It’s ‘tangible’: How ‘Sharpiegate’ touches chord on scientific integrity

Why We Wrote This

It started with tweets and a marked-up weather map. Some experts now see what’s being called “Sharpiegate” as surfacing the principle of scientific independence in a concrete and potentially bipartisan way. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Donald Trump listens in Washington on Sept. 1, 2019, as Kenneth Graham, director of NOAA's National Hurricane Center (on screen), gives an update during a briefing about Hurricane Dorian.

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It might seem at first like little more than fodder for late-night comedians. The U.S. president tweets incorrectly that Alabama lies in the path of Hurricane Dorian, a National Weather Service office in Alabama offers a corrective, and then the president digs in his heels by appearing on television with a map apparently altered by a marker to include a corner of Alabama in Dorian’s cone of uncertainty. 

But now a House committee has launched an inquiry into news reports on the political pressure brought to bear during the incident, including alleged job threats against political officials at the weather service’s parent agency. And some science experts say the tempest about storm forecasting has resonance because the subject matter spans partisan divides.  

“The weight of it could be measured in the potential harm,” says Joe Friday, a lifelong Republican and former director of the National Weather Service. “One of the most conservative things you can do is try to insist that American lives and property are protected, and that is the mission of the National Weather Service.” 

“Everybody talks about the weather,” a well-known writer once said, “but nobody does anything about it.”  

This adage is being put to the test after the Trump administration apparently pressured the National Weather Service to alter its forecast for Hurricane Dorian.

It all began on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 1, when President Donald Trump tweeted that Alabama lay in the path of Hurricane Dorian. Twenty minutes later the National Weather Service’s Birmingham, Alabama, office tweeted that the storm posed no threat to Alabamans. The president dug in his heels, appearing on television Wednesday with a map that was apparently altered to include a corner of Alabama in Dorian’s cone of uncertainty. 

All of this would have little more than fodder for late-night comedians (and it was), except that it spilled over into the actual operations of a federal bureau tasked with ensuring public safety. On Sept. 6, the National Weather Service’s parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, took the unusual step of issuing an unsigned statement repudiating the Birmingham tweet.

And this week, the Democrat-controlled House Science Committee began investigating the matter, including what chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas called an “alleged threat” by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “to fire NOAA political officials if they did not fall in line with the White House’s misleading statements.” According to a New York Times report, Mr. Trump personally asked his chief of staff to pressure the weather service to “clarify” its forecast.

How much, really, should we care about this? Some observers say that, while in one sense it was all literally about a passing storm, the incident is becoming a parable for the importance of scientific integrity – and one which has resonance because the subject matter spans partisan divides.  

“The weight of it could be measured in the potential harm that it’s going to do the public,” says Joe Friday, a lifelong Republican and a professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma School of Meteorology. “One of the most conservative things you can do is try to insist that American lives and property are protected, and that is the mission of the National Weather Service.” 

Public safety at stake

Professor Friday knows firsthand about the politicization of science and its effects. He served as director of the National Weather Service from 1988 to 1997, before being pushed out by the Clinton administration over what sources inside the agency at the time said was his candor over the severity of budget cuts.

“I am very, very much familiar with the deep devotion and integrity that the men and women of the weather service have in carrying out their jobs,” he says. “I have witnessed them watching a tornado go over their own housing area and still maintain the type of support they need for the emergency managers and first responders, all while they were unsure of what was happening to their own families.”

Professor Friday argues that this recent controversy is less about political ideology and more about the dynamics of the president’s psyche.

“The only thing that was at stake here was one individual’s ego,” he says. “And he valued that ego more than he valued the population of Alabama.”

Some emergency-response experts note that, just as public safety can be hampered by official failures to warn, it can also be affected if inaccurate warnings are given. (Not least because false alarms can erode an agency’s credibility.)

Still, what’s being dubbed “Sharpiegate” – after the brand of marker apparently used in altering a map the president pointed to – is just one in a string of instances of the Trump administration politicizing science. Alleged suppression of science on climate change, for example, may have much larger and longer-lasting effects on the nation and its policies.

Yet in some ways “Sharpiegate” has become the most flagrant case, and the public’s attention to it may spark change, says Michael Halpern, the deputy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science & Democracy.

“This is tangible. Everybody knows their local weather person, and they trust weather forecasters,” he says. “It’s been very encouraging to see the meteorology community come together to support their peers and to demand that this kind of thing never happen again.”

A “war on institutions”?

Mr. Halpern, an expert on political interference in science, says members of both political parties have attempted to politicize the work of government scientists, but says Mr. Trump has been taking it to a more extreme level. 

“The Obama administration was not great when it came to allowing people to access experts,” Mr. Halpern says. “Many journalists argued that they were actually worse [than the George W. Bush administration]. ... But clearly the Trump administration is worse in both scope and severity when it comes to sidelining science from policymaking and public information.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy nonprofit, says it has documented more than 100 attacks on science from the Trump administration, more than what the George W. Bush administration accumulated over its two terms. Mr. Halpern sees it as part of a larger attack by the Trump administration on groups that aim to provide objective information, including the media, the judiciary, and government-funded research institutes.

“I don’t think science is being singled out in any particular way,” says Mr. Halpern. “I think it’s war on institutions. It’s trying to bring down any kind of institution that is there to provide information that could speak truth to power.”

Science bill in Congress

In July, Mr. Halpern testified before Congress to promote the Scientific Integrity Act, a bill that would protect government scientists from political interference and give them the right to share their findings with the public. The bill, which has 192 House co-sponsors, would create a uniform code of scientific ethics for all federal agencies, one that would supersede the patchwork of codes and statements created under a mandate from the Obama administration.

During the hearing, he said witnesses took aim at both the Obama and Trump administrations. 

“I think that made people think, ‘Oh, actually we do have some common ground here, and there are some steps we can take to reduce corruption and improve the use of science in making policy,’” he says.

Professor Friday agrees that “Sharpiegate” should be viewed not as a dispute between liberals and conservatives, but as a matter of protecting the often challenging work of scientists. 

“What scientific independence means to me,” he says, “is the ability to look at facts objectively, come to a conclusion, and to try to apply that conclusion to actions.”

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