My parents grew up with fireside chats and came of age during World War II, eventually making their respective pilgrimages from rural Pennsylvania and Coastal Maine to Washington, D.C., where they met and fell in love at the Library of Congress. They believed in hard work, in education and in the power of government to help make people’s lives better, whether it involved putting Americans back to work with New Deal public works projects during the Great Depression or fueling an enormous war machine to defeat the Nazis. But most of all, they believed in science. They were not particularly religious, nor especially political (although they did keep a yellowed copy of The Washington Post’s John F. Kennedy inauguration issue tucked away in the bottom of a dresser drawer), but they had witnessed how decades of advancements in medicine, in electronics, in transportation, in food production and in most every facet of human existence had made their lives longer, fuller, richer.
If they were alive today, they would have been mortified by the presidency of Donald Trump. Not just because he so often treats the federal workforce as enemies (my career civil service parents lived long enough to experience something similar with Ronald Reagan) or because he is divisive or racist or cloddish. They certainly would have been dismayed by all those things just as they would have been bewildered that a misogynist with a long history of sexual assault accusations (and victim payoffs) on his resume could ever have gotten elected in the first place. But what really would have put them over the edge is his well-established pattern of ignoring, belittling, hampering, condemning or simply misrepresenting science to serve his political purposes. In their day, the gold-standard of government resided in places like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health — all commonly referred to as the science agencies. My mother and father didn’t always have faith in people, but they did in the power of reason and the immutable laws of math and chemistry and physics.
I thought about them this past week when the magazine, “Scientific American,” published a first-ever presidential endorsement in its 175-year history, choosing former Vice President Joe Biden over President Trump. It was clear that the magazine’s editorial staff was as frustrated by recent events as my parents would have been, and I found that heartening given that they were longtime subscribers. “The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people — because he rejects evidence and science,” the magazine wrote, pointing out not only the lives lost by the bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic but by his continued attacks on “environmental protections, medical care, and the researchers and public science agencies that help this country prepare for its greatest challenges.” Raymond and Thelma Jensen would have approved.
As if to underscore the point, even as the magazine hit the newsstands, President Trump was getting into a rather bizarre back-and-forth with CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, who had dared to tell a Senate panel last Wednesday that a coronavirus vaccine would not be widely available until next year and that masks are a more effective way of preventing the disease. Mr. Trump later suggested Dr. Redfield was “confused” or had misunderstood the question. Dr. Redfield went on Twitter to acknowledge his support of vaccines but reiterate his view that masks and related practices of social distancing and personal hygiene still represent the nation’s best line of defense. The problem, of course, was not the CDC director’s information, it was his failure to conform to the president’s reelection-minded narrative that salvation is just around the corner. It was hardly the first time the president had attacked a science advisor for candor. Meanwhile, the top spokesman for Mr. Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services took a leave of absence after bizarrely claiming routine CDC data amounted to “hit pieces” on the administration and accusing government scientists of engaging in “sedition.” And then there’s the former advisor to Vice President Mike Pence and member of the White House coronavirus task force who says she found it “terrifying” that Mr. Trump demonstrated far greater interest in getting reelected than protecting Americans from the virus. And all that was just last week.
My parents aren’t around to be appalled. They are buried in Parklawn Memorial Park in Rockville. It’s so close to an FDA building on Fishers Lane that employees often stroll the cemetery during their lunch hours. NIH is about six miles down the road in Bethesda. But it is a comfort that others who have followed their path, who have researched climate change, for example, and know that the Trump presidency’s denial of reality is fundamentally different from what they’ve experienced before and they are speaking up about it. This is not about the normal tension between politics and science, it’s a repudiation of scholarship and knowledge that is incredible to behold in the world’s richest and most powerful nation 58 years after President Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech. We should all be aghast.
Peter Jensen is an editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun.