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The continued concern of scientists.

IN FEBRUARY 2004 the Cambridge Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) announced a dramatic development. More than sixty leading scientists and former government officials, among them twenty Nobel laureates, had signed a statement denouncing the administration of George W. Bush for misrepresenting and suppressing scientific information and for tampering with the process by which scientific advice makes its way to government officials. Examples include distorting the science of climate change, quashing government scientific reports, and stacking scientific panels. Eventually fifty-two Nobel laureates, sixty-three national Medal of Science recipients, and 175 members of the National Academy of Sciences, along with thousands of others, would sign the document.

But the attack on science, and the UCS response, continued. At the December 2006 meeting of the American Geophysical Union, the UCS announced that thousands of additional scientists and others had joined the campaign to restore scientific integrity to federal scientific programs. At the same time, the UCS released an "A to Z" guide documenting interference in vital programs--such as improving air quality, preventing childhood lead poisoning, and improving prescription drug safety--for the purpose of political gain.

The UCS documents focus on the Bush administration but the attack on science has been much broader. In an editorial last year in Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Editor-in-Chief Donald Kennedy cites examples, in particular letters that then-Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Joseph Barton (R-TX) sent to a number of scientists. Among them were Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); Dr. Arden Bement Jr., director of the National Science Foundation; and research professors Drs. Michael E. Mann, Malcolm K. Hughes, and Raymond S. Bradley, who had collaborated on analyses of global temperature data.

The text of each letter begins with a brief summary of the conclusions of the IPCC regarding human influences on global warming. Then, after reciting some reasons for skepticism about these conclusions and Mann's role in them, it lists an extraordinarily burdensome set of demands, including disclosure of all funding sources, agreements regarding that support, exact computer codes, locations of data archives used, responses to referenced criticisms of the work, and the results of all temperature reconstructions. The letter to Mann contains highly specific requests spanning eight paragraphs and nineteen subparagraphs. Bement's letter demands exhaustive lists of all agency policies, all grants related to climate research, policies relating to IPCC review, information regarding requests for access to research records, and much more. Kennedy's editorial bears the headline, "Silly Science on the Hill" but his concern goes deep, and rightly so: "It's clear that what's going on here is harassment" he writes.

In his 2005 book, The Republican War on Science, journalist Chris Mooney takes a longer view of the growing attack, and a broader view of which specific topics are subject to attack. For more than two decades, beginning with the Reagan administration and then the Newt Gingrich Congress, influential Republicans in concert with allies in private industry and the religious right have systematically denied, disparaged, or misrepresented scientific information on topics relevant to public policy.

These topics can be divided into two groups. The first includes global warming and ozone depletion. Here, those representing business interests don't overtly attack science, rather, they attempt to wrap themselves in its mantle. They exaggerate the limitations always present in research results and emphasize the view of outlier scientists whose research is rarely found in the refereed literature. In Orwellian fashion their methods are described as "sound science," in contrast to the "junk science" on which regulatory agencies presumably rely. By using so-called sound science to raise the burden of a threat impossibly high, regulations to protect the environment become virtually impossible.

As the Barton letters indicate, research on global warming is especially high on the list of targets of some members of Congress and their business allies. The petroleum industry has spent a great deal of money setting up think tanks and sponsoring "contrarian" scientists far outside the mainstream to raise doubts about global warming and its causes. No one has been more supportive of these industry efforts than Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), a leading figure on environmental issues as recent chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee. It was Inhofe who went all out to defeat Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman's (D-CT) Climate Stewardship Act, which would have created the first caps on greenhouse gas emissions ever agreed to by the U.S. government. He succeeded, in part, by stacking a Senate panel with climate science contrarians.

Inhofe's greatest accomplishment to date is an extensive speech he gave on the Senate floor entitled "The Science of Climate Change" It outlined conclusions he says he reached after several years of studying the issue. The talk ended with the suggestion that global warming caused by human activity might be "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."

The second set of topics related to public policy includes stem cell research, the alleged link between abortion and breast cancer, and many aspects of science related to sexual behavior. As Mooney documents, President Bush has used flagrant deceptions to impede stem cell research. He has also supported the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in public schools. Like their business allies, some on the religious right may not overtly attack science; in fact, they sometimes claim to be scientists themselves, although they show no understanding of how science functions. One chilling example is the Food and Drug Administration's irresponsible, if not outright criminal, handling of the emergency contraception pill, Plan B.

Despite the recommendation of an overwhelming majority of its scientific advisers as well as its expert staff, the FDA turned down an application a few years ago to make Plan B available over the counter. The decision was made largely because one of the advisers, Dr. W. David Hager, raised a "scientific" objection to approval; his science was highly dubious but it gave the FDA higher-ups a scientific-sounding rationale for their decision. Hager, a pro-life obstetrician/gynecologist, later described the basis of his minority report opposing over-the-counter sales of Plan B. "I argued from a scientific perspective," he said, "and God took that information and he used it through this minority report to influence the decision." Hager continued, "We serve the greatest Scientist. We serve the Creator of all life. We serve the Author of all truth. All we're required to do is proclaim that truth."

Eventually, a science different from that in the minority report prevailed and over-the-counter sales of Plan B were approved. Leading up to this approval, large numbers of women were subjected to unnecessary risk by the science that Hager passed on to God.

Control of Congress by the Democrats following the midterm elections has brought about some welcome changes. For example, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has vowed to increase federal support of stem cell research to achieve improved treatment of some tragic diseases that now have no cure.

More broadly, legislative watchdog Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) now chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Waxman has been a strong supporter of the UCS charges and in August 2003 he released a sweeping report covering advisory committees, the Departments of Interior and Health and Human Services, global warming, stem cell research, and much more. Without subpoena power he couldn't take his analysis very far, but now that this power has been restored to him, real science, and the people who depend on it, will be the winners.

In another encouraging example, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) will be taking over from Inhofe as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Consistent with her long record, Boxer has vowed to give special attention to major environmental issues, especially global warming. But not every change is so promising. Representative John Dingell (D-MI), scheduled to head an important committee, is a strong opponent of forcing the auto companies to improve their fuel efficiency, although that improvement is accomplishable and would lead to significant decrease in gasoline consumption.

But whatever the Democrats do, it's important to keep in mind that the Bush administration will still have enormous control over federal science for nearly two years. Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, recently charged that under pressure from the administration, NASA rewrote its long-standing mission statement. In particular, it removed "to understand and protect our home planet" as one of its primary goals. Stopping NASA's contribution to monitoring and understanding global warming, hurricanes, and other severe weather phenomena, deforestation, plunder of the oceans, and ozone depletion is, ironically, compatible with some corporate and even some religious-right goals. Perhaps it isn't surprising then to learn that the National Academy of Sciences, in a two-year study released in January, determined that NASA's earth science budget has declined 30 percent since 2000.

And what of the concerned scientists? NASA head Michael D. Griffin requested the resignations of some of the most important and most prestigious scientists associated with critical environmental programs at the agency. It's noteworthy that James Hansen, perhaps NASA's leading scientist on global warming--and one of its most outspoken--had earlier charged that NASA bureaucrats were impeding his efforts to write and speak publicly about the subject.

It's no exaggeration to assert that politically-inspired attacks on science are in many cases criminal. When attackers deny women access to Plan B they put them at unnecessary risk. When attackers impede stem cell research they delay discoveries that may help large numbers of desperately ill people, perhaps even save many lives. The attackers' denial of the link between chlorofluorocarbons and ozone depletion is similarly irresponsible since ozone in the stratosphere protects organisms on the ground from deadly solar ultraviolet radiation.

It's especially irresponsible when contrarians and their political and religious allies deny the link between human activities and global warming, blocking badly needed legislative action. Global warming is surely the greatest environmental threat the world faces. The longer the United States in particular delays in taking vigorous steps against it, the more harm it will do to people in this country and on the entire planet.

But the attack on science goes far beyond directly threatening human health and wellbeing. It strikes at the enormous value that science itself has as an objective way of obtaining knowledge.

The success and credibility of science is anchored in the willingness of investigators to accept two rules. First, scientists must expose new ideas and results to independent testing and replication by other investigators. Second, they must be willing to modify or abandon theories in light of more complete or reliable empirical evidence. Through relentless scrutiny of one another's work--that is, constant review by peers--a hypothesis is challenged and refined, evolving toward a greater consensus.

This emphasis on consensus is of central importance. Frequently the science that contrarians attack is the consensus view held by a large majority of respected scientists following a long period of refinement by experiment. A hypothesis, to be scientific, must explain or predict something, and it has to provide details that investigators can confirm or refute in future experimentation. Consider the intelligent design theory in this respect. As some critics have noted, to say "an unknown intelligent designer did something, sometime, for no apparent reason" hardly fills the bill.

Science is an important part of humanism precisely because it offers an objective, rather than a hopelessly biased, way of understanding reality. In standing up for science we encourage a greater acceptance of this approach. And when the public unshackles itself from dogma it takes an important step toward the realization that when decisions are informed by science, both the individual and society are better served.

After more than thirty-five years of industrial research and university teaching, Albert L. Huebner now writes widely on contemporary issues in science and is a contributing writer for Toward Freedom.
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Title Annotation:The Attack on Science
Author:Huebner, Al
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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