With each passing day, that fear appears to be more well founded. The one quality that all of Trump’s picks for his cabinet and his transition team seem to share is an expertise in the dark art of disinformation.
Consider, for example, Scott Pruitt, who is reportedly Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, currently the attorney general of Oklahoma, is an outspoken critic of the agency that he would lead. This is not, in and of itself, disqualifying, but, as a 2014 investigative piece in the Times revealed, Pruitt’s criticisms have little basis in evidence. Instead, he has basically served as a mouthpiece for talking points dreamed up by the oil and gas industries. In one case, Pruitt signed a letter criticizing the E.P.A. for supposedly exaggerating the air pollution attributable to natural-gas drilling in Oklahoma. It turned out that the letter had been written for him by one of the state’s biggest drilling companies.
“Outstanding!” was the reaction that the company’s director of government relations sent to Pruitt’s office.
Or consider Chris Shank, the first person Trump has named to what’s being called the “landing team” for NASA. Shank has spent the last several years working for Representative Lamar Smith, of Texas, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Under Smith, the committee has held about a dozen hearings on climate change, all with the same objective: trying to prove that climate change isn’t happening.
This is impossible to do if you are relying on actual information, as opposed to the made-up sort. (In 2015, when government scientists published a study refuting one of Smith’s favorite claims—that there had been a “pause” in global warming—the congressman responded by subpoenaing the scientists’ e-mails.) Shank has compared those who question the basics of climate science to Galileo, an analogy so absurd that Ted Cruz has also used it. To imagine that Ivanka Trump, who, according to Politico, wants to make climate change “one of her signature issues,” can counter the likes of Pruitt and Shank is to engage in the same sort of magical thinking that brought us Trump in the first place.
Much has been written lately about what Trump’s victory reveals about the electorate’s relationship with the truth. (In short, nothing good.) But to say that we are living in a “post-fact” era is perhaps too benign. The problem is not just that too many people do not seem to care about the truth (though this is certainly a huge problem); it’s that a lot of people—an increasing number of them in high government positions—insist that their ravings are true, and try to act on them. This naturally brings them into conflict with those whose job it is to distinguish fact from fiction; hence the subpoenas and attempts to intimidate.
For climate scientists, the dangers of hewing to reality have been apparent for years. This is why the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund was founded in the first place, in 2011. As Marshall Shepherd, the director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric-sciences program, tweeted recently, “Lots of concern about Fake News. As a scientist that works in meteorology & climatology, welcome to our world, dealt with this for awhile.” But this doesn’t make the situation any easier to deal with. The pocket guide’s advice for scientists who think that they are being harassed? “When in doubt, call a lawyer.”