President Trump nominated Michael Dourson last week to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical and pesticides office. Dourson is a toxicologist at the University of Cincinnati and founded a nonprofit consulting company called Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment in 1995. Before that, he spent 15 years working for the EPA. But his appointment is raising eyebrows not just because of his professional qualifications—more on those later—but because of his hobby: self-publishing books he describes as “science-Bible stories.”
As BuzzFeed News reports, Dourson is the author of a series titled “Evidence of Faith,” in which he explores the science surrounding key events described in the Bible. Messiah’s Star focuses on the astronomical events around the time of the birth of Jesus. (He theorizes that Jesus was born on June 17, 2 BC. Sorry, Christmas!) The Beginning: Let there be light, focuses on the creation of the universe. And The Linen Cloths…Jesus left behind, published in February, focuses on the Shroud of Turin, a relic purported to be Jesus’s burial cloths. The books are almost trippy in tone, melding historical and scientific evidence with narrative interpretations of how, say, the three magi would have experienced the events around Jesus’ birth.
BuzzFeed warns that Dourson’s books suggest he “may read the Bible literally.” Few conservative Christians self-identify as literalists; it’s a term that is handier as a shorthand pejorative than a meaningful descriptor. More to the point, Dourson’s books are attempts not to discredit scientific explanations for natural phenomena, but to reconcile Biblical and scientific accounts. In The Beginning, for example, he interprets the six-day creation story in Genesis as a story spanning hundreds of millions of years—hardly a Creationist-approved approach. Dourson places angels on the scene: “The angels saw unmistakable evidence of the big bang,” he writes:
[Michael] and the other angels had the privilege to experience time as God did, and they noted that it took approximately 300 million or so years for the matter from this first explosion, primarily hydrogen, to coalesce by way of gravity into large masses. And then a surprising thing occurred.
These masses self-ignited into glowing, burning objects: the first stars. The light of the second “day” had begun! “Wow!” exclaimed Gabriel, Satan, Michael, and the other angels.
It’s not exactly sophisticated, literarily speaking. Or theologically. Or scientifically. But it also doesn’t sound like the work of a fundamentalist trying to wave away science. It’s the work of a devout scientist trying to blend two belief systems. And it’s worth pointing out that it’s not unusual at all for a scientist to be religious, though admittedly few of them spend their free time spinning tales of a prelapsarian Satan witnessing the Big Bang. The work of sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund suggests that American scientists are not radically out of step with the general public when it comes to religious beliefs and practices: 18 percent of scientists attend weekly religious services, for example, compared with 20 percent of the general population. About the same percentage pray several times a day. And 17 percent of scientists identify as evangelical Protestants—that’s about 2 million people.
So it’s not Dourson’s hobbies nor his faith that should prompt questions about his fitness for the job. Rather, it’s his resume itself. A 2014 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News found that Dourson’s firm had inappropriately close connections to chemical manufacturers and other industry players, for example. Some critics are concerned about his approach to risk assessment. And the Environmental Defense Fund accused Dourson this week of a “history of failing to appropriately address his conflicts of interest.” BuzzFeed also interviewed another toxicologist who has worked with Dourson and is concerned that the nominee tends to believe the EPA overestimates risk.
As it happens, Dourson’s self-published books lend some insight into his thinking on chemical risk. In the last chapter of The Linen Cloths, Dourson peeks in on a thinly fictionalized “older medical scientist” returning home after a day at work studying chemical toxicity at a university. (This character definitely feels like a thinly veiled Dourson—even his description of his wife mirrors how Dourson has described his own wife.) The scientist had published a study on a particular flame-retardant that was toxic at high levels, he writes, but actual exposures from consumer products were relatively low and therefore harmless. (The dose makes the poison, as toxicologists say.)
Actual exposures from consumer products were much lower than this, he thought, and would not cause any harm, even in sensitive people, like his four-year-old grandson, Finn, who had just spied him from across the room and who was even then making a beeline to run into his arms. Besides, he thought as he raised up Finn for a swooping hug, I will take the flame retarding benefits of these chemicals any day because destruction of lives and property by fire was a daily occurrence throughout his country.
The question of how the EPA’s next chemical and pesticides authority approaches issues of risk, toxicity, industry standards, and consumer safety is the right conversation to have. The fact that he writes stories about the Shroud of Turin on the side is not. As Jesus himself said, in a passage quoted by Dourson: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”