At a recent White House briefing, President Donald Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci stood side by side, debating an anti-malarial drug that the president has touted as a treatment for the coronavirus. Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, noted the absence of any scientific evidence for Trump’s claim, to which the president replied: “You know I’m a smart guy, and I feel good about it.”
At that moment, America’s television screens framed the lesson to be taken from the current pandemic: Our nation’s health must be vaccinated against politics.
Now, that doesn’t mean that science is incompatible with a feeling, a hunch, a sixth sense. They’ve inspired groundbreaking discoveries. That’s the moral of the story of the apple that allegedly hit Isaac Newton on the noggin.
Newton had a feeling that something must cause objects to fall. So he set off to find what it was — not what to call it, but its telltale measurements. In the process, he created a powerful way of counting that branded modern science as knowledge based on numbers.
On Trump’s first day in office, the current administration served notice that numbers were no longer sacrosanct. Angered that photographs of his swearing-in showed far fewer spectators than those at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, Trump pressured the National Park Service, which issued new photos with whole sections of empty seats cropped out.
Try a similar trick in a college science course and you’ll flunk. The pages in a laboratory notebook are numbered so investigators can’t cover up a failed experiment by ripping a page out.
The tampering with Trump’s inauguration numbers involved one man’s ego. More recent episodes of indifference or inattention to statistics involve the lives of millions endangered by the coronavirus.
The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency was asked how many medical masks had been shipped to hospitals from the feds’ emergency stockpile. It’s a life-or-death question for doctors, nurses and technicians on the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus.
Peter Gaynor, the agency head, said he couldn’t give even a “rough estimate.”
That it’s more likely a low, rather than a high, number can be inferred from a directive of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Where masks aren’t available, the CDC recommended improvising one with a bandanna. Lacking a bandanna, try a scarf.
Think about that: In the midst of a pandemic that epidemiologists warned was coming, the government can only suggest that salvation might be hanging in our closets.
Perhaps the scientists’ advice wasn’t heard by public officials with the power to act on it. The National Security Council had an office that monitored the danger of infectious disease. It was closed by the Trump administration, which also wanted to cut the CDC’s funding.
From Trump’s perspective, that makes sense. If you don’t give credence to numbers, why not get bean counters off the government payroll? The problem is that without bean counters, a president makes decisions without the guidance of numbers verifying his choice.
In a 2012 tweet, Trump said: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non competitive.”
When a 2018 U.S. government report said climate change would wreck havoc on our economy and endanger citizens’ health, Trump replied: “I don’t believe it.”
Not surprisingly, as president he withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change signed by 189 nations and relaxed domestic environmental regulations.
To his credit, Trump responded to the coronavirus pandemic by banning visitors from China. Epidemiologists think that gave the U.S. a month’s time before the disease got a foothold here.
But he didn’t use the grace period to adopt a strategy for combating the infectious disease. Instead, he reverted to his default setting: attack anyone who disagrees with him.
Trump downplayed the danger or wrote it off as a fake news conspiracy of Democrats and the media. It was left to the governors to issue the stay-at-home orders key to stopping the spread of the pandemic.
Recently he has insisted that workers have to get back to their jobs, predicting that if the economy isn’t revived, thousands of suicides will follow. He didn’t cite any evidence for that inflammatory statement. Meanwhile, the surgeon general of the United States says the eye of the storm is yet to come.
If restaurants, bars and shops reopen, won’t America’s death lists grow exponentially, as they have in Italy and Spain? Scientists think so.
Perhaps that grim picture can be offset by keeping in mind that our fate doesn’t just rest in the hands of Trump, our first anti-science president. Thank God for nerds.
Recall the boy in your high school chemistry class whose eyes lit up as the teacher unrolled Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements. Think of the young woman in calculus class who stepped to the blackboard to map a curve’s minimal and maximum points.
Young people like those grew up to be researchers in laboratories around the world, now racing to find a treatment for the coronavirus and a vaccine to prevent it. Daily they record their attempts in those lab books with numbered pages. Eventually a success will be recorded.
So let’s thank them, as Europeans are, by putting a paper heart in our windows, addressed to: “Those who, with test tubes and beakers, will lead us out of a pandemic darkness.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ron Grossman is a reporter and columnist at the Chicago Tribune.
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