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Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Subversion of Science During the Bush Administration, And Where We Go From Here

April 3, 2009 by Adam Montgomery Lampert · 3 Comments 

If Carl Sagan called science a “Candle in the Dark”, then we have faced eight long years of sunless blackout under George W. Bush. Last week when a federal judge called the FDA’s restriction of Plan B contraception an act of “bad faith” and a “response to political pressure,” it looked as though the eclipse of political subversion had begun to subside.

The FDA, the EPA, NASA, the Department of Commerce, and even the National Cancer Institute have all felt the weight of ideological pressure during W’s tenure. As if those regulatory agencies weren’t sufficiently strong-armed by giants of industry; under the additional weight of conservative forces they have nearly cracked entirely.

Early signs of the administration’s affinity for factual distortion are evident in Seth Shulman’s 2007 book, Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration:

In November 2003, a National Cancer Institute fact sheet was altered, over government scientists’ objections, to lend credence to a favorite canard of some antiabortion Christian conservatives that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer. A number of scientific studies—most notably a highly respected Danish study in the 1990s involving 1.5 million women—have thoroughly refuted the link. And yet, as has frequently occurred in the Bush administration, politics—whether out of ideological conviction or to appease political partisans—trumped peer-reviewed scientific evidence, and a federal agency was pushed to dispense misleading information about a vital matter of women’s health. After a public outcry, including a New York Times editorial labeling the incident “an egregious distortion of the evidence,” the National Cancer Institute restored its public information to reflect the well-documented scientific evidence that no connection exists between abortion and breast cancer.

As Shulman says, “The most notable thing about this incident is that it happened at all.” But soon such episodes would occur frequently enough that they became less than noteworthy. As years passed, publications of scientific findings that expressed information at odds with current administration policies (especially about climate change) were increasingly either buried and/or distorted so as to not give credence to opposition of the administration’s current position.  Casualties include: NASA reports about causes of climate change, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) publications linking increased hurricane frequency to humanity-caused global warming, the aforementioned repudiation of staff recommendations against limiting access to Plan B contraception by the FDA, and, EPA proposals limiting greenhouse-gas emissions on the grounds that they posed a threat to public welfare.

Creation Museum Adam & EveThe very act of listing this steaming pile of grievances is enough to make one nauseous, but bleaker still is the consideration of the culture war that has been simultaneously lost during this time. Scientific progress was once regarded as a core American value, an object of national pride (see Space Race, WWII atomic bomb, Henry Ford’s industrial innovation, Edison’s light bulb, Benjamin Franklin’s discovery of electricity, etc.)  But unfortunately today science seems to have lost much of its luster in the public eye. Battles between testable hypotheses like Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and arbitrarily defined default explanations like Intelligent Design somehow wage on despite an obvious lack of comparability, with Gallup reporting only a month ago that less than forty percent of Americans currently believe in evolution. And when CBS reports that a majority of Americans believe in ghosts, a claim for which no scientific evidence has ever been presented, the American scientific establishment can’t help but shake its head in disbelief.

Not to say that zero progress has been made for science during this modern dark age.  On the contrary, significant progress has occurred in the development of adult stem cell lines, and global warming, heaved upon the sloping shoulders of Al Gore, has gone from a mostly marginal issue to a popularly “debated” one (see Tucker Carlson). Even if the popular perception of these issues is less dire than what it should be, it’s certainly more present than what it was, and since the Nov. 20 presidential election, it appears that the downhill duration of the battle may have begun.

President Obama has a strong record supporting scientific progress, and his March 9 order to allow funding of embryonic stem cell research has been met with an anticipatory sigh of relief by most of the research community. But the mere fact that we have elected a president who doesn’t regard science as hypothetical doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods yet; naysayers aplenty(vice presidential candidates included) continue to bear full force resistance.

It is common knowledge that confronting the modern threat of terrorism requires a novel approach. The time-tested advantage of brute force and military superiority do not command the same fear-inspiring deterrence against terrorists that have protected America from more accountable enemies in the past. Science too must understand that while its arsenal of truth is its most powerful weapon, it is sometimes powerless against a heavily indoctrinated body of opposition. “Against logic there is no armor like ignorance,” said famed educator and writer Laurence J. Peter. It is unfortunate that the battle for truth in American culture cannot be solely waged in laboratories, but it seems fitting, given that those most adamantly opposed to logic engage their own laboratories for the soul from a very early age.

Aversion to science can be an incredibly dangerous thing; some may remember the 2001 Colorado couple who, in attempting to heal their 13-year-old daughter solely via faith-based treatment (for example prayer), allowed her to die without medical treatment. Tragically this was not the first or even one of the first such incidents to occur in the last twenty years, rather there are literally dozens of similar casualties of culture like this that seem to transpire routinely without serious outcry.  It is almost inconceivable to consider that Americans every year allow their children to die by refusing routine medical treatment, but it is a testament to the strength that these perilous ideas hold in certain communities in this country.

Avoiding these kinds of terrible consequences is not about convincing people that embryonic stem cell research is beneficial, or that restricted plan B contraception is precariously unfair to young women and girls. It is about the larger issue of reconciling scientific values with the heart of American culture.  Long since succeeded by more acerbic versions such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Sagan’s cool voice has grown quieter since his death in 1996, and for the most part his unofficial position as scientific popularizer-in-chief remains unfilled. Meanwhile, hearts and minds of Americans nationwide flicker like a candle in the wind.

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3 Responses to “The Subversion of Science During the Bush Administration, And Where We Go From Here”
  1. Brendy says:

    Unparalleled accuracy, uneuqicvoal clarity, and undeniable importance!


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