Excerpt: Beat Back Science Abuse!

[This is an excerpt from The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney.]

The politicization of science presents a severe challenge to modern democratic governments, which depend on a creative tension between elected representatives on the one hand, and unelected technocratic elites on the other. While we cannot allow scientific experts to rule us directly, we nevertheless need them desperately. Our leaders simply cannot do their jobs competently without considerable reliance on expertise that they themselves do not possess. But the politicization of science -- in essence, a corruption of the communication channels between credible experts and policymakers -- weakens and ultimately destroys this necessary relationship.

The advent of the modern conservative movement, its takeover of the Republican Party, and its ultimate triumph under the administration of George W. Bush have brought us to a point where a true divorce between democratic government and technocratic expertise seems conceivable. Indeed, it appears to be actually underway. To those who understand that such a split will lead to economic, ecological, and social calamity, it presents a terrifying prospect -- and leaves us with only two options.

First, we could cry out warnings to conservatives, begging that they step back from the abyss before it is too late. Apparently, the forty-eight Nobel laureates who endorsed the Union of Concerned Scientists' statement were unable to cry out with a loud enough voice to achieve this objective. Scientists must continue to issue warnings and to decry abuses of science, but we should not delude ourselves that their jeremiads, however convincing, will solve the problem.

Instead, we must push for safeguards that strengthen the role of legitimate expertise in informing government decision-making, protect that expertise from manipulation and abuse, and more generally seek to restore a spirit of candor and collaboration between the scientific community and our elected officials. A number of groups have called for such steps, demanding both new institutions and new laws to safeguard the role of science in policymaking. In particular, a recent report by the Federation of American Scientists, Flying Blind, has exhaustively analyzed the chaos that ensues when expert input and political decision-making become separated -- a case in point being George W. Bush's 2001 stem cell decision -- and proposed helpful solutions touching both Congress and the executive branch of government.

First and most obviously, we must revive the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, or a close equivalent. Members of Congress clearly lack an impartial and credible source of scientific analysis and expertise, and this deficiency has created a vacuum that has often been filled by politicized sources. For those who claimed that OTA did not always work according to the congressional schedule, a revival of the office can include any necessary restructuring. As Arizona State University science policy scholar David Guston notes of OTA studies, "They don't always have to be two hundred pages long and eight months in coming, but you can't just pick up the phone and call your bud."

In fact, some scientists and politicians have begun to clamor for OTA's return. The authors of a 2003 collection, Science and Technology Advice for Congress, outline a range of options for improving the science savvy of elected representatives, from simply resurrecting OTA to creating a similar organ in the Government Accountability Office or Congressional Research Service. They also suggest increasing the role of the well-respected but undeniably slow-paced National Academy of Sciences.

Meanwhile, Democratic representative Rush Holt, of New Jersey, a physicist, has introduced several bills outlining different approaches for restoring an OTA-like capacity to Congress. "One of the reasons for defunding OTA was that people like Gingrich accused it of being partisan," says Holt. "And I would argue that because they did away with it, it made it possible for science on Capitol Hill to become partisan."

As we have seen, in the wake of OTA's demise, Congressional Republicans held "science court" hearings pitting industry-friendly scientists against the mainstream -- a tradition that continues in the hands of James Inhofe and others. As another needed reform, Congress should implement mechanisms to ensure full disclosure of any potentially relevant conflicts of interests by witnesses invited to testify at hearings at the time of their testimony. Such a step would at least partially deter the worst excesses of the "science court" tradition.

And just as science advice to Congress needs strengthening, so does the role of science in the executive branch of government. As far as advice to the president goes, the science adviser must regain the rank of assistant to the president, while the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) must regain its previous strength. As the Federation of American Scientists notes, Congress should also consider acting to raise the stature of OSTP further, increasing both its prominence within the White House and its public role. The ever increasing importance of scientific information to political decision-making justifies such a promotion.

Similarly, we must safeguard scientific advisory committees, which have proven particularly vulnerable to political manipulation. Recently proposed legislation by Democratic representatives Henry Waxman and Bart Gordon would move in this direction by barring political litmus tests for committee membership, and requiring tough disclosure and conflict-of-interest policies. This "scientific integrity" bill also has a number of other commendable features, such as extending whistleblower protection to federal employees who allege abuses of science, so that they will not face the threat of retaliation.

With respect to all of these proposed reforms to strengthen and safeguard the nation's scientific advisory apparatus, we should bear in mind the eloquent warning of Lewis Branscomb, of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, a UCS statement signer and physicist who has served in scientific advisory capacities in both Democratic and Republican administrations:

The integrity of the science advisory process cannot withstand overt actions to censor or suppress unwanted advice, to mischaracterize it, or to construct it by use of political litmus tests in the selection of individuals to serve on committees. Nor can it survive threats to the job security of scientists in government when they attempt to call such political interventions to the attention of Congress or the press. Science advice must not be allowed to become politically or ideologically constructed. If we fail in the attempt to preserve the integrity of science in democratic governance, a strong source of unity in the electorate, based on common interest in the actual performance of government, will be eroded. Policymaking by ideology requires that reality be set aside; it can be maintained only by moving towards ever more authoritarian forms of governance.

Is Branscomb's worry about creeping authoritarianism overblown? Simply recall the words of the anonymous Bush administration official who, disdaining the "reality-based community," averred that "we're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality," and you will see that we have plenty to worry about.

Steps to safeguard science advice, however, are just the beginning. Still in the arena of legislative reforms, we must roll back the incursions of the "sound science" regulatory reform movement. Science politicizing measures like the Data Quality Act must be repealed. The "peer review" superstructure recently erected under the Data Quality Act must be dismantled pending a governmentwide study, by the National Academy of Sciences or another competent body, of the proper role for peer review in regulatory decision-making. If such an inquiry were to find a need for significant reforms in spite of the regulatory delay that they would cause, then such reforms should be considered, with an emphasis on sensitivity to the differing needs of individual federal agencies.

We must also remain vigilant in opposition to proposed laws, like the "Endangered Species Data Quality Act," that would further politicize science. As a general principle, elected representatives have no business specifying, in minute detail, how federal agencies should evaluate scientific information. We staff these agencies with scientific experts for a reason. Let's let them do their jobs.

These proposals alone, however, cannot solve the problem. We must also work to reduce the current incentives for science politicization, and even consider steps to deter political science abuses in the future.

Science politicization succeeds, at least in part, because it confuses the public and policymakers, leading them to believe that a scientific "controversy" exists where one actually does not, or that widely discredited claims are still given serious consideration in the world of science. This would not happen so frequently, however, if journalists -- the chief purveyors of scientific information to the American public in controversial and politicized areas -- performed their job better.

Throughout this book we have seen repeated examples of strategic attempts to spin reporters. The 1998 American Petroleum Institute memo, discussed in Chapter 7, discussed a plan to "maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours with Congress, the media and other key audiences." Similarly, the Discovery Institute's Wedge Document explicitly discussed media strategies. And no wonder: The evidence suggests that many journalists reporting on science issues fall easy prey to sophisticated public relations campaigns. For instance, in a 2004 paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change, the scholars Maxwell T. Boykoff and Jules M. Boykoff analyzed coverage of global warming in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times between 1988 and 2002. During this fourteen-year period, climate scientists successfully forged a powerful consensus on human-caused climate change. But reporting in these four major papers failed to reflect this consensus.

The Boykoffs analyzed a random sample of 636 articles. They found that a majority, 52.7 percent, gave "roughly equal attention" to the scientific consensus view that human activity contributes to climate change and to the opposed (and often industry-supported) view that natural fluctuations suffice to explain the observed warming. By comparison, just 35.3 percent of articles emphasized the scientific consensus view while still presenting the other side in a subordinate fashion (a far more appropriate story structure). Finally, 6.2 percent emphasized the industry-friendly view (simply absurd), and a mere 5.9 percent focused on the consensus view without providing the industry/"skeptic" counterpoint (justifiable, perhaps, but probably not ideal in all circumstances).

Most intriguing, the Boykoffs' study found a shift in coverage between 1988, when climate change first garnered wide media coverage, and 1990. During that period, journalists broadly moved from focusing on scientists' views of climate change to providing "balanced" accounts. During this same period, the Boykoffs noted, climate change became highly politicized, and a "small group of influential spokespeople and scientists emerged in the news" to question the mainstream view that industrial emissions are warming the planet. The authors conclude that the U.S. "prestige press" has produced "informationally biased coverage of global warming . . . hidden behind the veil of journalistic balance."

Reporters need to understand better how science abusers exploit the journalistic norm of "balance" -- demanding equal treatment for fringe or widely discredited views -- and adjust their writing accordingly. Let's face it: Journalistic "balance" has no corollary in the world of science. On the contrary, scientific theories and interpretations survive or perish based on the process of peer review, by which scientific claims are carefully scrutinized before being published in reputable journals; on whether the results of scientific experiments can be replicated by other scientists; and ultimately, on whether they win over scientific peers. When consensus builds, it is based on repeated testing and retesting of an idea.

For this reason, journalists should treat fringe scientific claims with considerable skepticism and find out what major peer-reviewed papers or assessments have to say about them. Moreover, they should adhere to the principle that the more outlandish or dramatic the claim, the more skepticism it warrants. The fact is, nonscientist journalists can all too easily fall for scientific-sounding claims that they are unable to evaluate adequately on their own.

That doesn't mean that scientific consensus is right in every instance. There are famous examples of cases in which it was proved wrong: the name Galileo comes to mind, as does that of a lowly patent clerk named Einstein. In the vast majority of modern cases, however, scientific consensus can be expected to hold up under scrutiny precisely because it has emerged from a lengthy and rigorous process of professional skepticism and criticism. At the very least, journalists covering science-based policy debates should familiarize themselves with this professional proving ground, learn what it says about the relative merits of competing claims, and "balance" their reports accordingly. In doing so, they will thwart and expose many of the most severe forms of science abuse.

When it comes to deterrence of future abuse of science, we must consider other measures as well. In particular, the repeated abuse of science that we have seen on the part of self-interested corporations, and their assorted minions, strongly suggests a systemic problem. Industry groups play the "science" card because it works (if only for a time, as Big Tobacco learned) and because they can generally get away with it. As Brown University clinical associate professor David Egilman observed at a July conference sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, when it comes to industry manipulation and suppression of science, "The penalties for getting caught never approach the cost advantages of increased profits. There are rarely criminal penalties for deaths and injuries."

As Egilman suggests, as a society we must use the legal system more vigilantly to deter corporate abuse of science, recognizing their serious social costs. The Justice Department's attempt to prosecute cigarette manufacturers for racketeering, on the grounds that they misled the public about the dangers posed by their products, could set a good precedent and help discourage such behavior in the future.

And just as science-abusing corporations must be fought in the courts, science-abusing religious conservatives -- who would misinform our children about the origin of the human species and about virtually everything having to do with sex -- must be fought in the schools, the educational system, and the public arena more generally. Here the challenge truly becomes staggering. Short of massive educational reform, we can begin by supporting the few beleaguered groups, like the National Center for Science Education, that combat the religious Right in its attempt to commandeer science to serve a religious agenda.

We must also mobilize the natural defenders of Enlightenment values: scientists themselves, who all too often fail to engage antievolutionists and other know-nothings in defense of what they hold dear. True, groups like the National Academy of Sciences and American Association for the Advancement of Science have shown an historic willingness to step up when it counts, especially with powerful friend-of-the-court briefs in creationism lawsuits. But scientists have too often failed to counter creationist efforts at the local level, preferring to remain in their ivory towers. Moreover, while scientific societies have battled antievolutionists for decades, they must bring their activist senses up to date, and also battle the spread of misinformation in sex education courses and other areas.

Legal reforms, new levels of activism, raising journalistic standards -- all of these measures will help beat back science abuse. In the end, however, we cannot escape the reality that we face a political problem, one that requires explicitly political solutions.

Ideally, Republican moderates like John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger would serve as emissaries to the right wing of their party, warning of the dangers of science abuse. Yet if these moderates have attempted such a step, we can detect no evidence of its effectiveness. Rather, we see the opposite. The Bush administration has alienated and spurned moderate Republicans such as former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman and former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, who wanted to take global warming seriously rather than hide behind distortions and evasions of reliable scientific consensus.

In this context, and considering its track record, we have no choice but to politically oppose the antiscience right wing of the Republican Party. This does not necessarily entail an outright partisan agenda. Encouraging the electoral success of Republican moderates with good credentials on science could potentially have just as constructive an effect as backing Democrats.

But if we care about science and believe that it should play a crucial role in decisions about our future, we must steadfastly oppose further political gains by the modern Right. This political movement has patently demonstrated that it will not defend the integrity of science in any case in which science runs afoul of its core political constituencies. In so doing, it has ceded any right to govern a technologically advanced and sophisticated nation. Our future relies on our intelligence, but today's Right -- failing to grasp this fact in virtually every political situation in which it really matters, and nourishing disturbing anti-intellectual tendencies -- cannot deliver us there successfully or safely. If it will not come to its senses, we must cast it aside.

Copyright © 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with BasicBooks, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.

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