Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 19, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

CONSERVATIVE LYSENKOISM....THE DEFINITIVE REPORT....Chris Mooney emailed me yesterday to draw my attention to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists about how deeply the ideological tentacles of the Bush administration have extended into the process of scientific research in America. I was planning to write about this myself but I wanted to look at the actual report first. Unfortunately, the UCS website was down when I tried to read it. Today it's back up.

Regular readers will know that I've blogged about individual aspects of this in the past, and in a lot of ways it represents one of the most chilling aspects of the Bush administration: they just don't care about facts. They want to do what they want to do regardless of whether it will work or whether it makes sense, and this extends to economic policymaking, war planning, and now even scientific studies. "Conservative Lysenkoism" is the term I've coined for it.

The UCS report describes several specific examples of the Bush administration deliberately ignoring or distorting scientific results for purely ideological purposes:

  • A flat refusal to believe the (by now) almost unanimous scientific consensus that human activity is contributing to global warming. In one case, the EPA had to scrap an entire section on climate change because the White Hous simply wouldn't accept any form of wording that was even remotely true to the scientific evidence.

  • The White House suppressed data on mercury emissions not because the science was wrong, but because it interfered with their plans to reduce regulation of coal-fired power plants. They also suppressed an EPA report on a bipartisan Senate alternative to their "Clear Skies" proposal because it concluded that the Senate version would do a better job of cutting pollution.

  • The Bush administration has interfered with CDC research on teen pregnancy that doesn't support its position on abstinence-only sex education programs. It has replaced condom information on government websites with questionable data emphasizing condom failure rates. And it has tried to push a link between abortion and breast cancer that is supported by no reputable scientific data.

  • A USDA researcher was prohibited from publishing his findings on health hazards posed by airborne bacteria resulting from farm waste. In addition, "a directive issued in February 2002 instructed USDA staff scientists to seek prior approval before publishing any research or speaking publicly on 'sensitive issues'...."

  • The administration ignored scientific analysis of Iraq's aluminum tubes that suggested they had nothing to do with uranium enrichment. We know all about that, don't we?

  • A team of scientists who drew peer-reviewed conclusions about the management of the Missouri River that was at odds with what the Bush administration wanted to hear was swiftly replaced with a "SWAT team" that could be trusted to say what they did want to hear.

  • A new Bush administration rule on peer-review would essentially require that all government research be vetted by industry reviewers before it was published. Tobacco research, for example, could not be reviewed by anyone else who received government funding, but only by industry funded "researchers."

The report also talks about the litmus tests that are widely in place for appointment to scientific panels. Rather than picking the best scientists, the White House instead chooses people who are most likely to agree with their own ideological preferences. As the report puts it, "the current administration has repeatedly allowed political considerations to trump scientific qualifications in the appointment process."

The UCS report, which is endorsed by 20 Nobel prize winners, makes clear that it has no problem with arguments over policy. After all, there are usually plenty of facts and arguments on both sides of any policy question. It's perfectly valid, for example, to argue for a wide variety of policy responses to global warming, including doing nothing.

But putting your head in the sand and refusing to accept the actual research itself is another thing entirely. It's hard to think of anything more corrosive to the scientific process, and the extent to which the Bush administration does this is unprecedented. Nixon didn't do it, Reagan didn't do it, and Bush Sr. and Clinton didn't do it. Only the current administration has done this on a regular and sustained basis.

As John Quiggin pointed out last year, there is now virtually no academic discipline acceptable to orthodox Republicans. They don't want to hear about facts and they don't want to hear about research. Rather, they seem to think that somehow the world will conform to their views regardless of what the reality actually is, and anyone who says that the reality is different is simply a political enemy to be ignored or smeared as circumstances require. It's scary.

The full UCS report is here.

Kevin Drum 12:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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