A Change in the Wind


Trashing Science

Here's a profile I wrote on hard-working Chris Mooney's important new book, The Republican War on Science, which was published in last week's VCReporter...

Young reporter Chris Mooney grew up in New Orleans, and three months ago The American Prospect website published a prescient article about the disaster that could befall his home town if it were hit by a Category Five hurricane. Yet in his just-published book, The Republican War on Science, Mooney doesn’t even mention the topic. When I asked him why, he replied that “None [of what happened] constitutes an ‘abuse’ of science, just shortsighted policymaking. At most, we can say science was unfortunately ignored in this case.”

It’s a good example of Mooney’s precision and a good example of what makes his description of the Bush administration’s and its allies’ trashing of science so damning. Mooney avoids pundits of all stripes and talks to researchers, doctors, scientists and policy-makers inside the government. The book details in terse, lucid prose how the Republican Administration and Congress, along with right-wing religious advocates and industry apologists from outlets such as Fox News, have allied to hamstring modern research and pillory scientists expressing inconvenient opinions on a range of issues, from dietary advice to global warming.

The book focuses first on a nationally-televised policy shift President Bush announced four years ago. In the speech, Bush said that federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells — the most potent cells in the body — would be restricted to colonies of stem cells, known as “lines,” already in existence in 2001.

On the face of it, the policy sounded reasonable. The president didn’t cancel funding for research already under way, but implicitly promised his anti-abortion supporters that he would not allow new research on the hundreds of thousands of tiny clumps of fertilized cells nurtured in fertility clinics every year, most of which are discarded. The policy shift looked to balance the scales between two sides of a difficult ethical dilemma. But in reaching this decision, the president didn’t consult the scientific literature and didn’t consult the White House science advisor, Rosina Bierbaum. He did consult his “bioethics” advisers. One, Daniel Callahan, is a liberal Catholic, and the other, Leon Kass, a conservative Jew. Both opposed such research on religious grounds.

As a result of not doing his science homework, Mooney argues, the president made a fundamental scientific error, confusing stem cell lines with stem cell derivations. “The Bush White House either didn’t know or didn’t care about the distinction,” he writes. The distinction, which involves the inner cell matter of a five-day-old embryo, is arcane and difficult to explain, but to medical researchers, it’s literally the difference between life and death. Because the president didn’t consult with a true scientist, he didn’t realize that most of the stem cell lines he thought were immortal were in fact dead.

Mooney quotes Nobel Laureate Paul Berg of Stanford on how that can happen: “At some point, somebody took a blastocyst [inner cell matter] from an IVF [fertility] clinic and cracked it open and poured everything into a vial and stuck it into a liquid nitrogen tank. In which case, we don’t know if it’s a line. And most of them died, and that’s why there are so few now.”

For this reason, three-quarters of the stem cell “lines” made eligible for federal funding by Bush in 2001 are useless. Mooney’s decision to begin the book with the stem cell policy speech now looks prophetic because Bush’s policy is under fire on numerous fronts. The review copy reached my desk the very day last month that Bill Frist, the Republican majority leader in the Senate, broke with the President’s stem cell policy. In his speech on the Senate floor, Frist did not directly criticize the president, but implicitly he made the same point made by a dozen or more scientists quoted in Mooney’s book, which is that by freezing research to stem cell lines existing in August 2001, the president had actually compounded the ethical dilemma, while greatly retarding medical research.

In fact, this short-sightedness on the president’s part is amply apparent already. In 2001, stem cell lines were cultured on mouse tumor cells; they contained the genes of mostly affluent white Americans with fertility problems and were drawn from embryos already rejected for implantation. As a researcher pointed out to Mooney, today scientists want to expand research into stem cell lines containing the genes of other sufferers of genetically-based diseases, such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis and various types of cancer. By injecting such stem cells into a mouse and following their development over a mouse’s short lifespan, scientists could start to track genetic malfunctions happening in real time, instead of trying to reconstruct the complex flaws in retrospect. This research means drawing a body cell from a patient suffering a disease such as diabetes, implanting it in an unfertilized egg, creating stem cells, and starting a new stem cell line. According to a Parade magazine poll in July, when described as “therapeutic cloning,” this research method is supported by nearly 60 percent of Americans. When described, as pro-research advocates prefer, as “somatic cell nuclear transfer,” it’s supported by 70 percent of Americans. In other words, the president all but stopped federal research on one of the most promising of all medical frontiers for the sake of a distinction trivial to the vast majority of the population.

Mooney’s book is an excellent guide to these complex issues, and more balanced than the title implies. He has plenty of criticism for the president, but he also chides advocates on the left who misuse science for their own political purposes. He scoffs at John Edwards’ statement from the campaign trail, for example, that if John Kerry were elected and stem cell research promoted, “… people like Christopher Reeve will get up out of that wheelchair and walk again,” which Mooney calls simply “hype.”

But when it comes to challenging science and scientists, Mooney shows how in public the Bush administration White House has chosen to play a phony “good cop” role, following the advice of a Republican pollster named Frank Luntz, who in 2002 urged party leaders to stress that “the most important principle in any discussion of global warming is your commitment to sound science.” “Sound science,” Mooney reveals, was a phrase popularized by The Tobacco Institute in its losing fight in the early l990’s against the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to regulate secondhand smoke. Phillip Morris positioned “sound science” — the difficult-to-find evidence that tobacco smoke was harmless — against “junk science.” According to the tobacco company, “junk science” was any report from the EPA showing that secondhand smoke put wives of smokers — along with stewardesses, waitresses and other non-smokers exposed at the workplace — at risk of contracting lung cancer, bronchitis, heart disease and emphysema.

Mooney shows how the American Petroleum Institute (API) borrowed a page from the tobacco industry to attack the science of climate change. He quotes a memo from the API calling for major think-tank investments in any advocate willing to challenge the science of global warming. The memo, published by The New York Times in l998, declared: “Victory will be achieved when ... recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’” Mooney links this to an infamous memo from Brown & Williamson, another tobacco company, which declared years earlier that “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also a means of establishing a controversy.”

The petroleum industry and its friends have succeeded for over a decade in this country in establishing a controversy on the subject, despite a solid consensus among climatologists. Funded by corporate sponsors — particularly Exxon Mobil, which has poured millions of dollars into more than forty think tanks — a thriving cottage industry has sprung up in this country to obscure the facts.
Mooney catalogues how ideologues at industry outlets such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Fox News continue to contest the increasingly obvious facts of the matter, on whatever grounds they can contrive.

Harvard oceanographer James McCarthy described the evolution of these denials to Mooney this way: “In the late ’80s, early ’90s, it was, ‘Nothing is changing.’ And by the mid-’90s, it’s, ‘Well, things are changing, but just a little bit and, by the way, humans aren’t causing it.’ By 2000, it’s, ‘Well, things are changing a little bit, humans are causing it, but you know what, it won’t matter.’”

On Aug. 12 of this year, a central plank in the climate change skeptics platform collapsed when Science magazine published a report showing that any evidence of slow warming and even cooling in the atmosphere over the tropics, frequently cited by skeptics, was actually caused by a position error in the satellites collecting the data. As Roy Spencer wrote on the website for the The George C. Marshall Institute, a center for skeptics of global warming, the doubters had to concede a crucial point. “This helps to further shift the global warming debate out of the realm of ‘Is warming happening?’ to ‘How much has it warmed and how much will it warm in the future?’” And in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, even well-known conservative skeptics such as Andrew Sullivan have at last admitted a possible link between global warming and wetter and longer-lived hurricanes.

Nonetheless, the denials continue to pour in from well-paid commentators. Steven Milloy, who makes $90,000 a year, largely for publishing a Junk Science column for Fox News out of his house, declared last November in the column that “warmer temperatures don’t seem to be a problem in the Arctic.” He admitted that the Artic seemed to be undergoing a warming phase but declared it was a natural variation, soon to be followed by a cooling phase, and in any case, according to a survey of three villages, polar bears were more abundant than ever, so why worry?

But the most alarming aspect of Mooney’s book is not the outlandish statements of those who profit from avoiding issues like global warming he cites, but the description of an organized effort by Republicans and their “bad cop” allies to put science and scientists on the defensive.

“The ‘sound science’ buzzword is being phased out,” Mooney said during our conversation in an interview. “Now it’s ‘data quality.’”

In the book, Mooney introduces us to a Washington lobbyist and character named Jim Tozzi, a self-described “dirty old man,” former tobacco lobbyist, and Washington bureaucrat who sneaked “two sentences of legalese” into a massive appropriations bill signed into law under President Clinton. Nurtured by the Bush Administration, this provision became the “Data Quality Act,” a new process requiring government agencies to field complaints on all data, studies, and reports released to the public.

“It’s a science abuser’s dream come true,” writes Mooney, and he provides numerous examples. What’s horrifying to believers in science is the way the act allows individual researchers to be targeted by industry groups. Sometimes these scientists are shockingly mainstream; for example, a University of Pennsylvania dean named Shiriki Kumanyika, who worked with a World Health Organization committee documenting the well-known association between poor diet and obesity, diabetes, tooth decay and cancers. With the committee, Kumanyika called for limiting “free sugars” consumption to 10 percent of calories a day. For this she was labeled a “junk scientist” by Stephen Milloy on his website, and the committee’s report was attacked by the U.S. Sugar Association.

Subsequently, the Bush administration, echoing U.S. Sugar, challenged the WHO recommendation, and Jim Tozzi filed a “data quality” petition to prevent Health and Human Services from following the international consensus. When the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee issued its recommendations, the only mention of sugars was a vague suggestion to “choose carbohydrates wisely for good health.”

To Mooney, this is a prime example of how science abuse leads to bad policy-making. Though he’s proud of his book, which is written in coolly understated terms, and although he warmly dedicates the book to his late grandfather, “Paw,” a biologist, and “Chuck” — Charles Darwin — there’s an undercurrent in his voice in the interview over the phone. He thinks the trashing of science on stem cells, tobacco, global warming, nutrition and countless other topics is an “insult” and a menace. Nothing will be done on global warming, at least until 2008, he predicts, and when it becomes apparent what it has cost us, he predicts, “a lot of people are going to be very, very angry.”

Clearly, one already is.