Last week Politico ran a story about a series of tapes that surfaced of Scott Pruitt discussing a number of issues on an Oklahoma talk radio station in 2005. Pruitt, now head of the Environmental Protection Agency, was an Oklahoma state senator at the time.
Pruitt talked about a lot of issues on the tapes. He complained that “minority religions” were forcing Christianity out of “the public square,” and he called for amending the Constitution to ban marriage equality. He also expressed support for Ten Commandments displays at government buildings.
But I was most struck by his comments on the theory of evolution.
Pruitt asserted, “There aren’t sufficient scientific facts to establish a theory of evolution, and it deals with the origins of man, which is more from a philosophical standpoint than a scientific standpoint.”
While serving as a state senator, Pruitt attempted to put these intuitions into action, supporting unsuccessful legislation that would have required a disclaimer in textbooks teaching evolution and protected teachers from lawsuits if they taught creationism as being on par with evolution.
The fact that Pruitt said these things in 2005 perked up my ears. That was the year that I served as lead counsel for a team comprised of Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the National Center for Science Education and the law firm Pepper Hamilton in an epic court battle over the teaching of intelligent design creationism in a public school biology class in Dover, Pa. The school board there wanted to teach ID as a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution.
In that case, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, concluded that intelligent design was not science at all because it wasn’t developed through the methods of science, it wasn’t subjected to peer review and it depended on intervention by a supernatural actor whose actions could not be tested through the tools of science. By contrast, the theory of evolution had earned the near-unanimous acceptance of the scientific community because it uses all of those tools to reconcile streams of evidence as disparate as morphology, genetics and paleontology.
On the question of the origins of man that most concerned Pruitt, Judge Jones heard testimony by Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller that, from a “scientific standpoint,” comparisons of the recently mapped genomes of humans and the great apes had “spectacularly confirmed” their biological relationship.
Having encountered first-hand the anti-empiricism of intelligent design creationism, I’m deeply disturbed that someone who holds that view is now responsible for dictating policy for perhaps our most scientifically important agency. And, indeed, Pruitt has confirmed that his “biblical world view” guides his view of how we should cultivate natural resources for use by mankind.
Good governance requires that in the public sphere, we unite around shared values and agreed facts, including scientific facts. That is true for the science taught in high school biology class, and it is true for the science that will dictate the health, security and survival of our planet and its inhabitants.
To be sure, religious faith does not disqualify believers from public service, including at EPA. And, certainly, there is a robust record that Pruitt’s policies at EPA arise as much from fealty to fossil fuel backers of his political career as from his religious views. But regardless of the precise mix of motivations and influences for Pruitt’s policies at EPA, the results show the same rejection of well-developed scientific positions that characterized his views on evolution and creationism in 2005.
Pruitt has rejected the overwhelming consensus of scientists from a vast array of disciplines concerning climate change. Although that’s not an issue Americans United works on, we’d be concerned if his conclusions in this area (or any other) were based on his personal religious beliefs. Public policy should be grounded in sound science, not an official’s interpretation of scripture.
One of the virtues of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state is that we can zealously explore and indulge different philosophical standpoints through free exercise of religion (including free abstention from religion) in our private lives. But good governance requires that in the public sphere, we unite around shared values and agreed facts, including scientific facts. That is true for the science taught in high school biology class, and it is true for the science that will dictate the health, security and survival of our planet and its inhabitants.