As an occasional contributor to broadcast news on topics such as climate change and the role of science in policy, I rarely find myself commenting on the hot-off-the-press issue of the day. Experts like me are brought on when the news cycle slows, an intelligent sideshow to add gravitas while the real pundits get frothy about the latest political snub or personality gaffe. We are the warm-up act, like an author doing a reading before a concert; we’re more like a PSA than a feature.
So when I appeared on CNN’s Erin Burnett OutFront on April 23, I did not expect to be asked front-page questions. I expected instead to be talking about what the world was experiencing firsthand in the coronavirus pandemic: the tragic effects that come to pass when politicians ignore science. Clearly, the role of science in policy has become an issue of interest to Americans, and Erin and her producers were keenly interested in the risks of ignoring science, and the role of whistleblowers and other civil servant experts who are trying to do their jobs despite political interference.
As a whistleblowing scientist, I had plenty of material to provide, and I was more than ready to bring it to the American living room shortly after the presidential press conference that evening.
That was the plan.
Until, that is, President Trump held forth about miracle coronavirus cures in his incoherent, and now infamous, Lysol and Sunshine speech, where he demonstrated to the world what it looks like when science is not just ignored, but completely undermined by non-expert politicians in full view of the public.
Following up on such a master demonstration of the perils of ignoring science, our conversation on CNN went straight to the nature of the political pressure on scientists and experts, and, of course, whether Dr. Fauci’s job was in danger. These are important issues, and I certainly weighed in on the anti-science agenda of the Trump administration, but as a human being with a beating heart I was still vibrating with indignation at the dangerous ignorance I had just witnessed during the press conference. The president was no longer even trying to hide his disdain for expertise.
L’esprit de l’escalier, or “wit of the staircase,” was a term coined by the French philosopher Denis Diderot to describe all the witty things one wishes they’d said before it was too late.
Here’s what I wish I had said that night on CNN.
First off, no, I do not wish I had addressed the speech directly. I had no desire to bring such ridiculous musings into a substantive conversation about science and policy.
I do wish, however, I had said that accurate and timely scientific advice during a crisis is just as important as food and shelter, and government at all levels should move to to elevate and invest in it, rather than stifle it.
I wish I had said that the coronavirus pandemic is not the only global crisis we face right now. In many ways it is an accelerated version of the climate crisis and the extinction crisis. In the pandemic we are seeing the same patterns of denial and misinformation that we see with the climate crisis, and it striking to see such evidence of betrayal over such a short time frame.
I wish I had said that the culture of fear, censorship, and suppression of science in the Trump administration has compromised one of America’s greatest advantages, its scientific capacity. Trump isn’t just leaving his best players on the sidelines, he won’t let them out of the locker room.
I wish I had said that I was listening earlier in the day to the governor of my home state of Maine, Janet Mills, talk about the very difficult decisions that state leaders will now have to make about how to re-open social and economic life in the state, and the deadly risk of getting it wrong. I wish I’d said that this might not have been necessary if we’d had a strong and timely federal response as recommended by scientific experts months ago.
I wish I’d noted that my current boss at Harvard, Dr. John Holdren, has spoken often of the deeply respectful relationship he had with President Obama during his eight years as the president’s science advisor. His stories about the president’s curiosity and intellectual probing of important scientific matters seem as distant and long ago as Darwin’s voyages.
I wish I’d said that lives are at stake, that right now there are health care workers putting their lives on the line to save those of our friends and family members, and every single one of those individuals deserves the same support that the government provides to the US military forces. Telling dangerous lies about miracle cures does just the opposite—it makes their jobs more dangerous and difficult.
I wish I’d reminded America that, as the T-shirt says, every disaster movie starts with a politician ignoring a scientist.
So no, I don’t wish I’d talked about the specific nonsense of the Lysol and Sunshine Speech, or taken the opportunity to point and laugh at the president. I take no pleasure in highlighting what has clearly become an embarrassment even to him.
What I wish I’d said is that this is exactly what we should have expected. We have arrived at a destination that was a foregone conclusion when we elected a president determined to deliver on an industry-first, anti-science agenda.
And so now, more than ever, it’s time for all of us to rise up and demand that our health, safety, and scientific integrity be taken seriously so we can get back to reducing risk and solving urgent global crises with all the tools, evidence, and personnel at our disposal.