Commentary: When politics trumps science


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Trump’s 2016 campaign trail impressed many partly due to his public disdain for science, including his skepticism of vaccine and his claims that climate change is a “hoax” made up by China.

Many could not imagine that his approach to the presidency would follow the same path, that he would ignore expert knowledge and scientific experience for his own political gain. But the current COVID-19 crisis has proved them wrong.

Trump administration’s recent decision to remove Rick Bright, the country’s top virus expert amid the height of the public health crisis, has again shocked the science world.

The scientist, who is in charge of developing a COVID-19 vaccine, said he was fired for questioning a drug touted by Trump.

According to a research done by the Veteran Health Administration in the U.S., hydroxychloroquine and the related chloroquine have shown little effectiveness in treating COVID-19 patients. It could even increase the risk of death in certain patients.

It was not the first time that Trump has shown his clear disregard for science. The world’s most authoritative health organization announced the COVID-19 as the public health emergency of international concern on January 30. But Trump has spent the critical window of opportunity downplaying the virus.

On February 25, Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases issued a public warning to the country that the virus was almost certainly going to spread among American people. The CDC also urged hospitals and communities to be more prepared for the spread.

But Trump’s first reaction was not to consider whether an epidemic will happen in the U.S., but to get angry over her comments as the stock market crashed. “On the 18-hour plane ride home, Mr. Trump fumed as he watched the stock market crash after Dr. Messonnier’s comments. Furious, he called Mr. Azar raging that Dr. Messonnier had scared people unnecessarily.” The New York Times reported about Trump’s fury.

“The president and the White House sent a clear message to scientists in the government that there would be a price for speaking out and speaking up,” said Ron Klain, Ebola response coordinator for the Obama administration.

It was not only Messonnier who is “speaking up.” Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has also repeatedly contradicted the President’s claims.

The grudge broke out when Trump retweeted a call urging Fauci to get fired. The tweet comes after Fauci conceded in a CNN interview that earlier COVID-19 mitigation efforts would have saved more Americans.

Interestingly, despite his disdain for science, Trump is never shy in bragging about his scientific knowledge.

“I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it,” Trump said. “Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for President.”

Trump’s striking boast over his scientific knowledge during a visit to CDC has surprised many, perhaps more in the following month when he suggested injecting disinfectant to kill the virus. The statement has invited mounting criticism from experts and global ridicule.

Politics and science are not supposed to be enemies. Faced with a crisis, scientists look for evidence and provide all kinds of possibilities to bureaucrats for them to make a final decision. But politicians cannot ignore expert advice while refusing to take responsibility for the consequences.

Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, has pointed out why science and hard data cannot have a place in the Trump administration: “Scientists tell them inconvenient things,” he said. “Whether we’re talking about the E.P.A. or we’re talking about climate change – broadly speaking, or we’re talking about the coronavirus, his administration is constantly engaged in magical thinking.”

Trump does not believe in complexity. Or rather, he cannot sell a complicated story of a pandemic to his voters. He can only sell confidence and assertion when the election is coming.

But the implications could be scary. As Trump keeps firing anyone who disagrees with him, the White House is sinking into Trump’s own political machine that crushes America’s own credibility. And the answer why America has performed so poorly in the COVID-19 battle may just lie in its long tradition of undermining scientific expertise for political reasons.

Scriptwriter: Zhao Yuanzhen, Liu Jianxi

Editors and designers: Liu Shuo, Lyu Shouzhu, Wang Liang

Managing editors: Jiao Zhe, Zhao Yuanzhen

Chief editor: Li Shouen

Senior producer: Bi Jianlu

Managing director: Mei Yan

Supervisor: Fan Yun