally signing his cabinet nominations into law on Jan. 20 in the President's Room of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left are, Vice President Mike Pence, the president's wife Melania Trump, their son Barron Trump, and House Speaker Paul Ryan. J. Scott Applewhite/AP hide caption

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP

President Donald Trump is joined by the Congressional leadership and his family before formally signing his cabinet nominations into law on Jan. 20 in the President's Room of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left are, Vice President Mike Pence, the president's wife Melania Trump, their son Barron Trump, and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Many in the science community have expressed concern about the lack of science literacy demonstrated by the new Trump administration.

A look at the administration's statements and actions related to five key issues that are informed by science — anthropogenic climate change, vaccines, evolution taught in public schools, environmental science and protection of public lands, and human rights — bolsters that concern.

As the new administration takes office, here's a look at statements made and actions taken by the Trump team — and a check against the science.

Climate Change

In Nov. 2012, Donald Trump tweeted that climate change was a creation of the Chinese. More recently, in a May 26, 2016, speech in North Dakota, he vowed to dismantle the international Paris Accord.

Trump's pick to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has said there is a viable "debate" about climate-change science and has encouraged "dissent" about it, leading The New York Times to call him a climate-change denialist. During his confirmation hearings Wednesday, however, Pruitt acknowledged there is "some" role of human activity in climate change.

Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson said he doesn't see climate change as an imminent national security threat.

Here, provided by NASA, is a compendium of statements from science associations showing the consensus that global-warming trends from the last 100 years are human-caused.

How is "a consensus" defined? Ninety-seven percent of climate-change scientists agree on this fact.

Vaccines

Environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is a vaccine skeptic; that is, he takes seriously the possibility that routine vaccinations for childhood diseases might cause autism. Kennedy met with Trump last week, afterward noting that the meeting had come at Trump's request, and said that he would lead a Trump-appointed vaccine safety panel.

Since then, the Trump team has clarified that the forming of this panel is a possibility and not a certainty.

By contrast, here is an absolute certainty: Any link between vaccines and autism is false, as the CDC unequivocally states.

As noted by NPR's Domenico Montenaro:

"...the fact that Kennedy — who has lent his name and prominence to a controversial cause of whether vaccines, specifically the preservative called thimerosal, cause autism, for which there is no evidence within the scientific community — is part of [this] conversation, once again, reflects Trump embracing the fringe when it comes to the science of autism and vaccinations."

On Wednesday, an editorial in Nature underscored just how very solid the science is against any link between vaccines and autism:

"There is already ample evidence that vaccines do not elevate the risk of autism. A 2015 study of more than 95,000 children found no association between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and an increased risk of autism — even among children with a family history of the disorder."

Evolution Taught In Public Schools

Unlike anthropogenic climate change, the teaching of evolution in public schools was not mentioned (as far as I can determine) during the campaign or its aftermath.

Back in 2009, however, Pence told TV interviewer Chris Matthews: "Do I believe in evolution? I embrace the view that God created the heavens and the Earth, the seas and all that's in them."

What matters, however, is not Pence's personal belief but whether he (and Trump) would vigorously defend the teaching of evolution in public-school science classes — without the "equal time" teaching of creationism, which is not science.

Pence did address this question, in the same interview with Matthews: "I think, in our schools, we should teach all of the facts about all of these controversial areas and let our students, let our children and our children's children decide based upon the facts and the science."

There is no controversy about evolution, though. There is no doubt that, like all other life on Earth, we humans have evolved and continue to evolve. And as I have argued here before, we fail our children unless we teach them precisely that.

The National Center for Science Education is, as its website proclaims, "the only national organization devoted to defending the teaching of evolution in public schools". (The NCSE also promotes climate-change science, as 13.7's Tania Lombrozo has noted.)

The NCSE website includes page after page of fabulous resources giving the facts of evolution. The Smithsonian's Human Origins program offers equally excellent information about the timeline and details of human evolution.

Environmental Science And Protection Of Public Lands

Trump's nominee to head the Department of Interior is Ryan Zinke, who declared during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday that climate change is not "a hoax." He also said that he is against selling of public lands to the states, which would increase the risk of development on those lands.

On both counts, this is somewhat encouraging news for environmental science.

Zinke's remark that humans "influence" climate change does, though, seriously underestimate the scientific conclusions that I have noted above about anthropogenic climate change.

And crucially, as The New York Times reported: "Mr. Zinke also emphasized his support for drilling, mining and logging on federal lands, activities strongly opposed by many environmental groups."

Environmental science specifies threats to the environment from oil and gas drilling, including disruption of wildlife migration routes; oil spills that hurt animals' health; and pollution that negatively affects ecosystems' health as well as scenic views and night skies.

When these activities, not to mention mining and logging, occur on public lands — on range lands, in or near national forests and near national parks — the costs to animals, plants and the land itself have the the great potential to be severe.

From a scientific perspective, then, Zinke's record is mixed at best.

Human Rights

Trump has mocked disabled people, denigrated the character of people from Mexico and, according to the global non-profit organization Human Rights Watch that just last Friday cited Trump as a threat to human rights, ran a campaign "fomenting hatred and intolerance." Trump's policy proposals, the new Human Rights Watch report said, "would harm millions of people, including plans to engage in massive deportations of immigrants, to curtail women's rights and media freedoms, and to use torture."

My field of anthropology, which embraces science, can help here. Anthropology tells us that our species, Homo sapiens, is only 200,000 years old; that we evolved physically and cognitively in Africa; and that, wherever we may live in the world, human populations are equal in our ability to learn and in our essential humanity.

Of course, anthropology is also about taking the time to live among, closely observe and, most importantly, listen to people in other cultures, other neighborhoods, other streets within a neighborhood, even other rooms within an apartment complex. The idea is to learn. When we reject xenophobia and cultural stereotypes in favor of open looking, listening and dialogue, we come to recognize the varied ways we may express our common humanity.

We humans are not hard-wired to behave in any certain fixed way, even within a population; an anthropological perspective tells us that the circumstances that surround us greatly influence our behavior. To a great degree, in terms of our compassion or our cruelty to others, we choose who we become.

Tania Lombrozo, writing here at 13.7, noted that now is the time to expand our circle of moral concern to include people of all backgrounds — a conclusion that fits beautifully with an anthropological outlook. And I have added animals to that moral circle.

The onset of the Trump administration can and should be considered a time of opportunity: Here is the moment for us to collectively increase not only our compassion, but also our science literacy, and that of our children.


Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve, and her forthcoming book, Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat, will be published in March. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape