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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Make America Gagged Again

By Phil Plait

Welcome to our new, terrifying reality: According to reports, President Donald Trump’s administration has ordered a media blackout of people who work at the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Department of Agriculture.

It gets worse: According to Reuters, Trump has also ordered the EPA to remove its climate change pages.

I want to be very careful here. The EPA and USDA media blackouts might be due simply to Trump’s transition team trying to minimize confusion during the changeover to the new administration; Maggie Koerth-Baker at FiveThirtyEight makes this case.

This may be true. BuzzFeed and the Associated Press, however, obtained internal emails from the EPA and USDA that indicate the new administration is gagging people at the two government agencies, forbidding them from tweeting, going on any social media, or issuing press releases about their science. The only news they are allowed to issue must be vetted first. Also, in the case of the EPA, a Trump administration order has frozen grants and any new business. Note that the EPA has been under heavy attack by the GOP for years.

For what it’s worth, the USDA has disavowed the order … kind of. They say, “This internal email was released without Departmental direction, and prior to Departmental guidance being issued. ARS [Agricultural Research Service] will be providing updated direction to its staff." So they’re not saying it wasn’t true or wasn’t issued, they’re just saying that it wasn’t issued officially. We’ll see soon how this will play out. Update, Jan. 25, 2017, at 16:30 UTC: After the public outcry, the USDA has rescinded the gag order. BuzzFeed has the story.

Update, Jan. 25, 2017, at 22:00 UTC: The Trump administration has told EPA employees to "stand down" and not take down the climate change pages. This is potentially great news, but I will take it with a grain of salt: Doug Ericksen, a Washington state senator and climate change denier, is part of the transition team for the EPA and has been quoted as saying, "We’re looking at scrubbing [the climate section of the EPA site] up a bit, putting a little freshener on it, and getting it back up to the public." Given that Erickson doubts climate change even exists, that statement fills me with little confidence.

On their own, under different circumstances, I’d wager Koerth-Baker is right, and these emails indicate the normal sort of transitional time where it’s best to make sure everyone is on the same page before talking to the media. But the context here is important. The EPA has had its grants frozen, and it seems that Trump has indeed ordered them to take down their climate pages.

This also comes just days after the National Park Service Twitter feed posted a side-by-side comparison of Trump’s inaugural gathering versus President Obama’s; shortly thereafter the entire Department of the Interior Twitter feed went dark, allegedly on the order of “the new administration.” It’s well-known how fragile Trump’s ego is, and it’s being reported that he was apoplectic over media coverage of the low attendance at his inauguration and the much larger Women’s March the next day (full disclosure: I marched in Denver).

Also, while Obama’s White House website talked about climate change, that part of the site is now gone (it currently only exists in archival form). The new website makes no mention of it at all, except to talk about Trump’s policy of opening up as much oil drilling in the United States as he can.

Given all this, it provides background into the EPA and USDA emails that is chilling. It appears that Trump wants to keep these groups under the thumb of the White House, and to make sure the only news that gets out aligns with what the new administration approves.

If true, this is no media blackout. It’s censorship.

Again, this seems like an extreme conclusion, but we now live in a time of extreme circumstances. Just days ago we saw Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s first press meeting, where he blatantly lied about the size of Trump’s inauguration audience, then abruptly left without taking questions. Then Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway dismissed criticism of Spicer, saying he was presenting “alternative facts.”

Right. This forehead-slapping revelation prompted me to tweet:

To be clear, what Conway and Spicer were doing was lying.

The trend here is clear. Trump has been lying and saying provably false things since the early days of his campaign; his entire rise to the top of the GOP presidential candidate heap was based on his birtherism. He has also fervently denied any science that goes against his ideology, picking and choosing what he wishes to believe (or disbelieve). Hence his denial of the reality of human-induced climate change and his courting of the worst of the anti-vaccination promoters like RFK Jr. and Andrew Wakefield—the latter is the father of the modern anti-vax movement, even though he has been struck off the U.K. General Medical Council’s register and his original findings have been retracted and branded as fraudulent.

Ordering the EPA to take down its climate change pages is appalling. As Reuters says,

The page includes links to the EPA's inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, which contains emissions data from individual industrial facilities as well as the multiagency Climate Change Indicators report, which describes trends related to the causes and effects of climate change.
The Trump administration's recently appointed team to guide the post-Obama transition has drawn heavily from the energy industry lobby and pro-drilling think tanks, according to a list of the newly introduced 10-member team.

So yeah, that’s very, very worrisome.

As bad as this is, I have no doubt whatsoever it will get worse. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—our chief scientific agency tracking climate change—has been under constant attack for years, including McCarthy-esque fishing expeditions by the GOP-controlled House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology.* NASA is also one of the strongest and most important scientific voices we have discussing climate change, and senior Trump adviser Bob Walker has already said they plan to curtail NASA’s Earth science research.

How long will it be before Trump makes it official, gagging NOAA and NASA scientists as well?

We’ve seen this happen before in recent times; when Stephen Harper became Canada’s prime minister, his anti-science right-wing administration did much the same thing, gagging scientists, including climate scientists, from talking to the media or public. Scientists rebelled and created their own site where they could announce their results, but the gag order wasn’t rescinded until Harper’s party was voted out of power. Besides it being a national embarrassment, the gag order meant that news articles about scientific research could report it incorrectly and the scientists could not issue corrections. It also allowed Harper to prevent the public knowing about research that went against his own anti-climate agenda.

Don’t think it can happen here? It already has, back in the George W. Bush administration, when for just one example a PR flack was put in place at NASA who meddled with their science communication efforts.

And now, it seems, it’s happening here once again.

This is extremely worrying. In the absence of scientific autonomy and open discussion, the administration is free to make up whatever reality serves it best. Given that Trump signed an executive order making it easier to build the Dakota Access Pipeline—a colossal conflict of interest, since Trump has stock in the company that would build it—we can see very clearly what reality that will be. Massive corruption, suppression of free speech and the freedom of the press, oppression of minorities, the complete reversal of women’s rights, and the literal sickening of America.

We the people need to make sure our voices are heard, and that this cannot stand. There are many ways to do this, including supporting the American Civil Liberties Union, whose sole purpose is to make sure no one tramples on the First Amendment. Also, call your senators and representative! That really can make a difference, even in heavily red or blue districts.

Make your voice heard. Suppressing science must not stand. At the very least, despite Trump’s slogan of wanting to make America great again, this will hobble our country’s ability to perform first-class scientific research. At worst it will set back our ability to monitor our nation’s health, the quality of its products, and will also delay for years the critical need to invest in alternative energy sources (this time, the term alternative, unlike Conway’s claims, is actually real and beneficial) and do what we can to slow climate change.

This is a clear and present threat to our nation’s and our planet’s health. Don’t let it go unchallenged.

*Correction, Jan. 25, 2017: This post originally misidentified the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

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