Catherine Rampell: The Trump administration’s war on statistics is now threatening lives

This GOES-16, GeoColor satellite image taken Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, at 17:10 UTC and provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows Hurricane Dorian moving off the east coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean. (NOAA via AP)

First, they came for the unemployment rate, and we brushed it off as tinfoil-hat nonsense.

Then they came for crowd sizes, and we laughed at the absurdity.

The next victim was the deficit, which they said was shrinking even as we saw it rising; also climate data, which they denigrated, doctored or disappeared without a trace. But we said, eh, they always do that, no big deal.

They purged the data-crunchers who tabulate crop prices and other agricultural statistics, and we ignored it because we weren’t farmers. They even came for the yield curve, which they said hadn’t inverted when it had, but also that even if it did invert, the inversion would mean the opposite of what everyone knows it means.

Now, they've come for the weather forecast. And if earlier episodes in President Trump's war on statistics threatened livelihoods, this one threatens lives.

For a week, Trump obsessively insisted that his errant tweet about Hurricane Dorian's threat to Alabama was correct. The episode included a moment so ridiculous it would have been too broad even for the HBO comedy series "Veep": Last Wednesday, Trump showed a hurricane map that had obviously been doctored with a Sharpie.

It was funny, telegenic, easy to grasp. So, understandably, Sharpiegate got news coverage up the wazoo. The more ominous developments in this saga, however, got significantly less attention. They happened the previous Sunday, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sent a secret agencywide directive warning its scientists not to contradict the president, and then the subsequent Friday, when NOAA released an unsigned statement backing Trump's false forecast and disparaging its own scientists. It was reportedly sent after the commerce secretary threatened firings.

Sure, Trump's attacks on objective statistics, scientists or really any independent source of accountability are nothing new. On the contrary, such attacks have become ubiquitous. Anyone who dares to produce or even accurately report on politically inconvenient metrics is allegedly participating in a vast anti-Trump conspiracy or is somehow rooting for America to fail.

And, at this point, media corrections of Trump's false claims about stock performance, or air purity, or the strength of the manufacturing sector, can feel tedious, pedantic and exhausting. Trump's just being Trump, pundits scold. We should all move on to "real" concerns rather than these distractions from whatever other horrible (or, depending on your viewpoint, wonderful) things the administration is doing.

But these are real concerns. Trump’s attempted manipulations of official metrics — and the aspersions he casts upon metrics he cannot manipulate — degrade our democracy, economy and public safety.

Distrust in official data is deadly to voters' ability to evaluate public policies, as well as the records of the officials crafting or overseeing those policies.

This numerical nihilism likewise wears on companies' and households' abilities to make informed and economically efficient decisions, something Trump's billionaire Cabinet should appreciate.

And as illustrated by the administration's insistence that even the weather report is fake, the erosion of trust in government data can also kill people.

The director of the National Weather Service gave a brave speech on Monday — at an annual meteorological meeting in Alabama, of all places. He noted that shortly after Trump's initial Alabama hurricane tweet, the National Weather Service's Birmingham office noticed its "phones and social media" light up with questions about Dorian. Without actually knowing what had triggered these worried inquiries, it tweeted to assure the public that "Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian."

"They did that with one thing in mind: public safety," NWS Director Louis Uccellini said, defending the employees his superiors had attacked. "The Birmingham office did this to stop panic."

After all, just as there are costs to failing to alert people about dangerous weather, so, too, are there costs to encouraging people to freak out about dangerous weather that doesn't exist. For the National Weather Service, long-term credibility matters: If people come to believe the government hypes or even invents the risk of natural disaster, they might ignore those warnings next time there actually is significant risk of natural disaster.

This problem is not theoretical. It happened in Joplin, Missouri, in 2011, when 158 people died from a powerful tornado despite National Weather Service warnings. A subsequent NOAA report found that the perceived frequency of tornado warning sirens had caused people to become "desensitized or complacent" and "not take protective action" until it was too late.

Just as we don't want Americans to become "desensitized or complacent" about the risk of deadly weather, neither should we allow ourselves to become "desensitized or complacent" about the risk this president presents to one of our country's most precious assets: reliable, trustworthy, nonpartisan public data.

Catherine Rampell

Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.