Silencing science, silencing life

The troubled release of a scientific report demonstrates how truth and human life suffer from ideological blind spots

Chilling. That was the word used most often today to describe what many are calling the silencing of Environmental Protection Agency scientists by the Trump administration.

As reported Sunday by the New York Times, the rollout of a report by the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program (NBEP) was to have included a keynote address by EPA researcher Autumn Oczkowski, but sometime on Friday the NBEP was told that Oczkowski could not attend. Most speculate that Oczkowski’s work on climate impacts to Narragansett Bay was incompatible with the Trump administration’s denial of climate change, and she was thus removed by EPA headquarters from the rollout.

Two other EPA scientists were also to have spoken on panel discussions, but like Oczkowski were told by EPA that they could not do so.

The event, which I attended, went forward anyway. Standing in for Oczkowski’s keynote was Dr. Robinson “Wally” Fulweiler of Boston University. While Fulweiler noted afterward that her talk was not the specific address that was to be given by Oczkowski, it was nonetheless based on research that Oczkowski, Fulweiler, and others had undertaken on the complex estuary of Narragansett Bay, and the many impacts, including climate change, on its health.

So, in a way, the talk took place. But not exactly as it would have had Oczkowski been allowed to attend.

Fulweiler, a gifted speaker, hammered home a number of points about past research and future implications on Rhode Island’s main waterbody. But the shadow of what had happened—of a young researcher not being allowed to publically engage with her colleagues—clouded the otherwise brilliant day. In his closing remarks, lead researcher Dr. John King was visibly emotional. He openly criticized EPA head Scott Pruitt for silencing scientists. “Let us do our jobs,” he said.

(In fairness, it should be noted that the acting New England regional administrator for the EPA, Deborah Szaro, was at the workshop. While she did not have a formal speaking role, she told a local reporter that the cancellation was due to “a simple miscommunication” within the agency that has been blown out of proportion. “They are not being muzzled or put to the side,” she said of the scientists. “By the time we figured out what was going on, it was too late to rectify the situation.” Later, EPA headquarters issued a statement that the three scientists were not in attendance because "it was not an EPA event." But an EPA research lab in Rhode Island has been part of the ongoing research into Narragansett Bay for decades. EPA also helps fund the research of others. Either way, the statement's clarification did little to clarify anything.)

I found myself today faced with the reality of life in a fallen world in ways that went beyond the concerns voiced by so many.

I was at today’s event because my job overseeing municipal wastewater infrastructure is heavily intertwined with the health of Narragansett Bay—especially since my office has just completed an assessment of climate impacts on wastewater systems.

But as a person of faith—as a co-founder of the Global Catholic Climate Movement and a supporter of the Catholic Climate Covenant—I found myself faced with the reality of life in a fallen world in ways that went beyond the concerns voiced by so many. I have been blessed to know many of the people that were in that room today—colleagues, co-workers, friends—every one of them remarkable, hardworking experts. They are men and women who care about the common good.

I also know the reality of climate change, and I’m worried about its impacts on my beloved Ocean State.

But I also know that many of the loudest voices today—politicians, advocates, and others—have the very blind spot about another scientific reality that they criticize the Trump administration of.

There are, after all, many people engaged in climate research and activism that do not accept the scientific fact that human life begins at conception.

And so while many of the people I spoke with today were rightfully horrified by the thought that science was being politicized and trampled upon—and what that could mean to sound policy—the concept was not a new one to me.

The bottom line of the report on Narragansett Bay was this: there’s much to celebrate, especially about reductions of nutrient pollution, but with a warming climate, there is also much to worry about.

The same is true about the state of science—about truth—in the presence of ideological waters. There’s much to celebrate about what human reason has taught us. But there’s also much to worry about. It’s tragic that there are those that look away from the measurable realities of climate change. But there are also a great many that ignore the unquestionable fact that millions of children have been killed, all because of a widespread denial of the science about the beginnings of human life.


Photo: The view from Save the Bay, where today's NBEP report rollout took place.

About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.