Will Happer has resigned as a member of the Trump administration’s National Security Council. Since Trump never got around to filling the position of Science Advisor to the president, Happer tried to play that role. Happer is one of those physicists who seems to think he is an expert on many things and even though he is not a climate scientist, he was a fierce climate change denialist and had a plan to thwart the scientific consensus on the causes and dangers of global warming by following the playbook that had been adopted by earlier generations of industry-funded skeptics on things like the dangers of smoking, and that was to sow doubt on the scientific consensus.
But his plan was too much for even the Trump administration who felt that such a brazen denial of climate science might work against Trump’s 2020 re-election prospects and they shelved his plan. So he quit.
Happer’s original idea to review climate research involved a team of scientists who would critique government science reports and play up the areas of uncertainty. It would be centered on attacking the National Climate Assessment and potentially be used to mount a challenge to the endangerment finding, the scientific underpinning of federal climate policy, according to several associates of Happer.
And though Trump was keenly interested in Happer’s ideas, they ignited opposition among White House advisers who viewed the plan to openly attack climate research as a risk to Trump’s prospects for reelection. That led Happer, an unflinching opponent of climate science and an accomplished physicist, to leave his post as a director on the National Security Council. His last day is 13 September.
That’s the good news. The bad news is in this depressing article in the Guardian that has six accounts by scientists in the government who became whistleblowers and lost their jobs because their work on climate science was suppressed because it went against the climate change denial message of this administration.
The government at the lower levels are staffed by people who are professionals and most of whom really care about integrity and serving the public interest. But the people who rise to the level of higher administration and get to decide policy are usually those who are not necessarily those who are the best at their jobs but those who are bureaucratically adept, can see which way the winds are blowing, and know how to play the political game. This is yet another example of the filtering process that takes place in large institutions (like the media) that produces the seemingly ‘miraculous’ result where the top management seem to instinctively reflect the views of the owners while thinking of themselves as acting autonomously, and would be highly offended if it is suggested that they are mere apparatchiks of the powers-that-be.
This case of the view of scientists being suppressed because they do not conform to government ideology recalls the infamous Lysenko affair in the Soviet Union where Stalin’s government promoted and supported his ideas because, unlike the new field of genetics, they conformed to the official ideology.
Criticism from foreigners did not sit well with Lysenko, who loathed Western “bourgeois” scientists and denounced them as tools of imperialist oppressors. He especially detested the American-born practice of studying fruit flies, the workhorse of modern genetics. He called such geneticists “fly lovers and people haters.”
Unable to silence Western critics, Lysenko still tried to eliminate all dissent within the Soviet Union. Scientists who refused to renounce genetics found themselves at the mercy of the secret police. The lucky ones simply got dismissed from their posts and were left destitute. Hundreds if not thousands of others were rounded up and dumped into prisons or psychiatric hospitals. Several got sentenced to death as enemies of the state or, fittingly, starved in their jail cells (most notably the botanist Nikolai Vavilov). Before the 1930s, the Soviet Union had arguably the best genetics community in the world. Lysenko gutted it, and by some accounts set Russian biology back a half-century.
Or take the case of Nazi Germany that rejected the ‘Jewish’ science of Albert Einstein and others.
Anti-Semitism did not just deprive German physics of some of its most valuable researchers. It also threatened to prescribe what kind of physics one could and could not do. For Nazi ideology was not merely a question of who should be allowed to live and work freely in the German state—like a virus, it worked its way into the very fabric of intellectual life. Shortly after the boycott of Jewish businesses at the start of April 1933, the Nazified German Students Association declared that literature should be cleansed of the “un-German spirit”, resulting on 10 May in the ritualistic burning of tens of thousands of books marred by Jewish intellectualism. These included works by Sigmund Freud, Bertolt Brecht, Karl Marx, Stefan Zweig and Walter Benjamin: books full of corrupt, unthinkable ideas. Into some of these pyres, baying students threw the books of Albert Einstein.
It was one thing to say that art was decadent—that its elitist abstraction or lurid imagery would lead people astray. And the “depraved” sexuality saturating the pages of Freud’s works was self-evidently contaminating. But how could a scientific theory be objectionable? How could one even develop a pseudo-moralistic position on a notion that was objectively right or wrong? Besides, hadn’t Einstein’s relativity been proven? What did it even mean to say that science could be subverted by the “Jewish spirit”?
In the long run, both those nations paid dearly for putting political ideology over science. In the case of the Soviet Union agriculture suffered greatly leading to famines, and in the case of Germany they lost some of the best scientists and ceased to be the leading nation in many fields.