THE GOP’S JIHAD AGAINST SCIENCE
by Chris Mooney
FOR SIX YEARS OF THE GEORGE W. BUSH ADMINISTRATION, the scientific community has been repeatedly disdained, and the bullshitters ascendant. The Bush regime has not only politicized the Justice Department—as with the firings of at least eight U.S. Attorneys—but also politicized science.
It began early on when Bush, asserting that our knowledge about global warming was “incomplete,” rejected the Kyoto Protocol. Then he announced a truly bizarre policy for the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, the major hot-button political issue in the days prior to 9/11. Bush’s decision, made before he had even named his Presidential science adviser, was premised on the false “fact” that more than 60 preexisting cell lines would be eligible for federal funding even if Bush blocked funding for research on any new lines after that. But there weren’t nearly so many lines, and those that did exist were genetically limited, contaminated and had various other attributes that made them undesirable for scientific study.
Understandably annoyed by this kind of crap, scientists grew even more worried as the President left key science posts empty. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—two megagovernment agencies employing hordes of scientists—were stumbling around leaderless for a year. Bush delayed just as long in appointing a Surgeon General.
Then the real nonsense started. Although few have ever heard of them, it turns out that there are literally hundreds of committees, comprised of scientists and other experts, that advise our massive government on all kinds of technical subjects. Most of these committees are so obscure that apparently no one had thought to politicize them before the Bush Administration came along. It took true innovation (along with a certain measure of control-freakery) to interfere with this small army of nerds and technocrats.
One area where the Bush Administration messed with the scientists involved sex. Many of the President’s Christian Right supporters oppose sex before marriage. (Some probably oppose it after as well.) They also like to claim that virtually any form of contraception, or even information about contraception, encourages youthful promiscuity—rather than, say, protect kids who are going to screw around anyway. So they quickly got to work messing with an advisory committee that makes decisions regarding reproductive health drugs.
That included Plan B—the so-called “morning after” pill. It’s a form of emergency contraception that, if taken quickly after sex, can prevent unwanted pregnancy and therefore a large number of abortions.
Christian conservatives hate abortions; yet paradoxically, because of their discomfort with sex, they also hate Plan B. So the Bush Administration installed on the committee its favorite gynecologist, W. David Hager, author of a book titled As Jesus Cared for Women. After the experts deliberated, they voted 23-4 that Plan B should be available over the counter. But the highly politicized FDA rejected their view, opting instead for Hager’s minority position on the matter. Later, Hager credited God with helping him to block wider availability of Plan B.
For right-wing Christians, when it comes to deterring women from having abortions, fear is the leading tactic. This inevitably involves more bullshit: claims that having an abortion will make you go crazy, give you breast cancer, etc.
Under the Bush Administration, once again, this kind of stuff actually got a hearing. A government document suggested that abortion might indeed increase a woman’s risk of contracting breast cancer later in life (although the vast majority of experts think otherwise). At least, in this case, reality did ultimately prevail: The document eventually got changed back, as not even the Bushies could justify so indefensible a statement for very long.
During Congressional hearings in July 2007, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona testified that his report on global health concerns was tampered with. Carmona’s original draft stressed the role of condoms in AIDS prevention, but William Steiger—a Bush appointee in the Department of Health and Human Services— sent the then-Surgeon General a memo. Steiger told Carmona to add to his report praise for Bush’s purported efforts to both curb AIDS in Third World countries and to improve public health in Afghanistan and Iraq. The HHS never released Carmona’s report, which also denounced violence against women and pollution, but had failed to ballyhoo Bush.
If possible, the administration’s distortions were still more egregious in the realm of climate science. There seemed to be a government- wide strategy of tinkering and meddling with scientific reports about global warming so as to keep the issue off the table and prevent pressure on the President to seriously address it. At one point the White House so heavily edited a government environmental report that the technocrats had to drop the global warming section entirely, rather than mislead the public.
In another case the executive branch had a lawyer named Philip Cooney—who had no scientific credentials, but had previously worked for the American Petroleum Institute [the oil industry's most influential lobbying organization]— editing the language of scientific documents pertaining to global warming. Needless to say, Cooney emphasized how uncertain everything was. Later, after his edits were revealed, he moved on to work for ExxonMobil. Talk about conflicts of interest.
And even as government scientific reports were getting the red-pen treatment, climate scientists working for the government were, at times, being blocked from talking to the press. Perhaps the most famous case involved James Hansen, arguably the world’s most famous climate scientist. Sometimes called the “father” of global warming, Hansen works for NASA. In early 2006, the scientist charged there had been a clampdown on his freedom of speech after he had given a public lecture discussing the dangers of global warming.
In one case a young NASA aide named George Deutsch helped to divert an interview request for Hansen that came from a National Public Radio show. Deutsch later resigned when it was revealed that contrary to his résumeé, he had not yet graduated from Texas A&M University.
James Hansen’s case is made all the more outrageous because of the urgent message he was struggling to convey to the rest of us. Hansen has become convinced that we have an ever-narrowing window in which to address global warming before we suffer its severest consequences—namely, the destabilization of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. This, in turn, could lead to massive sea-level rise on the order of tens of feet, and thus the submersion of many heavily inhabited continental coastal areas and islands in coming centuries.
But Hansen wasn’t the only example of a government climate scientist who experienced constraints upon his ability to discuss global warming with the broader public. Take Thomas Knutson, a constituent of Rush Holt (D-New Jersey). Knutson, a soft-spoken scientist, runs massively complex climate models on massively expensive supercomputers at a government lab in Princeton. The classic technocrat also happens to be an expert on the relationship between global warming and hurricanes. So after the devastating 2005 Atlantic hurricane season—which featured four Category 5 storms, including Katrina—Knutson was prevented by government PR flacks from giving two national television interviews.
In August 2007, Bush announced plans for an international “climate change summit.” Greenpeace responded: “It’s a step forward that Bush no longer denies man-made global warming, but there has to be a concern that this is yet another attempt to derail the U.N. climate change negotiations set for December… Bush speaks about…voluntary targets… [This summit] must not allow Bush to distract the U.N. from December’s meeting, where the goal must be the kind of deep binding emissions cuts that Bush still strongly opposes.”
You might argue, of course, that these are just anecdotes—a few outrageous stories, but scientists don’t draw general conclusions without real statistics, and neither should we.
It turns out that we do actually have statistics about how bad the situation has gotten with respect to science in the Bush Administration. A group called the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which tracks the issue, has collaborated with a number of other organizations to survey governmentemployed scientists about political interference. A number of surveys have been conducted by various branches of the government that employ lots of researchers—the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the FDA, etc.—and the results are eye-opening. For example, in a survey of government climate researchers, the UCS found that 46% of respondents felt pressure to remove the words global warming or climate change from various documents, while 43% reported that edits had altered the meaning of their scientific results.
In other words, the spreading of bullshit has become systemic within the federal government. When the interests of religious zealots, oilmen and the rest of Bush’s backers are involved, ideology always trumps science in this corrupt administration. Finally, it’s important to note that the scientific distortions aren’t merely occurring below the radar in the editing of scientific reports, the quashing of scientists or the stacking of advisory panels. The President himself has uttered them.
As recently as 2006, Bush could be found falsely claiming that a “fundamental debate” still existed over whether human greenhouse gas emissions are causing global temperatures to rise. And on an issue where there’s even more scientific certainty, evolution, the President voiced his support for teaching the pseudoscientific “intelligent design” concept in high school science classes nationwide.
Still, it’s a fair question as to why this so-called “war on science”—which involves distortions, misrepresentations and suppression across the government— has emerged under Bush rather than under previous Presidents. While there’s no single answer, it’s quite clear that many of the attacks on science are intended to reward and appease the special interests that helped put Bush in office in the first place. That’s especially true of corporate America, which has a vested interest in downplaying global warming, and the Christian Right, which obsesses about sex and abortion as well as Darwin. In short, the whole thing looks a lot like a good old-fashioned spoils system.
Reality isn’t up for a vote, though, and our government is supposed to remain competent and intact throughout multiple Presidential administrations. That’s where the true damage from the GOP jihad on science makes itself felt: A huge alphabet soup of government agencies—staffed by scientists and technocrats whose salaries are paid by the public—has now had its credibility thoroughly undermined. Why would a talented young scientist want to go work in one of these agencies, given the alarming stories about science politicization and the low morale among scientists already working there? And why would we, the public, continue to trust these agencies?
On November 7, 2006, Democrats took control of Congress and have already started investigating some of the most egregious cases in which the Bush Administration attacked science. James Hansen, Tom Knutson, Philip Cooney and George Deutsch were called to testify before Congressional committees. We’ll see whether this new, high-level pressure makes the Bush Administration more honest or not. But so far, it has only helped to prompt one of the most incredible bullshit admissions yet.
Earlier this year, the White House had the gall to put out a statement claiming that President Bush has “consistently acknowledged climate change is occurring and humans are contributing to the problem.” It was a bold-faced lie, but a somewhat hopeful one. At least this time around, the Bush Administration’s denial of reality involves denying its previous denial of reality.
Chris Mooney, the Washington correspondent for Seed magazine, has written two authoritative books: the best-seller The Republican War on Science, as well as the recentlypublished Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics and the Battle Over Global Warming.