God save the data! Or else.

President* Trump,

It took me three days, but last night I finally made it all the way through the HP’s long (long) report on the myriad ways your administration has undermined, thwarted, hacked, misrepresented, and disappeared, the data that the US government needs to do its jobs properly (https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/article/disappearing-data/index.html#credits). It was a huge effort (5 editors and 9 reporters) and they covered a lot of ground, reporting on some (surely not all) of the many creative and malign ways that you all have done your dirty work. They also cover some (definitely not all) of the many ways this dirty dealing is already adversely affecting our health, our representation, our livelihoods, the environment, other species that have to deal with us, our prospects for a livable future. It’s basically a very long, loosely integrated laundry list of total downers.

Being a scientist and quite a devoted data geek, I was already aware of most of the specific situations they included in the piece, having preferentially clicked on news stories over the past four years that decried one or another of these travesties. And still, there’s something (subjectively) very powerful about reading paragraph after paragraph of prose that laces together dozens of seemingly disparate instances of intentional compromises to science and data integrity.

  • What do under-budgeting the Census and rejiggering the endangered species act to focus on shorter timelines have in common?
  • What does moving the US Department of Agriculture’s offices from DC to Missouri have in common with no longer having states send their COVID numbers to the CDC but instead to the Department of Health and Human Services?

Observed in isolation, these situations can seem like unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on one’s point of view) one-offs that aren’t part of a bigger pattern. The HP piece, however, makes clear that these instances are all of a piece and add up to a pattern of distortions and holes punched in our data sources that fundamentally compromise our ability to make informed decisions. Not being able to rely on high quality data for decision making in turn, leaves us incredibly vulnerable to political hacks that want to exploit the attendant vagaries to stay in power and enrich themselves and their friends.

Speaking of friends, how about all those industry magnates who woke up and found themselves heading up the very environmental protection bodies they used to tangle with? How convenient for them and their stock shares. Not so much, though, for the earth and the rest of us plebes.

I’m not sure which fundamental attack on democracy – undermining confidence in voting, stacking the judiciary with young, incompetent, conservative lackeys, or trashing our data collection, synthesis, and interpretation systems – your handlers are most pleased with at this point. All three probably have them over the moon with delight. They probably can’t believe their good fortune in having signed on with you and your toxic crew since you all have surely performed well beyond their wildest dreams.

Ironically, I think we can be quite certain that your handlers are keeping very careful track of all the relevant data. No doubt they’re gathering it up and logging it conscientiously, checking its integrity down to the smallest decimal point all so they can be sure they have exactly the information they need to plan their next diabolical steps. The banality of evil, indeed.

May we be safe from the holes in our data.
May we be willing to pay attention to what likely seems mundane.
May we understand that strong, integral data systems are crucial to the collective good.
May we accept that now, even the boring stuff is life or death.

Tracy Simpson

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