The Illusion of Controversy


[IMAGE: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA.gov]

I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but the United States had a presidential election last week. Much to our collective surprise, Donald J. Trump was victorious, and will be sworn in January 2017. While there has been a tremendous amount of discussion in the intervening time, I would like to talk about something critical: evidence and controversy.

President-Elect Trump has announced several key individuals that will assist in the transition from President Obama’s staff and leadership to his own. One such individual is Myron Ebell, who has been asked to lead the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Mr. Ebell is a lobbyist from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and his appointment to head a Federal agency that traffics in science terrifies me. He is not a scientist. He does not have a background in science. Don’t get me wrong; this alone would not historically disqualify him. For example, President Obama’s first head of the Department of Health and Human Services was Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, who was trained in public policy rather than medicine or science. This happens with some degree of frequency. This is not the issue. The problem is best displayed by Ebell’s own words, transcribed from his appearance in the documentary “Everything’s Cool”:

“The whole case for global warming is silly. I believe the majority of scientists think it is silly. Therefore I’m kind of embarrassed that I spend so much time on it.”

I have two major issues. The first is that Ebell is meant to lead or direct the leadership of the EPA: the agency tasked with regulating many of the contributing factors to climate change. In other words, he does not support the mission of the agency he is meant to run. What chance does the agency have, then, of running effectively? My hope is that it will, but my logical side suggests that it will strategically implode. How could it not?

My second issue is broader than the EPA. It is beyond Ebell, though it was beautifully articulated by him via his word choice. “I believe most scientists think it is silly.” Mr. Ebell, I regret to inform you that scientific principles are not interested in what you believe. Most scientists do not think it is silly, despite what you believe. Somehow this myth persists, however. No matter how many credentialed experts there are saying otherwise, the benefit of the doubt is given to Ebell, who has neither the background nor the training to evaluate data on the matter. A similar point could be made about those who see vaccination programs as controversial. There may be a back-and-forth in the public arena on the issue, but those with the training and expertise are firmly on one side of the argument. This is not controversy; it is the illusion of controversy. We as scientists spend many years in our wheelhouses, and we hope that the public takes advantage of those years by taking our advice. Given the stakes of Ebell being wrong about climate change, I hope President-Elect Trump and the country at large chooses to give us ‘silly’ scientists the benefit of the doubt.