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The New Science Wars

Doubt and About

Chris Mooney

March 15, 2004

When a leading psychologist like Harvard’s Howard Gardner calls the president’s science adviser a “prostitute,” it’s a safe bet that all is not well in the realm of government science policy. Indeed, in the past month, the United States has been engulfed by a kind of “science war,” one pitting much of the nation’s scientific community against the current administration. Led by twenty Nobel laureates, the scientists say Bush’s government has systematically distorted and undermined scientific information in pursuit of political objectives. Examples include the suppression and censorship of reports on subjects like climate change and mercury pollution, the stacking of scientific advisory panels, and the suspicious removal of scientific information from government Web sites.

In response to these highly publicized charges—which are bolstered by a detailed report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)—Bush’s science adviser, John H. Marburger III, has leapt to the administration’s defense. Debating the issue on March 4 on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show, for example, Marburger said he respected the scientists criticizing the administration but charged that the UCS report misrepresented the basic facts in a variety of cases. “We think the allegations are almost entirely wrong and wrong in detail,” he stated.

This led Gardner, on the program to discuss a new book, to respond:

It’s kind of pathetic to hear Dr. Marburger, who is the president’s science adviser, trying to refute eighty-five different accusations, in each case saying, “Well, you really have to know the details.” The question is, “What’s the big picture? What is your role, Dr. Marburger, and at which point would you say, ‘I’m out of here,’ because science has nothing to do with the way we're doing things anymore?” Now, I don’t know enough to be able to argue each of those cases, but I think what every listener has to ask, whatever your work is, “Where’s the line that you wouldn’t cross, because then you couldn’t look at yourself in the mirror any more?” And I actually feel very sorry for Marburger, because I think he’s probably enough of a scientist to realize that he’s basically become a prostitute.

This is, obviously, a bit harsh. I don’t think Marburger is a total sellout. I think it’s more likely that the physicist and former Brookhaven National Laboratory director simply finds himself in a tough position: forced to defend his current boss against grave criticisms from his former scientific peers and colleagues. To make things even more difficult, Marburger happens to be a self-described Democrat.

Still, I agree that Marburger’s argument fails for precisely the reason that Gardner states. A serious examination of the White House’s record, using the UCS report as just one source among many, shows that the administration has indeed put politics over science in a way that distinguishes it from past administrations.

In response to growing criticism, Marburger has conveniently decided to single out the UCS document for refutation. He says he’s been through virtually every incident cited in the report—ranging from the removal of information on condoms from a Centers for Disease Control Web site to the White House’s forceful editing of the section of an Environmental Protection Agency report dealing with climate change—and is preparing a detailed response. Presumably, Marburger will have this analysis pulled together in time for an upcoming Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee

hearing triggered by the UCS report and Nobel laureate protest.

But no matter what Marburger’s rebuttal says, it’s unlikely to be sufficient. First, the Nobel laureate statement and the UCS report aren’t identical. The former expresses a general sense of outrage in the scientific community that’s been building for some time, thanks to the administration’s distortion of consensus scientific views on issues like climate change. The latter, meanwhile, presents a series of case studies of politicized science, most based on newspaper reports in outlets like The New York Times and the Washington Post. The Nobel laureates certainly aren’t explicitly endorsing every sentence of the UCS report, however; I doubt some have even read it.

Moreover, the UCS report is neither the first of its kind nor comprehensive. Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman released a similar report

last August with many overlapping charges as well as some that go entirely unmentioned by the UCS. The most significant difference between the two reports, however, may be that the Bush administration is actually bothering to respond to the UCS document. When The New York Times reported on Waxman’s document last August 8th, by contrast, White House press secretary Scott McClellan simply stated, “The only one who is playing politics about science is Congressman Waxman. His report is riddled with distortion, inaccuracies, and omissions.” McClellan didn’t provide any specific rebuttal at the time, however, and according to Waxman’s office, the administration hasn't bothered to do so since then either. This lackluster response in and of itself suggests that the White House cares little about protecting the integrity of science.

And besides the Waxman and UCS reports, there are still other analyses documenting the Bush administration’s abuses of science. For example, consider www.scienceinpolicy.org, a Web site that focuses exclusively on the environmental arena. The site details distortions and misrepresentations on issues ranging from climate change to debates on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Along with policy analyses, it contains the following statement:

The Bush administration justifies environmental policies by misusing and misrepresenting science. The administration’s harmful positions on climate change, pollution, forest management, and resource extraction ignore widely accepted scientific evidence. When the administration invokes science, it relies on research at odds with the scientific consensus, and contradicts, undermines, or suppresses the research of its own scientists. Furthermore, the administration cloaks environmentally damaging policies under misleading program names like “clear skies” and “healthy forests.” As a result, the public and the media often wrongly believe that this administration uses sound science to help promote a healthy environment. In reality, the best available science indicates that President Bush’s policies will cause and exacerbate damage to the natural systems on which we all depend.

This statement has been signed, when last I checked, by 1,225 scientists, ranging from graduate students to distinguished professors. Is Marburger going to refute every different scientific charge now being levied against the Bush administration? That would be a little like trying to hold back the ocean.

And even on most of the specific cases at issue, Marburger is bound to fail in his defense. Many of the alleged abuses pit government officials, with their reputations at stake, against angry scientists who feel their work has been suppressed—or that they've been sacked—for political reasons. These are “he said, she said” disputes; you can’t just go back over the facts and clear everything up. Moreover, far more relevant than the specific facts of any particular case is that so many such disputes have arisen.

In fact, perhaps the highest-profile case yet actually occurred after

the release of the UCS report. Recently two pro-embryo research members of the President’s Council on Bioethics were abruptly canned and replaced by three anti-research members. Following a huge din of criticism, council chair Leon Kass protested that he wasn’t playing politics with science; sacked scientist Elizabeth Blackburn, however, argues forcefully otherwise. On the Diane Rehm Show, Marburger sided with Kass, but there’s no particularly good reason to do so. Indeed, given the intensity of abortion politics in this country, removing two pro-research members from this well-known council and replacing them with three anti-research members cannot fail to look like stacking the deck. When we learn that Blackburn’s firing occurred shortly after her decision to go public with criticism of the scientific basis of some council reports—including one on the highly politicized issue of stem cell research—things start to seem even more suspicious.

The same goes for many cases in the UCS report. The account of the White House’s editing of an Environmental Protection Agency report section on climate change, for instance, relies on a leaked memo from EPA scientists, exposed in The New York Times, as well as not-for-attribution interviews with EPA staff. Marburger can say the case has been misunderstood, but the memo and interviews clearly demonstrate that some EPA scientists felt the White House was trying to force edits to obscure the science of climate’s support of global warming. Should we assume these scientists are wrong in their criticisms just because Marburger says so? Given the stakes involved in leaking information to the press in such cases, I’m much more inclined to trust the perspective of whistleblowers than of government officials engaged in damage control.

And here’s yet another charge that Marburger cannot possibly refute. In a major speech in August of 2001, Bush claimed “more than sixty” embryonic stem cells would be available for federally funded research. But Bush made his decision on the basis of incomplete, poorly vetted scientific information; even today, the National Institutes of Health lists just fifteen available lines. Recent information suggests

that only twenty-three lines will ever be available under the Bush policy.

Stop and think for a second about that. Stem cell research was one of the most significant policy decisions of the first year of Bush’s presidency. Today it’s clear that the policy rested upon a scientific misrepresentation uttered by the president on national television. This alone counts as a staggering and unprecedented abuse of science in the making of government policy. And the embryonic stem cell issue isn’t even discussed in the Union of Concerned Scientists report that Marburger is singling out.

Let me cite another indisputable abuse: the Bush administration’s systematic exaggeration of the degree of uncertainty implicit in scientists’ understanding of the causes of global warming. This story is well known by now, but Scienceinpolicy.org

has the details. And something else has occurred that scientists consider unprecedented. In many of the aforementioned examples, the White House has shown a willingness to interfere with scientific reports and advice deep within federal agencies, which have previously been allowed to apply their expertise largely free from political interference. Russell Train, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Richard Nixon and himself a Republican, has stated that such manipulation is unprecedented and fundamentally undermines the independence of scientific agencies.

In the final analysis, then, John Marburger is standing in the way of an avalanche. He can’t possibly issue a definitive rebuttal to the cascade of stories and charges that have accumulated over the past four years, each detailing a different case in which the administration has placed politics above science. Marburger can quibble about various details, but in the end, as Howard Gardner says, what counts is the big picture. Scientists are more angry and politically motivated than they've been in decades. It’s doubtful this will all turn out to be a big misunderstanding.

Chris Mooney

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Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund.