President Biden is all about following the science — unless it conflicts with his policy positions on hot-button issues, as far as his critics are concerned.
Despite his “follow the science” mantra, Mr. Biden has run up against mounting empirical challenges on a host of issues, including reopening schools, climate change, women’s sports and abortion, from those who say his scientific expertise begins and ends with political science.
“Whenever the Biden administration and the environmental left say ‘follow the science,’ what they’re really saying is ‘follow the social science,’ not the hard physical science,” said James Taylor, president of the free-market Heartland Institute.
The most glaring example comes with the increasingly fraught debate over bringing back K-12 students for in-person instruction where teachers’ unions are holding out until districts meet their demands such as replacing ventilation systems and vaccinating all teachers against the coronavirus.
Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a Feb. 12 guidance that schools may safely reopen now by adhering to mask-wearing and social-distancing, the White House has yet to challenge the unions despite the president’s vow to reopen most schools in his first 100 days in office.
“Joe Biden was saying follow the science until the science said open the schools,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise tweeted Monday. “Now he’s following the teachers unions. And leaving students to suffer.”
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said teacher vaccinations and ventilation upgrades are helpful but not necessary, and yet White House officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris and her chief spokesperson Symone Sanders, both skirted the issue last week in interviews.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged Sunday that vaccinating teachers “doesn’t need to be a prerequisite,” while continuing to link reopenings to Congress passing $130 billion in aid to schools as part of the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus.
“The CDC is saying, in order to be safe, there are a number of steps that can be taken,” Ms. Psaki said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Vaccinating teachers is one of them, but having smaller class sizes, having kids more separated on buses, more PPE [personal protective equipment], more testing, facilities upgrades, those are additional steps that can be taken.”
Meanwhile, Republicans highlighted the CDC’s scientific brief that found “in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission,” and that children are less likely spread or become severely ill with COVID-19.
Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon and former housing and urban development secretary, pointed out that some public, private and charter schools have already reopened, “and we have not seen big spikes in the transmission of the disease in those schools.”
“So you’ve got your control right there,” Mr. Carson told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham. “It’s a matter of what do you really want to do with that information? They talk about utilizing science but only when it conforms to their ideology.”
Part of the problem is the tendency by policymakers to conflate policy with science, given that “science will never be sufficient to guide choices and trade-offs,” said Dr. Vinay Prasad, associate professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco.
“Science cannot make value judgments. Science does not determine policy,” Dr. Prasad said in a Nov. 23 article for Medpage Today. “Policy is a human endeavor that combines science with values and priorities. In other words, science can help quantify the increased risk (or lack thereof) of school reopening on SARS-Cov-2 spread, and help quantify the educational losses from continued closure, but science cannot tell you whether to open or close schools.”
The Biden administration was hailed for its early science-related moves, including appointing scientists to key positions in government and halting the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization.
Scientific American cheered the administration’s early moves in a Jan. 28 article headlined, “Biden Elevates Science in Week One Actions.”
“This is such a hopeful moment,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director of the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We’ve seen this administration hit the ground running from day one. They have signaled very clearly a return to science-based policy making and a commitment to center equity and justice in their policy missions.”
Those issues could clash with what may be the next scientific conundrum for the Biden administration: transgender athletes in girls’ and women’s sports.
Mr. Biden already has signed an executive order to “prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation,” and he has said he supports the Equality Act, which the House is expected to bring up for a vote this week.
Those moves put him on a collision course with a half-dozen states on their way to approving bans on transgender participation in female sports, arguing that testosterone suppression cannot eradicate the innate biological advantages in terms of areas such as muscle mass, skeletal structure and cardiovascular and respiratory function.
Beth Stelzer, an amateur powerlifter who heads Save Women’s Sports, said that “studies continue to prove that the science is clear on this issue, the differences between the two sexes are immutable.”
“Instead of following actual science and protecting females, the Biden administration has pandered to the gender identity ideology,” Ms. Stelzer said in an email. “Allowing males to compete in female sports is unscientific and unethical, it is going to be the end of female sports. This is common sense.”
So far Mr. Biden has been mum on the sports issue, making the argument for his order on anti-discrimination grounds.
“It is the policy of my Administration to prevent and combat discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, and to fully enforce Title VII and other laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation,” Mr. Biden said.
Abortion looms as another issue on which Mr. Biden can anticipate scientific pushback.
Medical advances on prenatal and neonatal care have bolstered the argument in favor of fetal humanity, with doctors able to save premature infants at 24 weeks’ gestation, and sometimes earlier, say pro-life advocates.
“I think the science is all trending frankly in the prolife direction, and some of us recognize that that was always the case,” said Chuck Donovan, president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute at the Susan B. Anthony List.
Mr. Biden moved to the left during the campaign on the issue, coming out in favor of federal funding for abortion, vowing to codify Roe v. Wade and opposing mandatory waiting periods, parental notification and ultrasound requirements.
If he supports any restrictions, pro-life advocates are unaware of them, but his nominee for health and human services secretary, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, is expected to be quizzed on the issue at Tuesday’s confirmation hearing.
Like many pro-choice advocates, the Biden administration has cited the medical dangers associated with a lack of “reproductive health care,” while primarily making the argument for access to abortion on social-justice grounds.
“We are deeply committed to making sure everyone has access to care — including reproductive health care — regardless of income, race, ZIP code, health insurance status, or immigration status,” Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris said in a statement last month marking the Roe v. Wade anniversary.
The science-versus-politics debate also is being waged over Mr. Biden’s ambitious climate-change agenda, which includes executive orders reentering the Paris agreement; placing a moratorium on oil-and-gas leasing on federal lands, and canceling the Keystone XL pipeline.
The problem, say critics, is that Mr. Biden’s directives will actually increase greenhouse-gas emissions as railroads and trucks replace the pipeline for delivering crude oil from Canada.
Nations that now rely on U.S. oil and natural gas will be forced to seek less environmentally responsible sources in Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Republicans have been quick to push back on the scientific advisability of a solar-and-wind strategy even as Mr. Biden warns of a “climate crisis” fueled by rising atmospheric carbon dioxide.
“I’m a chemical engineer by degree,” Sen. Steve Daines, Montana Republican, said at a recent Senate hearing. “I like to look at the numbers. The science tells us that these radical moves to the left are actually going to increase CO2, not decrease CO2.”
The Biden administration has stressed the importance of U.S. leadership on climate change, focusing on the long-term goal of replacing fossil fuels with solar and wind power, which has prompted another round of questions on battery storage and the availability of key minerals such as cobalt.
“They’re not following physical science. They’re not following facts or data,” said Mr. Taylor. “They’re following political slogans and their own social-science theories.”