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Politics

The Trump administration's war on statistics is now threatening lives

Catherine Rampell on

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.

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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.

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