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The Fraud of 'Sound Science'

Conservative Republicans, and even some liberal commentators, have adopted the phrase "sound science." If it isn't "good science" then what exactly is it?
 
 
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Over recent months, an unprecedented rupture has occurred between the U.S. scientific community and the White House. Denunciations of President Bush's science policies by a slew of Nobel Laureates organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, followed by a sweeping rejection of the scientists' charges by the administration, have made for great political theater. But the controversy has also shown that on issues ranging from mercury pollution to global warming, today's political conservatives have an extremely peculiar -- and decidedly non-mainstream -- concept of what science says and how to reach scientific conclusions. Conservatives and the Bush administration claim to be staunch defenders of science, of course; but close attention to the very language they use suggests otherwise.

Much of the modern conservative agenda on science is embodied in the enigmatic phrase "sound science," a term used with increasing frequency these days despite its apparent lack of a clear, agreed-upon definition. In one sense, "sound science" simply means "good science." Indeed, when unwitting liberals and journalists have been caught using the phrase -- which happens quite frequently -- it appears to have been with this meaning in mind.

Conservatives, too, want people to hear "good science" when they say "sound science." But there are reasons for thinking they actually mean something more by the term. The Bush administration has invoked "sound science" on issues ranging from climate change to arsenic in drinking water, virtually always in defense of a looser government regulatory standard than might otherwise have been adopted. In this sense, "sound science" seems to mean requiring a high burden of proof before taking government action to protect public health and the environment (not really a scientific position at all). Indeed, in an online discussion of "Sound Science and Public Policy," the Western Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives, chaired by Utah Republican Chris Cannon, notes that "environmental laws should be made with great caution and demand a high degree of scientific certainty" -- once again, a policy statement rather than one having to do strictly with science.

A short history of the phrase "sound science," and its development into a mantra of the political right, clearly demonstrates its anti-regulatory, pro-industry slant. Strategic uses by the business community trace back at least to Dow Chemical Company president Paul F. Oreffice's 1983 claim that a $3 million program to allay fears of dioxin pollution in Michigan would use "sound science" to "reassure" the public -- i.e., downplay risks. To rebut Dow's claims, a young South Dakota representative named Tom Daschle promptly released results from a confidential study suggesting that dioxin damages the immune system. In this incident, it's possible to see the first sprouting of a political debate over "sound science" that would bloom into a full schism a decade later.

A key development came in 1993, when an Environmental Protection Agency report estimated that secondhand smoke causes some 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year. EPA classified secondhand smoke as a Group A human carcinogen. The tobacco lobby quickly sprang into action, and it's not hard to see why. If smokers were hurting other people, and not merely themselves, the issue wasn't just about "personal responsibility" any more. Society could find itself compelled to take steps to ban smoking in a variety of public venues.

The Tobacco Institute, an industry group, quickly labeled EPA's conclusions "another step in a long process characterized by a preference for political correctness over sound science." And as we now know from tobacco documents made available as a consequence of litigation, the industry decided to do something about it.

In early 1993, Philip Morris and its public relations firm, APCO Associates, created a nonprofit front group called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) to help fight against the regulation of secondhand smoke. To mask its true purpose, TASSC assembled a range of anti-regulatory interests under one umbrella, and rarely, if ever, explicitly challenged the notion that secondhand smoke poses health risks. Instead, the group, headed by former New Mexico governor Garrey Carruthers, described itself as a "not-for-profit coalition advocating the use of sound science in public policy decision making." Still, at the very least TASSC implied that the science of secondhand smoke was bogus. For example, in 1994 the group released a poll of scientists suggesting that politicians were abusing science on issues such as "asbestos, pesticides, dioxin, environmental tobacco smoke or water quality."

At roughly the same time, fortuitously or otherwise, the incoming Republican Congress of 1994 adopted "sound science" as a mantra. Just a week after the November 1994 elections, Newt Gingrich and company had set the tone. "Property rights" and "sound science" had become "the environmental buzzwords of the new Republican Congress," a Knight-Ridder news report noted. The perceptive report also included a definition of "sound science," which suggested it meant much more than simply "good science." Instead, the point was deregulation: "'Sound science' is shorthand for the notion that anti-pollution laws have gone to extremes, spending huge amounts of money to protect people from miniscule risks."

Calls for "sound science" closely accompanied the push to enact a key tenet of the Republican Party's "Contract With America" -- regulatory "reform," an industry-backed gambit to provide steep hurdles to future environmental, health, and safety regulations. Reform bills sponsored in 1995 by Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole would have imposed stringent new rules on the process by which the Environmental Protection Agency and other government bodies conducted science-based risk assessments to determine whether a particular danger should be regulated. The proposals demonstrated that the new Republican majority wanted nothing less than to become government's science cops -- and to start fixing the tickets of industry.

The leading regulatory reform proposals would have legislated the very nature of science itself. They prescribed a one-size-fits-all standard for risk assessment across very different government agencies, potentially stifling scientific adaptability. The bills also would have erected a "peer review" process to scrutinize risk assessments with large potential regulatory impacts -- one that would have not only bogged down the regulatory process, but also allowed industry scientists to participate in or even dominate reviews. In addition, regulatory reform would have created new opportunities for federal court challenges over agency risk assessments -- an ideal opportunity for business interests to engage in scientific warfare over analyses they didn't like. The whole process, Public Citizen lawyer David Vladeck wrote at the time, smacked of an attempt to achieve "paralysis by analysis."

Reformers didn't describe it that way, of course. As Dole argued in a Washington Post commentary, the goal was to make sure that agencies were using "the best information and sound science available." Yet the notion that Republican reformers were merely calling for better science in the abstract -- instead of issuing unrealistic demands for minimized uncertainty before regulation could be undertaken -- is hard to swallow. At the same time that they pushed for regulatory reform, the Gingrich Republicans dismantled Congress's Office of Technology Assessment, a widely respected scientific advisory body, and sought to slash funding for government scientific research.

Throughout the whole saga, the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition cheered the regulatory reformers along, sometimes explicitly. In an October 13, 1994 speech, TASSC chairman Garrey Carruthers specifically endorsed a regulatory reform proposal by Louisiana Democratic Senator J. Bennett Johnston (co-sponsor of the Dole bill). Then in 1995, the group released a study protesting negative media coverage of regulatory reform, which Dole, in turn, cited in a statement. Carruthers heralded the survey -- without, of course, mentioning tobacco in any way. "We want to offer information on how scientific issues are communicated to the public as another means of ensuring that only sound science is used in making public policy decisions," he stated.

Ultimately, the regulatory reformers went too far and their proposal died in the Senate -but not before it had helped crystallize a new conservative lexicon. In a 1996 report, the late Rep. George Brown, ranking Democratic member of the House Science Committee, issued a long and anguished reflection on the Republican Party's adoption of "sound science" principles entitled "Environmental Science Under Siege: Fringe Science and the 104th Congress." Brown's report provides a powerful riposte to the "sound science" movement, whose proponents he accused of having "little or no experience of what science does and how it progresses."

Brown's ire had been raised by a series of hearings by the Republican-controlled Energy and Environment Subcommittee entitled "Scientific Integrity and the Public Trust," which were a closely related offshoot of the regulatory reform movement. Presided over by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California -- who notoriously derided climate change as "liberal claptrap" -- the hearings levied charges of science abuse across three environmental issues: ozone depletion, global warming, and dioxin risks. After an analysis of the hearings, Brown found "no credible evidence" of scientific distortion in the interest of environmental scare-mongering. But he did come away with a definition of "sound science" as used repeatedly by the Republican majority. "The Majority seems to equate sound science with absolute certainty regarding a particular problem," wrote Brown. "By this standard, a substance can only be regulated after we know with absolute certainty that the substance is harmful. This is an unrealistic and inappropriate standard."

Nevertheless, invocations of "sound science" to prevent regulation remain a core component of the conservative science agenda today. In 2002, Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz -- who did polling work for the GOP's 1994 Contract with America -- wrote in a memorandum (PDF) for GOP congressional candidates that "The most important principle in any discussion of global warming is your commitment to sound science." But what was most intriguing was what "sound science" actually meant to Luntz on climate change. "The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed," he added cynically. "There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science." It's hard to read Luntz's words as anything but yet another call for "paralysis by analysis."

Conservatives and liberals both agree that science is crucially important for making public policy. But the answers provided by scientific research are rarely certain and always open to disputation or challenge. When conservatives today call for "sound science," the evidence suggests that what they really want is to hold a scientific filibuster -- and thereby delay political action.

Chris Mooney is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect. Read more of his articles at: chriscmooney.com.