Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Daniel S. Greenberg on The Republican War on Science

Read the full review of Chris Mooney's book in the London Review of Books. (Subscription required.)

I consider Greenberg to be the dean of those reporting on the interface between science and politics in Washington. He characterizes The Republican War on Science as "a valuable chronicle of Bush’s persistent efforts to undermine the authority of science in the interests of his anti-regulatory and anti-abortion agendas."

Greenberg himselt offers a scathing list of offenses in his review:
* The president has done his best to cast doubt on the theory of evolution with his respectful nods to the crackpot concept of ‘intelligent design’, a pseudo-scientific fabrication more marketable than its crude kin, creationism.
* The president’s base demands unwavering fealty to the anti-abortion movement, and the Bush camp has obliged, even to the extent of fabricating an association between abortion and breast cancer.
* The administration then turned its attention to condoms, which are an affront to the evangelical preference for abstinence. Mooney notes that both the Centers for Disease Control and the State Department’s Agency for International Development "have altered informational materials on condoms to downplay their effectiveness".
* Bush has repeatedly denigrated the work and warnings of the world’s leading climate researchers, scoffing at their conclusion – based on analyses of vast collections of data – that global climate change is caused in large part by the burning of fossil fuels.
* "Sound science" became a battle cry for Gingrich in his commitment to the wholesale dismantling of government regulations, and it has since been carried forward by the Bush administration in a variety of ploys aimed at undermining regulations disliked by industry.
* The Data Quality Act, a federal law that subjects government agencies to multiple challenges, peer review and stiff standards of scientific evidence when they attempt to mitigate health or environmental hazards, was passed in 2001.
* (Bush's) theatrical, hand-wringing decision regarding stem-cell research, which allowed federal funding only for embryonic stem-cell lines that were in existence prior to 9 August 2001. The decision, Bush said, was painfully arrived at after consultation with religious leaders, bio-ethicists, scientists and physicians. That it made little sense was evident from the start.

William Steiger, the director of the Office of Global Affairs and a godson of the first President Bush, is of some interest to me, since many years ago I worked in the predecessor of that office. "When a joint report of the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation linked obesity and excessive sugar consumption, particularly in soft drinks, the sugar lobby reacted boldly," according to Greenberg. They recruited Steiger to their support, Steiger, in turn, used the Data Quality Act to attack the FAO/WHO report, "even though researchers in his own department had participated in its preparation and endorsed it as a reliable basis for policy recommendations." Ultimately, "the World Health Assembly omitted any reference to the disputed document in the global strategy for diet and health that it issued in 2004." Steiger’s office went on with efforts to prevent government scientists from opposing the administration’s pro-business preferences, stating that that office would select U.S. experts advising the WHO, and those experts would be required to support US policies. Steiger also "put restrictions on foreign travel by scientists in his department: ‘foreign’ included the Washington offices of the World Bank, WHO and other UN organisations."

Greenberg is offended by the "political passivity of that community, despite the many assaults on its integrity, and the seething discontent that is now evident among individual scientists. The ‘war’ in the title is a lop-sided conflict, initiated and pursued by the administration. On the science side, it has consisted of petitions by Nobel laureates and other eminences, press releases, occasional editorials in scientific journals and feeble efforts to mobilise anti-Bush votes in 2000 and 2004. Though disturbed and offended by the administration’s manipulation, distortion and suppression of scientific data, science is not at the barricades. Most deplorable is the failure of the scientific establishment to help the public understand the reality and implications of Bush’s assaults on science."


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