The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

The following is an article by Dylan Otto Krider, a freelance writer with a BA in creative writing with minor in astronomy/physics from the University of Arizona, and an MFA in writing from Vermont College, Norwich University. He has written many articles for the Houston Press, Texas Magazine, Kenyon Review, Fiction Writer, Writer’s Digest, and the Internet. His webpage can be found at

The Politicization Of Science
in the Bush Administration:

Science-As-Public Relations

by Dylan Otto Krider

There’s a war going on—and not just the one in Iraq. This conflict may not get as much media play, but it could have just as great an impact on our safety, national prestige, and long-term economic health. It is a war over the integrity of science itself, and the casualties are everywhere: career scientists and enforcement officials are resigning en masse from government agencies, citing an inability to do their jobs due to what they see as the ruthless politicization of science by the Bush administration. Bruce Boler, Marianne Horinko, Rich Biondi, J. P. Suarez and Eric Schaeffer are among those who have resigned from the EPA alone. In a letter to The New York Times, former EPA administrator Russell Train, who worked for both Nixon and Ford, wrote, “I can state categorically that there never was such White House intrusion into the business of the EPA during my tenure.” 1 Government meddling has reached such a level that European scientists are voicing concerns that Bush may not merely be undermining U.S. dominance in sciences, but global research as well. 2

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently published the results of an investigation into the administration’s misuse of science called “Scientific Integrity in Policymaking,” with a letter signed by over 60 leading scientists, including 20 Nobel Laureates. 3 President Bush’s science adviser Dr. John Marburger III’s response was hardly reassuring. 4 Part of Marburger’s defense was to use the common tactic to delay action by calling for “more research,” while in other cases he used verbal sleight of hand to avoid addressing the actual charge. For instance, when the National Cancer Institute’s web site was altered to suggest there was a link between abortion and breast cancer Marburger described the change as only a routine update. What actually troubled the UCS was that the findings of established science had been removed in favor of language that promoted the lonely crusade of Dr. Joel Brind.

For those unfamiliar with Dr. Brind, he discovered the supposed Abortion Breast Cancer link (or ABC as he calls it) after “making contact” with a local right-to-life group shortly after becoming a born-again Christian. “With a new belief in a meaningful universe,” he explains, “I felt compelled to use science for its noblest, life-saving purpose.” 5 Despite the fact that Brind is completely at odds with his peers, the web site was updated with the following text:

[T]he possible relationship between abortion and breast cancer has been examined in over thirty published studies since 1957. Some studies have reported statistically significant evidence of an increased risk of breast cancer in women who have had abortions, while others have merely suggested an increased risk. Other studies have found no increase in risk among women who have had an interrupted pregnancy. 6

After an outcry by members of Congress, the National Cancer Institute convened a three-day conference where experts reviewed the evidence, again concluding “[i]nduced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk,” ranking the science as “well-established.” 7

To prove that he took the issue of global warming seriously, Marburger shamelessly cited a study that President Bush had commissioned from the National Academy of Sciences. The administration had asked the NAS to find “weaknesses” in climate science studies to justify their efforts to derail an international global warming treaty. 8 When the commissioned report instead confirmed human-induced climate change and mentioned fossil fuels as a major culprit the EPA decided to replace the findings in its Report on the Environment with a discredited study funded by the American Petroleum Institute. 9

Marburger also pesented an argument that was made by Spinsanity, a self-described government watchdog website, which pointed out that just because a “frustrated scientist” had leaked an EPA report on children’s health to The Wall Street Journal, that did not prove there was a sinister intent to surpress it because bureaucratic delays in releasing information are common. 10

But the fact that so many scientists and government workers have risked their jobs by leaking information to the media makes this explaination weaker than it might be. As an editorial in The New York Times concluded, Marburger’s response is “little more than an attempt to put a positive spin on some flagrant examples of tailoring science to fit politics.” 11

Then there are those examples the UCS does not mention: the Corn Refiners Association and Sugar Association successfully lobbied Bush to pressure the World Health Organization to de-emphasize the importance of cutting sweets and eating fruits and vegetables in their anti-obesity guidelines. 12 Two scientists were ejected from a bioethics council due to what they believed to be their views favoring embryo research. 13 Data on hydraulic fracturing were altered so benzene levels met government standards after “feedback” from an industry source. 14 Another study (sponsored by Florida developers) claiming wetlands cause pollution, was used by the EPA to justify replacing protected marshes with golf courses to improve “water quality.” 15

Nothing is so trivial that it escapes top administration advisor Karl Rove’s insistence on staying “on message”—from forbidding NASA scientists to speak to the press about the global warming disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow, 16 to letting National Park Service gift shops sell books with the “alternative view” that the Grand Canyon was formed in seven days. 17

One need look no further than the USDA to see how compromised the research and enforcement environment has become. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman was a former food industry lawyer and lobbyist and her staff includes representatives of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other industry groups. So it should be no surprise that shortly after a dairy cow from Canada tested positive for mad cow disease a senior scientist came forward alleging agency pressure to let Canadian beef into the U.S. before a study concluded it was safe. 18 Nor should it shock us that whistleblowers accused an Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service supervisor of insisting a cow exhibiting symptoms of the disease be sent to a rendering plant before a technician could perform the tests mandated by agency guidelines. 19 But even the most cynical among us might be baffled by the almost cultish devotion to industry pandering exhibited when the USDA refused to give Creekstone Farms Premium Beef the kits it requested to voluntarily test its cattle so it could export to Japan because it might “create the impression that untested beef was not safe.” Creekstone may very well go bankrupt as a result. 20

Such reluctance only makes sense if the USDA fears that positive results are possible. Still, one hesitates to suggest the USDA is trying to sell as much tainted beef as possible before people start exhibiting symptoms. One hesitates slightly less so after learning that EPA staffers were also prevented from performing routine analysis of the economic and health consequences of proposed regulations governing mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants. After all, it’s a lot easier to suppress unfavorable scientific findings if there’s nothing to suppress. But surely even they realize preventing an analysis of the consequences of our actions will not prevent those consequences from occurring. That’s the rub. Science doesn’t appear to factor into their reasoning at all. The tests might come up negative. They might come up positive. The meat is considered safe either way.

Debates over Bush’s character usually devolve into familiar partisan arguments citing either his resoluteness in the face of widespread negative reaction as proof of his conviction, or the chasm between rhetoric and reality as evidence of Bush’s disingenuous denial. Both could be true enough to have created an atmosphere that encourages government officials to practice outright deception to attain administration goals. To get an exemption from the Endangered Species Act the Pentagon simply changed a quote from an Army study saying government regulations “enhanced” training realism at Fort Stewart to “impaired.” 21 A Park Service brochure used a photo—supposedly taken in 1909—to prove that forests in the Sierra Nevadas were thinner before the implementation of “preventative thinning.” The picture was actually a photo taken of a recently logged forest in Montana.

Such distortions seem always to be in the service of a crusade of true belief. Unquestionably Bush is a man of conviction. The problem is that Bush does not seem to arrive at these convictions through faulty human pursuits like science. He seems to suppose his knowledge comes from a higher source.

The Price of Loyalty - book cover

In the book The Price of Loyalty, Pulitzer prize-winning author Ron Suskind records former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s view that Bush based his decisions on “instinct,” and left others to “ponder the intangibles that [drive] the president—from some sweeping, unspoken notion of how the world works; to a one-size-fits-all principle, such as ‘I won’t negotiate with myself;’ to a squabble with a family member over breakfast.” 22 Former Bush terrorism czar Richard Clarke paints a similar picture of a White House staff inclined to ignore facts in favor of having truth “revealed” to them. Bush’s own wife says, “George is not an overly introspective person. He has good instincts, and he goes with them. He doesn’t need to evaluate and reevaluate a decision. He doesn’t try to overthink. He likes action.” 23 Bush seems to value gut instinct over evidence, faith over fact, conviction over reality. He doesn’t need science to know that our food is safe, that the Earth was created in seven days, or that Saddam Hussein was only seconds away from handing over nukes to al Qaeda. If studies say otherwise then agencies have to be reorganized, committees reshuffled, and data reinterpreted until they get it right.

When agencies that used to be tasked with providing objective analysis no longer inform policy, their only remaining value is in bolstering preconceived conclusions.The ultimate danger of this view of science-as-public relations can be seen in a recent proposal by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that would grant the administration greater control over peer review of “all major government rules, plans, proposed regulations and pronouncements.” 24 David Michaels of the Department of Energy complained, “It goes beyond just having the White House involved in picking industry favorites to evaluate government science. Under this proposal, the carefully crafted process used by the government to notify the public of an imminent danger is going to first have to be signed off by someone weighing the political hazards.” 25 After an outcry from scientists, the OMB seems to have scaled back the proposal from disastrous to merely horrifying, but if past behavior is any guide the administration will keep returning to the cookie jar until science is an empty vessel firmly under the direction of the White House press office.

The White House’s inclination to mold facts to fit preconceived notions is crippling the government’s decision making abilities in the areas of health, safety, environment, and more importantly, in the War on Terror. A opinion editorial written by conservative columnist Richard Hoagland shortly before the Iraq invasion illustrates how the White House allowed prejudices to influence pre-war intelligence: “Imagine that Saddam Hussein has been offering terrorist training and other lethal support to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda for years. You can’t imagine that? Sign up over there. You can be a Middle East analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency,” Hoagland chides before praising Bush for pressuring intelligence officers to reach the conclusions they were previously unwilling to make. “The ‘politicization’ accusation suggests that those who find Iraqi links to al Qaeda are primarily interested in currying favor with the Bush White House.” 26 As former Bush administration official J. Dilulio put it, “When policy analysis is just backfill, to back up a political maneuver, you’ll get a lot of ooops.” 27

Astonishingly, even after intelligence lapses became known, conservative columnist David Brooks was calling for more political intrusion in the process: “For decades, the U.S. intelligence community has propagated the myth that it possesses analytical methods that must be insulated pristinely from the hurly-burly world of politics,” he said. “What kind of scientific framework can explain the rage for suicide bombings, now sweeping the Middle East? …When it comes to understanding the world’s thugs and menaces, I’d trust the first 40 names in James Carville’s P.D.A. faster than I’d trust a conference-load of game theorists or risk-assessment officers.” 28 Never mind that those officers came ten times closer to assessing the actual situation in Iraq than the politicians who now interfere in the process like never before. But recognizing that would mean bringing evidence into the equation.

The troubles in Iraq are not so much proof of the failure of the neocon vision for democratizing the Middle East, as they are a reminder of the disastrous consequences of removing empiricism from deliberation. All the problems that have popped up in Iraq were predicted long ago—from troop strength to the resilience of the insurgents—and available to anyone who cared to look. The administration not only chose to look away but actively swept them under the rug. When CIA war games were discovered to be training personnel to deal with the eventuality of civil disorder after the fall of Baghdad, The Atlantic Monthly reported the Pentagon forbad representatives from the Defense Department from participating because “detailed thought about the postwar situation meant facing costs and potential problems.” 29 Our refusal to face reality hasn’t been giving democracy much of a chance.

“Being steadfast in defense of carefully considered convictions is a virtue,” George Will wrote recently. “Being blankly incapable of distinguishing cherished hopes from disappointing facts, or of reassessing comforting doctrines in face of contrary evidence, is a crippling political vice.” 30 Bush has finally met his match. The Universe is the one foe more steadfast than he is. It cannot be bullied or intimidated. The laws of physics know no compromise. This is a game of chicken Bush will lose. If he doesn’t take his foot off the accelerator, then the only question is: how will we recover from the crash?

References & Notes
  1. Letter to Editor from Russell E. Train, “When Politics Trumps Science,” New York Times, June 21, 2003.
  2. “Euros Concerned for US Science,” The Scientist, Mar. 9, 2004.
  3. “Scientific Integrity in Policymaking,” Union of Concerned Scientists, Mar. 2004.
  4. Dr. John H. Marburger III, “Response to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ February 2004 Document,” Apr. 2, 2004.
  5. Dr. Joel Brind, “Reading the Data”, Physician Magazine, July/August 2000.
  6. National Cancer Institute, Early Reproductive Events and Breast Cancer, Nov. 25, 2002.
  7. National Cancer Institute, “Summary Report: Early Reproductive Events and Breast Cancer”, Mar. 4, 2003.
  8. “Moving Target on Policy Battlefield”, Washington Post, May 2, 2002.
  9. “Report by EPA Leaves out Data on Climate Change,” New York Times, June 19, 2003.
  10. “Letter from Concerned Scientists Not Exactly Scrupulous on Facts,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 11, 2004.
  11. “The Science Adviser’s Rejoinder,” New York Times Editorial Page, Apr. 10, 2004.
  12. “Eating Away at Science”, Mother Jones, May/June 2004.
  13. “Bush Ejects Two From Bioethics Council”, The Washington Post, Feb. 28, 2004.
  14. “Research on Oil and Gas Practices”, Politics & Science.
  15. Resignation Statement of Bruce Boler, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility web site.
  16. “NASA Curbs Comments on Ice Age Disaster Movie,” New York Times, Apr. 25, 2004.
  17. “Critics Say the Park Service is Letting Religion and Politics Affect its Policies,” New York Times, Jan. 18, 2004.
  18. “U.S. Scientist Tells of Pressure to Lift Ban on Food Imports,” New York Times, Feb. 25, 2004.
  19. “Calls for Federal Inquiry Over Untested Cow,” New York Times, May 6, 2004.
  20. “U.S. Won’t Let Company Test All Its Cattle for Mad Cow,” New York Times, Apr. 10, 2004.
  21. David Brancaccio, Now, Apr. 23, 2004.
  22. P. 165, Price of Loyalty.
  23. “The Misunderestimated Man”, Slate, May 7, 2004
  24. “White House Seeks Control of Health, Safety”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 11, 2004.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Richard Hoagland, “CIA’s New Old Iraq File”, Washington Post, Oct. 20, 2002.
  27. “Why Are These Men Laughing?” Esquire, Jan. 2003.
  28. David Brooks, “The C.I.A: Method and Madness,” New York Times, Feb. 3, 2004.
  29. “Blind Into Baghdad”, Atlantic Monthly, Jan./Feb. 2004.
  30. George F. Will, “Time for Bush to See the Realities”, Washington Post, May 4, 2004.

“Political” Science

from the editors of Skeptic magazine

What, specifically, has the Bush administration done that has so invoked the ire of a sizable portion of the scientific community? The statement prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and signed by over 4,000 scientists, including 48 Nobel laureates, 62 recipients of the National Medal of Science, and 127 members of the National Academy of Science, can be found at along with the rebuttal by John H. Marburger III, the Director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, and a response to that rebuttal from UCS.

We are aware that the Union of Concerned Scientists has historically championed what many would consider to be left-leaning or liberal causes, and we are also sensitive to the fact that the political climate of this election year 2004 is an emotionally-charged one; nevertheless, either the Bush administration has taken actions to steer science in a direction parallel to its political agenda, or it has not. This is a factual question that can be answered with facts. The UCS documents are extensive, so the following are just highlights. Readers should check the facts for themselves.

Political Vetting of Scientists

In the spring of 2002, Richard Myers, Chair of the Department of Genetics at Stanford University and Director of Stanford’s Human Genome Center, was nominated to serve on the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research. According to Myers, shortly thereafter he received a call from Secretary Tommy Thompson’s office at the Department of Health and Human Services. After a brief review of Myers’ scientific credentials (which are stellar), the Bush administration official began probing into Myers’ political preferences. “She wanted to know what I thought about President Bush: did I like him, what did I think of the job he was doing,” Myers said. He describes himself as “nonpolitical,” yet he told the interviewer that:

I thought it was inappropriate to be asked these kinds of questions which led, I think, to an awkward situation for both of us. She said that she had been told that she needed to ask the questions and it appeared to me that she was reading from a prepared list. Because of her persistence, I tried to answer in the most nonspecific way possible. I talked about terrorism and the fact that it seemed that the attacks of September 11 had brought the country together. But there is no doubt that I felt the questions were an affront and highly inappropriate.

Soon after the interview, Richard Myers was denied the position. He appealed his case to Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome project and chair of the National Advisory Council, and Myers’ nomination was approved.

Political Screening of Drugs

“Plan B” is an emergency contraceptive drug that consists of two high-dose pills that interfere with either ovulation or fertilization, or prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. The pills can be taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy. The drug was approved by the FDA in 1999, and in 2003 the FDA granted the drug over-the-counter status (which it has in 33 other countries), when over 70 scientific organizations, including the AMA, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed the findings of a number of labs. In 2004, however, Steven Galson, Director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, overruled the advice of the agency’s staff and two independent scientific advisory panels (who voted 23 to 4 to grant over-the-counter status) by declaring Plan B “not approvable” for nonprescription status. Although Galson denies any political motive to his actions, there is no scientific reason why Plan B cannot be granted nonprescription status and, according to the UCS report, “FDA insiders also note that after the hearings on the matter late last year, conservative groups had mounted a political campaign to try to block the drug’s approval” and that after the FDA received the recommendation of its scientific advisory committees to grant nonprescription status, “49 members of Congress wrote to President Bush urging White House involvement.” It is well known that the Bush administration supports a policy of “abstinence only” when it comes to teenage sex, so such political machinations, although difficult to prove, are nevertheless apparent in this and other cases.

Bioethics or Biopolitics?

Ever since Dolly the sheep was cloned the field of “bioethics” has grown dramatically. Given the current administration’s stated objections to stem cell research, therapeutic and reproductive cloning, and other technologies deemed “unnatural” or “in disrespect of life,” it may not be surprising that biologist Elizabeth Blackburn and bioethicist William May were dismissed from the President’s Council on Bioethics. According to Blackburn, one of the nation’s top cancer scientists, she and May were dismissed because they frequently disagreed with the administration’s positions on biomedical research. For example, she was removed from the panel soon after she objected to a Council report on stem cell research. In an opinion editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine, Blackburn “recounted how the dissenting opinion she submitted, which she believes reflects the scientific consensus in America, was not included in the council’s reports even though she had been told the reports would represent the views of all the council’s members.” According to the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972, advisory bodies are required to be balanced, yet the removal of scientists in disagreement with an administration’s stated position turns bioethics into biopolitics.

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