Bush’s bizarre science


comic drawing of a cowboy standing guard over a line of white-coated scientists leaving the White HouseNathan Walker, www.nathanwalker.net

During his presidential campaign, George W. Bush said he supported environmental policies that were “based on sound science.” If you’re wondering what the Bush administration considers sound science, it’s hard to find a better example than the story of Dr. Michael L. Dini. A biology professor at Texas Tech University, Dini is being sued for refusing, as a matter of policy, to write letters of recommendation for students who disavow evolution.

Dini teaches in what is probably the center of the creationist universe. The Texas Panhandle is rife with anti-Darwinist preachers taking up the left end of the FM dial. Dini put a notice on his faculty Web page informing students, “If you set up an appointment to discuss the writing of a letter of recommendation, I will ask you: ‘How do you account for the scientific origin of the human species?’ If you will not give a scientific answer to this question, then you should not seek my recommendation.”

In most places in the world, this straightforward policy would be seen as well within Dini’s traditional rights as a science instructor. In Lubbock Texas, it was a red cape before the creationist bulls.

Enter Micah Spradling, a creationist Texas Tech junior. Represented by the Liberty Legal Institute, a fundamentalist non-profit law firm, Spradling claimed that Dini’s policy would require “denying my Christian faith” and filed a complaint against Texas Tech in October, following that with a formal complaint to the Justice Department in January.

Spradling, who admits he never even enrolled in any of Dini’s classes, is candid about his intent in filing suit: he wanted to strike a blow for fundamentalist Christianity. Normally, his suit would go nowhere. After all, Dini also rules out letters of recommendation for students he doesn’t know well, and who haven’t earned an A in at least one of his classes. This should have been just one more silly season story, a flavor of the month to grace the front pages of daily papers on slow news days.

Except that John Ashcroft is taking the case seriously. In January, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, Jeremiah Glassman, announced that his office was actively investigating Spradling’s claim and asked Texas Tech’s administrators to show him the school’s policy on letters of recommendation. The school’s administration is, laudably, standing behind Dr. Dini. The case may come to naught. Still, as author Michael Bronski pointed out in a Boston Phoenix column, it’s hard to imagine previous attorneys general finding Spradling worth more than a polite form letter. Few parts of science are as well established as evolution. All of biology depends on it. And yet senior Bush administration officials are willing to consider squelching the most basic expression of scientific integrity, if that integrity stands in the way of White House goals.

Those pesky facts
To be sure, this isn’t the first administration to do so. Reagan’s two terms of office were notable not just for the appointment of people such as polluter-friendly EPA chief Anne Burford Gorsuch and planet-unfriendly Interior Secretary James Watt, but for hundreds of lower-level office-holders as well: his lasting legacy has been a hard core of ideologically-driven middle managers who readily punish federal scientists when their science becomes inconvenient. During the Clinton years, science again lost out to expediency in fights over old-growth logging, as well as solid waste incineration, fuel efficiency standards, and grazing reform.

But where previous administrations at least took pains to cloak their flouting of science in procedural or economic terms, the second Bush administration seems willing to openly defy the scientific consensus to the point where leading scientific journals decry its policies in full-page editorials. On multiple fronts, from reproductive health to climate change to wildlife biology to air and water pollution, the Bush administration is treating science as its enemy, to be overruled and overwhelmed. The result: a blithe discounting of mounting threats to human health and the global environment.

The Bush team’s opposition to science comes out of the desire to promote the interests of the administration’s core constituencies: the far right—especially fundamentalist Christians—and the wide range of corporations that profit from extraction of natural resources, from real estate developers to energy and mining concerns. The flouting of science manifests itself in a number of ways, from stacking of scientific advisory panels to suppression of reports to harassment or suspension of employees.

The scientific method consists of forming a hypothesis, examining the evidence for and against, experimenting to derive more evidence, either confirming or refuting the original hypothesis, and sharing your data with other scientists so they can review your work. Activists sometimes criticize scientists for undue caution in assessing threats to the environment, but that same cautious, methodical science is proving a serious thorn in the Bush administration’s paw.

As evidence mounts that our ever-accelerating development of dwindling mineral and biological resources threatens an ecological meltdown comparable to the great extinctions of the paleontologic record, pressure likewise mounts to restrict the industry that does the damage. When a majority of scientists reaches consensus that meltdown is already in progress, any sane society would enact emergency measures posthaste. The Bush administration, with a somewhat shorter time frame focused on next-quarter profits, the upcoming elections, and the Rapture just around the corner, indulges in a Bizarro-world scientific method that makes up evidence, adjusts the hypotheses to fit, and excludes scientists who might point out flaws.

Political climate
The best-known example of Bush’s Bizarre Science came at the behest of the energy industry. As anyone who’s been paying attention knows, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that human-caused emission of gases into the atmosphere—primarily carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels—is already changing the planet’s climate. Unhappy with the IPCC’s work and feeling pressure to defend the energy industry from burgeoning global criticism, Bush directed the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2001 to review what was known about humanity’s effect on global climate.

Despite the all-American makeup of the NAS, this was a mistake on Bush’s part. The NAS report’s opening sentence: “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise.” The report went on to further undermine administration climate policy.

Bush learned from this mistake. A year later, when the EPA published a watered-down summation of US climate policy that said people were probably responsible for some climate change, Bush was incensed. Answering a reporter’s question about the document, Bush sniffed, “I read the report put out by the bureaucracy.” His statement was not entirely accurate: he hadn’t actually read it. These days, the administration does what it can to negate emissions standards, interfere with global agreements on climate and promote expanded exploration for and use of fossil fuels. (A description of the potential results of this policy can be found in the article on page 26.)

Case studies
Scientist Ian Thomas was a victim of the push for expanded oil exploration. A cartographer who worked as a contract employee for the US Geological Survey (USGS), Thomas had published literally tens of thousands of maps on subjects ranging from fires in Timor to refugees in Kosovo to songbird distribution in Washington, DC. In March 2001, Thomas added a seemingly innocuous wildlife distribution map to his collected works: a map of caribou breeding grounds on the Alaskan North Slope. A week later, he was unemployed. His map indicated that areas in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge slated for oil exploration under Bush administration proposals were prime breeding grounds for the caribou. (See Autumn 2001 EIJ for Thomas’ first-hand account of his firing.)

After Thomas’ termination, the caribou map Web page was replaced by a disclaimer that read, “The contents of this Web site are undergoing review and will be reposted once their scientific credibility has been ensured.” Not one of the more than 20,000 maps Thomas had previously published apparently warranted such scrutiny. A year later, Interior Secretary Gale Norton ordered other USGS scientists to revise a report, based on a twelve-year study, that said drilling in ANWR would likely hurt caribou. Norton’s rewrite took less than a week.

The end result was a document that said drilling probably would not hurt caribou.

Farther south, as Norton and other Bush administration officials rallied behind the farmers of the upper Klamath Basin as they fought to irrigate their fields, a team of scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) studied the watershed’s coho salmon fishery, the largest in California. The Klamath, which flows through southern Oregon into far northern California, is a classic oversubscribed river. Farmers pull water out of the river basin, leaving little for the renowned wildlife refuges downstream, not to mention the fisheries in the lower river. The NMFS team determined that the federal Bureau of Reclamation’s ten-year plan for the Klamath Basin shortchanged the coho and other fish, and recommended more water be left in instream flows to support them. The Justice Department ordered Michael Kelly, lead scientist on the NMFS team, to rewrite his report. He did so, but despite Ashcroft’s instructions, his second draft cited additional research and case law supporting his team’s original contention: the fish needed more water. Reclamation rejected the NMFS report and continued sending Klamath water to farmers, with instream flows a mere 43 percent of what Kelly’s team recommended. In late 2002, as many as 50,000 salmon died in the lower reaches of the Klamath, killed by the warm temperatures characteristic of insufficient water levels.

Stacking the jury
Thomas and Kelly, and dozens of other scientists who’ve found their work made Bush II uncomfortable, are just the latest in a long tradition of whistleblowers. Previous administrations suppressed their own whistleblowers as well; the conduct of the Bush team differs greatly, but mainly in scale. But where Bush’s Bizarre Science policy really shines is in the arena of scientific advisory committees. Hundreds of these committees, set up to jury issues from workplace ergonomics to municipal drinking water standards, traditionally advise government on the best, most recent science available, and provide peer review for research funding proposals. These committees have long been the scene of pitched battles among competing points of view: this diversity has often served to make sure committee recommendations are defensible, “good” science.

But no longer. More than any previous administration, Bush II has stacked these advisory panels with vociferous industry representatives, religious activists, and political allies, in many cases going so far as to apply crude litmus tests during interviews of potential members. William Miller, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico, told reporters that his 2002 interview for a slot on an advisory panel to the National Institute on Drug Abuse veered into some odd territory. After being quizzed on his views on abortion, said Miller, the interviewer asked whether he had voted for Bush in 2000. Miller hadn’t. “Why didn’t you support the President?” came the reply.

Exchanges more closely related to the panel’s purview were equally upsetting. When Miller said he supported needle exchanges as a way of controlling disease among drug users, the interviewer said, “That’s a problem.” Bush opposes needle exchange.

You might not think of ergonomics as a particularly hot political potato, but Bush’s Bizarre Science has its repetitive-motion-stressed fingers in that pie too. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has a panel of experts that peer-reviews research grant proposals, and which has traditionally been staffed with leaders in the occupational safety field. But in 2002, three experts in ergonomics were rejected for the panel by Health and Human Service Secretary Tommy Thompson, who reached national prominence as the service-slashing governor of Wisconsin. During the interviews, potential panel members were quizzed about their views on ergonomics. At least two of the rejectees supported a national ergonomics standard, which Bush opposes as too unfriendly to business.

Lead astray
The Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention has also been targeted for revamping by the administration. The committee studies current data on lead toxicity and testing, and sets allowable blood lead level limits. Lead toxicity is of special concern in young children, whose physical and mental development can be seriously harmed by even small amounts of the heavy metal. Environmental sources of lead include metal smelting, remediation work at old industrial sites, old house paint, and ambient environmental lead left over from decades of its use as a gasoline additive. Urban and poor children are at special risk of lead poisoning. In 1991, the Committee cut acceptable blood lead levels from 25 to 10 micrograms per deciliter based on its study of new information on lead toxicity.

And the Bush administration didn’t like that. Michael Weitzman, a University of Rochester pediatrician with extensive expertise on lead toxicity, was kicked off the committee in 2002 after five years of service. Nominees Bruce Lanphear and Susan Klitzman, authors of many peer-reviewed articles on lead poisoning, were rejected for membership.

Who was nominated instead? Well, there’s William Banner, who advocates raising the acceptable blood lead level to 70 micrograms per deciliter—seven times the current standard—and who denies that lead poisoning affects mental development in children, yet has done not one bit of research on lead toxicity in humans. There’s Joyce Tsuji, a scientist-for-hire at Exponent, a consulting firm that counsels companies being sued over lead contamination. There’s Kimberly Thompson, who teaches Risk Analysis and Decision Science at the Harvard School of Public Health… an impressive-sounding post until you learn that its affiliated Harvard Center for Risk Analysis is funded in part by corporations with lead-poisoned Superfund sites.

A particularly laughable example of Bush panel stacking is embodied in one W. David Hager, an OB/GYN named last Christmas to head up the FDA’s Reproductive Health Advisory Committee. The committee advises the FDA on contraceptives, abortion, pregnancy, and other related issues, such as the currently controversial hormone replacement therapy. Hager, whose résumé describes him as a University of Kentucky professor (he actually has a part-time unpaid position working with interns at the University hospital) refuses to prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women. He has unusually few publications on his curriculum vitae for a leading medical professional, the most prominent among them being a book entitled As Jesus Cared for Women: Restoring Women Then and Now. In his private practice, Hager recommends specific readings from the Bible for patients who suffer from PMS or headaches.

A handmaid’s tale of terror
As one might expect, the Bush approach to reproductive health isn’t limited to putting faith healers on advisory boards. Distribution of accurate information on science and health to the general public are special targets of the administration, especially when that information counters fundamentalist religious doctrine on matters sexual.

A Centers for Disease Control fact sheet that mentioned condoms as an effective way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS was quietly yanked from the CDC’s Web site in 2002, replaced with an abstinence-only message. Reference in the earlier version to a study showing that condom education does not encourage youth sex apparently spurred Executive Branch ire.

Bush and company are pushing for more federal funding for abstinence-based sex-ed programs, despite the fact that studies of abstinence-based teaching methods fail to show any effectiveness whatsoever in reducing teen sexual activity, pregnancy, or disease.

Another fact sheet, this one disproving an alleged link between abortion and breast cancer, was revised by the National Cancer Institute in November 2002. An 1997 article in the New England Journal of Medicine reported on a registry study of 1.5 million women in Denmark, which showed that women who had abortions had no greater incidence of breast cancer than women who had no abortions. The 2002 revision of the NCI factsheet omitted any mention of the Danish study.

In November, the peer-reviewed British medical journal The Lancet wrote a remarkable editorial lambasting the Bush administration and its ideological approach to science. “The current US Administration is certainly pro-industry,” the editors wrote, “pro-family, and on the religious right. Any threat to impartial science-policy advice… will harm most those whose voices are unheeded by the right-wing—the poor, minorities, those without health insurance, those living in the shadow of polluting industries, those at risk of sexually transmitted infection (especially young people), young people who need realistic contraceptive advice, single mothers, and intravenous drug users.”

You can add the salmon in the Klamath River, Arctic caribou, and anyone living at sea level to that list.

—Ann Hwang, Todd Wilkinson, and Howard Wilshire provided invaluable assistance in the preparation of this article.

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