Bush's 'sound science'
Turning a deaf ear to reality
By David Schubert
July 9, 2004
Source: The San Diego Union Tribune
The foundation of our modern society and its continued existence is dependent upon our scientific understanding of the world around us.
During the last three years, we have witnessed an unprecedented assault by the executive branch of our government upon the ability of U.S. scientists to freely share their data and insights about our world with the public. Much of the justification for this repression of scientific communication falls under the Orwellian concept of "sound science," which is clearly understood by the scientific community to mean the misrepresentation of scientific data to reflect the administration's political and social agendas.
This political manipulation of U.S. science began well below the level of public awareness within days after the current administration took office. Highly respected scientists on dozens of advisory committees were replaced with individuals who promote "sound science" as defined by industry and the religious right.
The concept of sound science, not to be confused with good science, was coined by Newt Gingrich and the incoming 1994 Republican Congress as part of an effort to bypass regulatory hurdles. Sound science required endless analysis and an extreme burden of proof of harm before anything could be regulated by federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. However, the legislation proposed by this group was never made into law.
Now that the Republicans are in total control of the government, the promises of sound science are coming to fruition. The egregious censorship and interference with independent scientific inquiry by the Bush administration were explicitly documented on a case-by-case basis in a recent report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The report was endorsed by over 60 Nobel prize winners and leading scientists.
During the last few weeks, the administration has added to this list an unprecedented series of declarations that have the potential to even more seriously affect public health and safety.
First, they have demanded the power to approve all U.S. scientists who sit on World Health Organization committees. The WHO is the public health arm of the United Nations responsible for coordinating responses to epidemics like SARS and eradicating diseases such as smallpox. It also makes recommendations on environmental and industrial threats. The WHO's expert panels have historically been made up of the very best scientists chosen on the basis of expertise and merit, not political ideology.
Second, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services blocked the travel of over 150 U.S. scientists to the International AIDS Conference to be held in Bangkok next week. Many believe that this is because the organizer of the conference refused a request by U.S. officials to invite the Rev. Franklin Graham, the evangelist Billy Graham's son, as the keynote speaker to promote faith-based approaches to the global AIDS epidemic.
Third, in the name of sound science, the U.S. Department of Agriculture denied the Creekstone Farms slaughterhouse in Kansas a request to test all of its cattle for mad cow disease. The testing was an effort by Creekstone to promote the sale of its beef to Japan, where all cattle are routinely tested.
The most likely reason for the denial of this increased safety precaution is that the government fears additional cases of the disease will be found, for only a tiny fraction of the 35 million cattle slaughtered each year are examined. Indeed, another case of the disease was recently identified, but the USDA rapidly proclaimed the test to be a false positive without giving any details.
This incident brings me to the most frightening administration policy of all, which is an attempt by the White House Office of Management and Budget to gain complete control over the release of all public declarations from federal agencies responsible for public safety, health and the environment. OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs uses the excuse of sound science to justify stripping scientists of their traditional authority and adding an additional layer of political review for such life-threatening scenarios as epidemics, nuclear accidents and cases of mad cow disease.
Although this policy has been criticized by every scientific organization in the country, the OMB has already silenced EPA statements regarding public health threats due to arsenic, lead and mercury in our environment, rewritten the EPA science on global warming and prevented the EPA from declaring a public health emergency due to a case of asbestos contamination in Montana.
Just as the Bush administration manipulated the intelligence on Iraq, it is now trying to change the facts of nature to meet its political and ideological goals. This distortion of reality is going to have long-term consequences for our health, safety and the environment.
If you believe that Big Brother is taking care of you, you can rest assured that he is doing it in the name of sound science.
Schubert is a professor and laboratory head of the Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla.