Science and the Bush Administration
SF Chronicle, April 4, 2004
Political controversies leave us all wondering how to separate truth from deceit and honest mistakes. Were there weapons of mass destruction or not? Is global warming an imminent danger? How can we produce energy while protecting the environment? An endless stream of complicated data must be interpreted coherently in order to craft policies that address the gravest threats to humanity.
We expect our policy-makers, who have access to far more data than average citizens, to weigh all the evidence in choosing the optimal path. We may or may not ultimately agree with them, but if they claim that the data support their decisions, we trust that it does. The Bush administration has consistently violated this trust in crafting its environmental policies. By misrepresenting the state of the science, overplaying scientific uncertainty and presenting information as fact with no scientific justification for the assertion, the president has started us down a dangerous path where scientific results are merely fodder for political spin doctors.
The president is charged with pursuing policies that serve the public interest, and it is his right to choose one set of interests over another if he thinks it will best serve the country. It is not his right, however, to misrepresent the state of the science in the justification of his policies. Yet on issues ranging from climate change to forest management, pollution control and oil exploration, the Bush administration has falsely implied that the scientific consensus supports its policy decisions.
The administration has twice dismissed valid critiques of its use of science:
-- First came the report in August from Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles. The ranking Democrat on the House Committee for Government Reform outlined a series of mischaracterizations of scientific information by the administration. Given the congressman's political affiliation, it is unfortunate but not surprising that the administration brushed off the largely accurate report as partisan politics.
-- More recently, 62 of the nation's leading scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, signed a statement composed by the Union of Concerned Scientists decrying the administration's misuse of science. In the report that accompanied the statement, the union documented more than 30 examples that involved many of the major environmental concerns of our century. The report discussed abuses in the areas of climate change, the release of toxins into the environment (including lead and mercury) and the creation of forest management policy.
Despite that fact that the first finding in the report asserts "there is a well-established pattern of suppression and distortion of scientific findings by high-ranking Bush administration political appointees across numerous federal agencies," the president's science adviser, John H. Marburger III, responded in a New York Times interview that the report listed a series of isolated examples that did not constitute a pattern. In addition, he belittled the scientists who signed the statement as a few disgruntled individuals who had their "feathers ruffled." A coherent rebuttal of the accusations in the union report has been notably missing from the administration's defense, and it is virtually impossible to imagine even a handful of leading scientists lining up to defend the administration's use of science.
Because the science behind these issues is complex, it is the responsibility of the scientific community to critique this misrepresentation of the scientific consensus. But on the whole, scientists are rightly hesitant to jump into partisan politics. Scientists who are tainted as partisan are ignored or derided by policy-makers who do not agree with their recommendations. In this context, the support that the union effort has received is a veritable roar from the scientific community.
The Union of Concerned Scientists is not alone. Our group, scienceinpolicy.org, has performed a series of policy analyses that document the administration's misuse of science in environmental policy-making. Based on these analyses, we have written a statement claiming that "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." To date, more than 1,500 environmental scientists from all 50 states and countries around the world, including academics from professors emeriti to graduate students and scientists from government, industry and nongovernmental organizations have signed the statement (full text at http://www.scienceinpolicy.org).
The number of scientists concerned with the administration's misuse of science far surpasses a few scientists with ruffled feathers. The distortion and suppression of scientific evidence goes beyond a few isolated examples. It constitutes a pattern -- a pattern of dishonesty that characterizes the administration's disregard for the public trust.
Stephen Porder is co-founder of scienceinpolicy.org and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University.
Kai M.A. Chan is a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford and a senior fellow at scienceinpolicy.org.
Paul Higgins is a visiting research fellow at UC Berkeley, a fellow of the National Science Foundation and co-founder of scienceinpolicy.org.