In Barack Obama's first inaugural address, the new president made a specific vow: "We'll restore science to its rightful place." He did exactly that, prioritizing the integrity of scientific inquiry throughout the executive branch. I remember Time magazine publishing a piece that said the Democratic president showed so much enthusiasm for science, he was "almost strident" on the issue.
It's safe to say no one will ever say this about his successor.
The AP recently reported, for example, "When it comes to filling jobs dealing with complex science, environment and health issues, the Trump administration is nominating people with fewer science academic credentials than their Obama predecessors. And it's moving slower as well." The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, meanwhile, is a "ghost town." The top-ranking science official in the White House is a 31-year-old aide with no relevant background in science.
The New Yorker published a brutal piece last week, noting not only Trump's disdain for science, but also detailing the extent to which Trump's budget blueprint represents an "assault on knowledge and reason."
It's against this backdrop that Politico reported the other day on Trump's EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, went so far as to dismiss evolution in an old radio interview.
"There aren't sufficient scientific facts to establish the theory of evolution, and it deals with the origins of man, which is more from a philosophical standpoint than a scientific standpoint," he said in one part of the series, in which Pruitt and the program's hosts discussed issues related to the Constitution.EPA would not say this week whether any of Pruitt's positions have changed since 2005. Asked whether the administrator's skepticism about a major foundation of modern science such as evolution could conflict with the agency's mandate to make science-based decisions, spokesman Jahan Wilcox told POLITICO that "if you're insinuating that a Christian should not serve in capacity as EPA administrator, that is offensive and a question that does not warrant any further attention."
That's not a constructive response to a reasonable question.
The issue isn't about whether a Christian can lead the EPA. Rather, what matters in this case is whether someone who struggles to evaluate evidence and scientific information is suitable for this post.
Which is why it's so discouraging to see the EPA's spokesperson respond in such a knee-jerk way. As New York's Jon Chait put it, it matters if "the administrator of the agency charged with assessing environmental threats and protecting against them is a kook who rejects out of hand any scientific theory that implies any revision of any right-wing belief whatsoever, including the right of companies to dump endless amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for free."
To try to shut this down by suggesting any concerns are necessarily anti-Christian is a mistake.