The Rape of Data / Bush vs. Science

with Nicolás Pinel, Tarek Maassarani, Bonnie Chang and Beth! Orcutt
In Flagpole Magazine[March 2004]; Georgetown University Law Magazine; and Ruckus [Vol. 8, Iss. 5, March 2005]

The following article, co-authored by a group of concerned graduate students from the University of Washington and other schools and first published by Flagpole Magazine in Athens, GA, and the Georgetown University Law Magazine, has been adapted for Ruckus. The full paper, with references, is available at www.ruckuscollective.org.

“Science, like any field of endeavor, relies on freedom of inquiry, and one of the hallmarks of that freedom is objectivity. Now more than ever, on issues ranging from climate change to AIDS research to genetic engineering to food additives, government relies on the impartial perspectives of science for guidance.”—President George H.W. Bush, April 23, 1990

As acknowledged by the former President Bush, the role of science in public government, and the importance of objectivity in scientific inquiry, can scarcely be overstated. While democratic governments are responsible for engaging the economic and social value systems that reflect the will of the electorate, it is the acquisition and analysis of scientific data that ultimately gives meaning to this complex activity by grounding value-laden decision-making in concrete reality. Furthermore, when it comes to issues directly affecting national and global welfare—such as climate, health care, and the environment—scientists are especially obligated to provide the public and the government with authoritative judgment and information of the highest quality and credibility. In turn, the executive and legislative branches bear a responsibility to act in a manner respecting scientific recommendations.

One stated goal of science is to lift the shroud of subjectivity that cloaks the world around us. Scientific truth comes into existence by minimizing – and ideally eliminating – the role of the very agent uncovering it. Science strives to be a truly universal language that is infinitely transferable across boundaries of culture, language, personality and partisanship, a construct that aims to avoid, by its very definition, room for reinterpretation – political or otherwise. Nowhere is the sacrosanctity of science more relevant than in the fields of health and ecology, two spheres of concern that often stand in the way of “free market” policies and their aggressive proponents.

Unfortunately, these imperatives are not being respected by the present American government. In this article we set out to show, through examples drawn from recent policy proposals and implementations, that the current U.S. administration is actively and effectively reducing solid science into a political tool through a series of determined maneuvers that undermine the vital relationship between science and public policy.

The authors, all graduate students intimately involved with scientific research and/or legal studies, feel compelled to speak out against what we perceive as growing trends of misconduct at the national executive level. Below, we summarize crucial sections from findings in reports published in February 2004 by the National Research Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists, the latter a group of more than 100,000 concerned citizens and sixty imminent scientists—including Nobel laureates, medical experts, former federal agency directors, and university chairs and presidents—who have voiced concern about the misuse of science by the current Bush administration.

Climate change: Controversializing the uncontroversial

The Bush administration has consistently dismissed years of accumulated evidence that clearly show the nefarious effects of industrial activities on the ecosphere. In the first year of the Bush administration, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was called on to review the available data regarding climate change and the contribution of humankind to global warming. The resultant report expressed strong agreement with the views of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of more than two thousand international climate researchers established in 1988 under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program. Both the NAS report and the IPCC acknowledge a trend towards warmer average global temperatures in the last few decades, and point the finger of blame largely at fossil fuel combustion. However, simply because the vast majority of scientists agree does not mean that consensus has been reached—or so goes the logic of the current White House denizens.

In September 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was asked by the White House to remove an entire section on climate change from their annual air pollution report. White House officials, with no scientific training whatsoever, attempted to edit the 2003 EPA Report on the Environment by introducing qualifiers that added fabricated uncertainty to well-established facts. It was this attempt by the Bush administration at manipulating the scientific process within a federal agency that lead to the resignation of EPA Director Christine Todd Whitman in June 2003.

Support from special interest groups has created a false impression of uncertainty. Far from acknowledging the conclusions reached by the majority of experts, the Bush administration has proclaimed that uncertainty about the relevance of human activities in climate change remains impossibly large, and that consequently any policy regulating greenhouse gas emissions lacks justification. The perceived uncertainty stems from a single published review of cherry-picked data and unsupported extrapolations. The review, underwritten by the American Petroleum Institute, and authored by individuals with well-established connections to the oil industry, is frequently cited by opponents of greenhouse emission control and by supporters of White House policies, despite having been contested and criticized repeatedly by the scientific community. By overlooking results derived from decades of research and focusing only on those that support its political agenda—or those of the oil industry—the Bush administration has blatantly manipulated the process of scientific debate to justify policies benefiting industry groups at the expense of the common public interest.

With this background of manufactured uncertainty on global warming, it has become easier to relax emissions control rules governing coal-fueled power plants, and to promote low efficiency, high emission standards for automobiles. Strategies for control of air pollution by the Bush administration have consisted mainly of voluntary reduction by polluters.

Regulations on greenhouse gas emissions are being eased for oil operations in Alaska, where the release of nitrogen oxide from oil fields now exceeds that of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Downplaying the imminence of human-caused climate change limits the motivation for development of ‘cleaner’ energy sources, thereby perpetuating US dependence on fossil fuels. The consequences of this are, of course, all too evident today.

The White House has refused to accept the reality of global warming even when identified by the US Defense Department as a significant future threat to national security. In an October 2003 report commissioned by the influential defense advisor Andrew Marshall, the effects of catastrophic global warming on global population patterns and resource distribution are listed as imminent threats to the US. The Bush administration suppressed the report for four months. It was finally leaked in February 2004 to the UK newspaper The Observer. Nonetheless, the only US newspaper to report this story was the Kansas Morning Star, three days after its original appearance. The authors of the report called for global warming to be considered a serious threat deserving immediate attention and action.

At the time this article was written, the Bush administration had not yet acknowledged the Pentagon-commissioned report. Perhaps the White House staff was too preoccupied with their then-current task: requesting exemptions to the Montreal Protocol on the release of methyl bromide, the most powerful ozone-depleting chemical still in widespread use.

Wanted: Scientific experts—no prior experience necessary

Traditionally, the US federal government has avoided overt bias by relying on the nominations of agency staff who, in conjunction with independent outside advice, favor candidates recognized for their scientific expertise and reputation as leaders in their respective fields. The Bush administration, however, has repeatedly selected candidates with questionable credentials for advisory positions, used ‘political litmus tests’ during the interview process, and favored candidates put forward by industry lobbyists over those recommended by its own federal agencies. Needless to say, executives from these industries are often large campaign contributors. Representative examples of the above include the rejection of staff-selected nominees for an Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention by Tommy Thompson, then-secretary of Health and Human Services. Five individuals, all distinguished by their opposition to the tightening of the federal lead poisoning standard, were selected instead. And then there’s the appointment of Dr. W. David Hager, an obstetrician-gynecologist and conservative religious activist with scant credentials and highly partisan political views, to the Food and Drug Adiministration’s Reproductive Health Advisory Committee. Dr. Hager’s refusal to prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women perhaps best elucidates his suitability for a leading staff position on a committee that advises on such issues as abortion, contraceptives, and hormone replacement therapy.

The environment: Now you see it, now you don’t

The status of small populations of species suspected of being threatened with extinction is commonly assessed using mathematical population modeling. The Bush administration has actively fought in court to circumvent the use of this technique, and has supported numerous pending amendments before Congress that would make it harder to list threatened species. Since 2001, only 25 new species—the lowest number since the Endangered Species Act was implemented in 1967—have come to be listed under the Act, every single one under court order. One of the relatively-publicized examples of the Bush administration distorting or suppressing the findings of its own environmental agencies to further its political agenda is provided by the case of the management of the Missouri River. There, ten years worth of accumulated scientific work was discarded because, according to the recently-retired supervisor of the project in 2004, “our findings don’t match up with what they want to hear [and] they are putting a new team on the job who will give them what they want.”

Terrorists, scientists — what’s the difference?

When Congress created the National Nuclear Security Administration—the agency responsible for maintaining and designing the nation’s nuclear weaponry—in 2000, an independent advisory committee was also established to offer expert opinion. This external technical committee was staffed by distinguished academics with extensive knowledge of nuclear weapons, former government officials, and retired senior military officers. During the first Bush term, after a few of the NNSA advisory committee members published articles stating that nuclear weapons designed to destroy deeply buried targets –so called ‘bunker busters’– were not only narrowly effective, but would inevitably produce large quantities of radioactive fallout, the committee was abolished. Coincidentally, the Bush Administration’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review and FY2004 budgets call for development and targeted funding of these same weapons.

Sexual abstinence: Who are we kidding?

Policies of sexual abstinence were implemented in several African countries in the late 1980s, all with a remarkably consistent and well-documented lack of success. The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists all support comprehensive sex education programs that provide adolescents with information on how to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases. During George W. Bush’s 1995-2000 tenure as governor of Texas, the ‘abstinence-only’ state ranked last in the nation in the decline of teen birth rates among 15- to 17-year-old-females. Indeed, there is little disagreement among experts that, far from reducing unwanted pregnancies, abstinence-only programs actually may increase pregnancies in partners of male participants. Laying scientific findings aside, the Bush administration has consistently promoted abstinence programs as its preferred means of HIV prevention. A like-minded Congress approved over $120 million for domestic abstinence programs in its fiscal year 2003 budget, $50 million of which was connected to the U.S. Welfare Reform Act and to programs that teach that a “mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.” Particular mention should also be made here of the Bush administration’s decision to reroute funding from the independent “Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria” to the new abstinence-focused “President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.”

Upsetting the foundation

Science, like any other academic discipline, rests on a foundation of trust. Our work is built on the pillars erected by those before us, and we depend on their soundness. Falsification, fabrication, and disregard—even when imposed by external forces—are the loose bricks that can collapse years, or even lifetimes, of effort and resources. Unfettered information is the lifeblood of intellectual freedom, critical thinking, and political, social, and— yes—spiritual progress. By suppressing or distorting the information underlying the proper functioning of our society, the current US federal government is failing in its obligation towards the scientific community and the larger public who rely on well-grounded public policy decision-making, free from the damaging distortions of political persuasion.

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