This year Americans have been whipsawed between feelings of fear and helplessness. More than 200,000 of us died from COVID-19, the streets raged in conflict, and wildfires destroyed more than seven million acres of wilderness.
The media and the general public turned to scientists to help understand all three crises, but President Trump did not. Instead, he steadfastly and repeatedly denounced scientific consensus. He vociferously denigrated scientists and their beliefs. He invented pet theories during press events and routinely ignored even his own advisors.
Today we are focused on the general election, but even if Mr. Trump loses, Pandora’s box sits wide open. We now know an administration can wreak havoc by wantonly flouting scientific consensus. We cannot let this happen again, we cannot allow either party to do this again. The United States cannot function effectively as a country if our leaders invent their own scientific reality and force us to live within it.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on September 18th. She served 27 years as a beloved member of the nine-person Supreme Court, an institution that strives to ensure the American promise of equal justice under law.
However, the Supreme Court is two-hundred and thirty years old, founded seventy years before On The Origin of Species was published, one-hundred twenty years before Albert Einstein’s famous equation, and nearly two-hundred years before the internet crackled to life.
In the 2020s we need to set up a new institution. An institution that can absorb the scientific consensus, communicate that understanding to the rest of the government, and shape our laws and policies in light of the best-known science. The Science Council will not run things, it will serve only as a check and balance against the three existing branches of government, including the Supreme Court.
We need to make sure no future administration can dismantle the scientific footing of the nation as if discarding the previous administration’s choice of drapes in the West Wing.
President Ronald Reagan formed the twelve-person Rogers Commission after the Challenger exploded shortly after lift-off in 1986. The commission featured the esteemed physicist Richard Feynman. We desperately need a standing council of similar stature with permanent members and the mandate to foster science within the government.
Since the internet now exists, the council will cultivate and leverage an online community of millions of scientists throughout the world to augment their own personal expertise.
The Science Council needs real power in the government, we do not need another National Academy of Sciences. In normal times the council can focus on education, verifying facts, and serving as a resource for other branches.
However, if a future president once again claims climate change or a pandemic is a hoax, the council would respond with full force using whatever political mechanisms we grant it.
We also desperately need scientific thinking on issues that might not seem overtly science-based. This year civil unrest and sickening violence was a nightly presence in the news. Mr. Trump responded to the unrest by pronouncing himself the law and order president. This approach more subtly but equally flouts conventional scientific thinking.
The country is a large physical system that obeys scientific laws whether you believe it does or not, whether you personally know the laws or not. The violent acts of 2020 are kernels of corn popping in hot oil. Our law and order president wants to sweep away this inconvenient problem by forcefully crushing the popcorn back into its kernel form.
Instead, we need science to guide us towards turning down the heat, to guide us towards carefully lowering the temperature. We need to use the best science in sociology, psychology, anthropology, economics, and every other scientific field. We face hard problems, but millions of our citizens trained their entire lives to solve exactly these problems. We need to put them to work.
Mr. Trump walked us down the dark path. We need to create a new institution that will light the way for future generations, so that they do not go down that same path, so that the great American experiment can continue, so that our country is around for the next two hundred years and beyond.