The Importance of Independent, Unbiased Data

The American public deserves to have access to the facts — and should trust that government officials are using good data to make policy decisions.

January 24, 2019

The following originally appeared in The Hill.

The Trump administration’s latest revelation that perhaps thousands more kids have been separated from their families at the border, is yet another signal of how this administration seemingly manipulates facts and misleads the public — in ways that are slowly chipping away at our democracy's credibility and integrity.

Trump has said Russia didn’t interfere in our elections. (It did). He saidhuman activity isn’t contributing to climate change (It is.). And Trump saidin a recent Oval Office address that migrants are responsible for a spate of violent crime (They aren’t.)

It’s certainly not new for presidents or politicians of all parties to present data in a way that serves their political goals. But the Trump administration has gone farther than that, ignoring and egregiously distorting facts as justifications for flawed policies. These actions can have immense consequences for public health, the environment, national security, the economy, and ultimately democratic accountability.

Conflict over facts is a roadblock that prevents people on both sides of the aisle from finding agreement. And in the long term, these disputes undermine Americans’ faith in government. A recent poll showed only a third of Americans now trust their government “to do what is right” — a decline of 14 percent from 2017. The pollster cited a “lack of objective facts and rational discourse” as the root cause for the swift and steep decline.

I know how crucial good information is to our democracy.

Every year the EPA releases reports and assessments on a variety of topics that impact the health, natural environment, and economic well-being of Americans and the global community. It’s critical that such reports be publicly available — and that sound data be used in policymaking — to fulfill EPA’s mission as steward of the environment and public health, and to maintain accountability to the American public.

Last week, I watched the confirmation hearing for the agency’s acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler.  During the hearing, he told senators he would follow the law and not be swayed by political ideology.

Other parts of his testimony gave me pause. Wheeler claimed to rely on the research EPA scientific staff had produced when making policy decisions, but senators highlighted episodes when that research did not support policy decisions.

When questioned about potential political interference to stop inspection of ethylene oxide — a chemical that poses a public health risk — he did not commit to investigate the incident. And although he assured the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works that there was no political interference in the National Climate Assessment released in November, he admitted that he hadn’t read the report before it was released.

The American people do not see the fact of climate change as a political issue subject to debate. Indeed, according to a recent poll, 78 percent of Americans — including 64 percent of Republicans — believe climate change is causing extreme weather and sea level rise. As these statistics show, the environmental and public health issues the EPA is charged with handling are just too important to be subject to the whims of political officials.

So how do we set standards that ensure the integrity of government data that we expect in American democracy? It’s a question I’m tackling as part of the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy, which I co-chair with former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. The Task Force is a nonpartisan group of former public servants and policy experts who reflect varying political views. We’re bound together by our shared belief that we need to take action or risk the destruction of core tenets of American democracy.

Right now we’re facing serious issues relating to, among other things, the environment, public health, the economy, and, yes, immigration, solutions to which will require reliance on hard facts undistorted by hyper-partisan political appointees. There is a long tradition in government of supporting data collection, scientific research, and unbiased analyses.

When we trust the experts to do their jobs with integrity and professionalism — as I know they do — we benefit not only from the resulting policy but from the informed debate and civic engagement, as well as private sector innovation, such data and analyses make possible. And there’s been some good news in recent days. A bill recently passed by Congress, which aims to improve public access to government data, has become law. But much more remains be done.

The American public deserves to have access to the facts — and should trust that government officials are using good data to make policy decisions. Democratic accountability requires the dissemination of accurate information so that the public can evaluate the quality of decisions made by government officials. It’s time to restore public trust in transparent, accountable, and evidence-based policymaking.

Christine Todd Whitman is co-chair of the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy. She is a former Republican governor of New Jersey, and the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Fernandez