Truth under Trump: Climate Change, Space Exploration, and “Politicized Science”

By Erik Baker

After the election of Donald Trump in November, his liberal opponents were near-unanimous about what his ascendency portended for the present political moment. We now live in a “post-truth” era, proclaimed pundits, professors (including a few here at the Kennedy School), and even the Oxford English Dictionary. Fueled by “fake news,” appeals to reality have apparently lost their salience in American political discourse, replaced by “bullshit artists” spouting off made-up narratives based on nothing but their pre-existing political sympathies.

Recently, however, something odd has happened: Trump and his allies have been saying exactly the same thing about their critics. In the aftermath of Trump’s January 11th press conference, in which he shut down a CNN reporter attempting to ask a question by repeatedly shouting “fake news,” it is more important than ever to contemplate the possibility that those early election postmortems may have misunderstood Trumpism in a fundamental — and dangerous — way. Perhaps the “post-truth” barb is a double-edged sword. Perhaps “truth,” somehow, still matters.

In this vein, I want to excavate a fascinating late-November remark by Bob Walker, a senior Trump advisor, about NASA and climate science that was lost in the flood of rather more eye-popping news proliferating around that time. Walker told The Guardian that NASA’s climate change research wing would be shuttered completely as part of a general crackdown on “politicized science.” Climate science, Walker, explained, “has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing.”

Say what you’d like about Walker’s remark — and I’m sure most readers of this blog could say quite a lot — but “post-truth” it was not. Nor were the comments of Chris Shank, recently announced as Walker’s collaborator on Trump’s NASA transition team, comparing climate change deniers to Galileo in their reliance, contra mainstream climate scientists, on “evidence-based science.” Hardly evidence of a novel apathy about the concept of truth, here Shank is instead just the most recent in a long line of “skeptics” (perhaps most notoriously HIV “dissident” Peter Duesberg) who have invoked Galileo to position themselves as brave defenders of the truth.

If Walker’s and Shank’s comments were simply a taste of what we can expect from climate-denial rhetoric in the Trump administration, or simply evidence that the post-truth narrative has some holes, they would be significant enough. But I think they point us towards an understanding of Trump and his inner circle, in terms of worldview and outward appeal alike, that is actually wholly at odds with the “post-truth” concept.

Let’s return to Walker. In his comments to The Guardian, he emphasized that (in contrast to recent Republicans) Trump is by no means opposed to funding NASA, full stop, but instead wants to reorient its research towards exploration of deep space. Walker noted that Trump has set a goal of exploring the entire solar system by the end of the century.

Believe it or not, a fascination with human space exploration is one thing that unifies many of Trump’s core allies, who often seem at first glance like quite strange bedfellows. Trump’s top advisor, Steve Bannon, was involved in the early-1990s Biosphere 2 experiment, with the ultimate goal of testing the viability of space colonization. Newt Gingrich, another prominent Trump confidante, made waves during his ill-fated 2012 presidential run for proposing Moon colonization and flights to Mars. And Silicon Valley titan and major Trump donor Peter Thiel has worked behind the scenes to give commercial space exploration companies a voice in the Trump administration — while also bringing many other tech leaders to the table with Trump, like his friend and aspiring “King of Mars” Elon Musk.

I think it’s pretty self-evident that the “post-truth” conception of Trump doesn’t help us to understand this shared obsession one bit. But what’s the alternative? Try this on for size:

Trump isn’t actually “anti-science,” “post-truth,” or any of the other things his critics have called him. In fact, he is extremely pro-Truth, and pro-Science. Note the capitalization. He may have little use for the sciences in the way they are practiced in their mainstream form, in all their disunity and (especially) in all their inextricable political embeddedness. He may have little use for the little-T truths they come up with about mundane, circumscribed topics like the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide and average global temperature — here he’s more than happy to offer a slate of “alternative facts.”

But he still likes Truth and Science quite a lot. He likes Science because it is an emblem of what his top advisor calls “the Judeo-Christian west,” powering its “enlightened form of capitalism.” When America was great, Science even placed Mankind — western, flag-waving Mankind — on the Moon. But now Trump is concerned that Science and the Truth it uncovers are under threat. Trump, along with his white supremacist fans in publications like American Renaissance, sees a vast, politically motivated assault on Truth by enemies ranging from the global South to American college campuses. The exact contours of this attack may be at present unclear, but at least we know that “there’s something going on.”

As a result, much of what the sciences — especially climate science — now claim to know may actually be untrue, distorted by political influence. Institutions formerly emblematic of the power of American Science, like NASA, have “lost their way” since we went to the Moon. Trump is here to reverse this decline. He will smash the forces of political correctness, corrupting Science with talk of race, gender, and monied interests. He will not tolerate journalistic organizations, like CNN, that spread untruth. He will empower the modern-day Galileos to rule based on the evidence. The Trump administration will be about Truth, not politics. We will explore the solar system, and America will be great again.

What do you think? Less pithy than “post-truth,” I know — but harder to fling back in our faces. And more accurate, I think, as a characterization of Trump’s positive vision, the one that appealed to so many, and the one that makes him so dangerous.

Erik Baker is a first-year PhD student in the Department of History of Science at Harvard.