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The End of Reason

The Bush Administration, politicizing science, and the election as national-intelligence-test

Is it Science Yet?

Near the end of the spring of 2006 an interesting convergence occurred between the silver screen and the United States Supreme Court. As thousands of Americans went to see Al Gore’s disarming little movie, An Inconvenient Truth (about a well-known policy wonk giving a slide show), the stalwart nine who work across the street from the Capital Building in Washington, D.C. agreed to hear a landmark case pitting environmental groups and state governments against the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Bush Administration. Since 1999, the plaintiffs have been trying to get the US EPA to regulate tailpipe emissions from cars. Media outlets looking to convert information into Wonder Bread will tell you this is an argument about whether EPA must regulate greenhouse gases as a form of pollution. The logic of the situation is much more bizarre than this, however, because the White House and EPA claim, among other things, that global climate change is too complicated for them to regulate at this time:

 

Only the research and development provision of the [Clean Air Act] – section 103 – specifically mentions CO2, and the legislative history of that section indicates Congress was focused on seeking a sound scientific basis on which to make future decisions on global climate change…two of the principal authors of section 103 as amended, explained that EPA’s ‘science mandate’ needed updating to deal with new, more complex issues, including ‘global warming.’…They expressed concern that EPA’s research budget had been too heavily focused on supporting existing regulatory actions when the Agency also needed to conduct long-term research to ‘enhance EPA’s ability to predict the need for future action.’

- Robert Fabricant, EPA General Counsel, Memo to Acting Administrator, Marianne L. Horinko, August 28, 2003.

 

There’s a good amount of institution-speak here. Thousands of scientists worldwidehave concluded through extensive peer-review that global warming is caused by greenhouse gases, and that the manmade portion of these gases has pushed the planet to the limit. EPA’s argument is that they do not have enough scientific information to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from automobile tailpipes. However, they have been aware of the greenhouse effectsince 1978. Their call is that the Clean Air Act specifically prohibits them from doing anything about carbon dioxide and other gases because they just haven’t had time to do the research. They are waiting on Congress to tell them what to do. As most informed people know, Congress has not been interested in dealing with this issue.

So, the Supreme Court is being asked to step in to decide whether scientists need to be listened to when they tell us things are not looking good. The Court began hearing briefs in mid-September. It is likely a decision will not come from them until the middle of 2007 or so—just in time for opening salvos in the 2008 primaries. 

All this happened as Al Gore’s movie about global warming found surprising success throughout the country. Many skeptical non-environmental Americansbegan to wonder if they’d been hoodwinked by their president and his cronies. Gore gained significant media capital out of nowhere, and speculation cropped up in the press that the movie itself might launch him to a successful bid for the Presidency in 2008.

This convergence is by no means a coincidence. For the past six years scientists and other high-level civil servants have struggled with a blatant, public disregard by many in power for scientifically defined issues. The inconvenience of global warming is just the biggest truth that can’t find a public policy purchase. It was only a matter of time before the courts agreed to be brought in to settle everyone down and lend their wisdom to a nation that clearly has forsaken itself of scientific principles, reason, logic and rationality.

Is It a Bush or a Plane?

When we look back on this period of history, one of the hallmarks of the Bush administration's tenure is sure to be its unprecedented politicizing of science. From HIV and condom policy, biology curricula in the schools, and the management of atmospheric toxins such as mercury and lead, to the value of stem cell research and the question of species survival versus commercial interests, a confounding number of dirty tricks and underhanded tactics have been used to squelch and/or silence scientists and planners in their quest for getting at the truth and helping policy makers create a better world. The list of these tactics is rather well-known (the best catalog out there may be found at the web site for the Union of Concerned Scientists): fire whistle-blowers; reduce funding for data collection and enforcement; appoint lobbyists and members of the Christian Right to technical advisory boards; establish administrative gag orders; point to well-funded-skeptics-with-Ph.D.s when scientific consensus is insurmountable; discontinue programs that monitor industry; and, when all else fails, agree finally with the mainstream, but refuse to do anything about it because "it will be economically disadvantageous to the American people," or, perhaps the best excuse of all: “we need more sound science.” This last approach, of course, is where George Bush and his fossil fuel contributors moved once it was clear they looked like a bunch of dumbies claiming that global warming wasn’t real – or, as Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe has said, “…the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” 

Whole Lotta Science

Curiously, we are entering a time of history where familiarity with science and technology is the key to the future of this country. It is curious because the people currently in charge seem to be in a muddle, not just about how to solve our problems, but simply understanding what the problems are. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of science going on. This nation’s dependence upon foreign oil has led to a quagmire of bizarre proportion in the Middle East; and our desperate need for more and more electricity finds the coal industry poised to invest billions of dollars in new greenhouse gas-producing coal plants, locking in some of the most enormous business investments that will be made in this country over the next several decades. It is obvious to practically everyone in the nation – except oil and coal lobbyists and the politicians they pay – that we need leaders who understand the importance of redefining our entire energy economy.

In fact, since the dawn of the personal computer science and technology have expanded and grown beyond what in just 1980 none of us could ever have conceived. No field of science, engineering, or industry has been left untouched by these advances. We have cracked the DNA code, developed the ability to monitor minute chemical changes in stack emissions, and established entire new motorized drives for running everything from automobiles to jets and sewage pumps; scientists can determine the chemistry of the atmosphere going back 650 thousand years by analyzing ice core samples from the south pole; and database systems, complex research studies, and designs for everything from split-level solar-powered ranch houses, and the astro-chemical content of the universe, to over 75,000 of the most important books in world literatureare available free of charge online.

Grasping the vast power of science and technology that humanity has at its finger-tips would seem to be a logical requirement of the leader of the free world and his advisors. Yet, as Chris Mooney notes in his 2005 book, The Republican War on Science: “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.” Mooney’s book documents the dual approach to scientific truth used by the conservative elite in Washington: on the one hand, if you don’t agree with scientists, accuse them of junk science; and when others come up with statements supporting your policy, call it sound science. 

In fact, what is truly bizarre about the past decade or so is that Republicans have become masters at challenging scientific consensus (even common sense) through the manipulation of the press and the creation of mass confusion using expert “deniers” and “spokespeople” wielding sound bites and euphemisms. "The problem has not been censorship,” wrote Jonathan Schell in The Nation this past summer, “but something very nearly censorship's opposite: the deafening noise of the official megaphone and its echoes -- not the suppression of truth, still spoken and heard in a narrow circle, but a profusion of lies and half lies; not too little speech but too much. If you whisper something to your friend in the front row of a rock concert, you have not been censored, but neither will you be heard."

The Past is a Pisser

The current war on science probably goes back to the beginning of the Republican Revolution in the mid-1990s. A 2003 report by environmental sociologists, Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap, "Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative Movement's Impact on U.S. Climate Change Policy," documents in detail the methodology that conservatives used to discredit the principles of the Kyoto Protocol and global warming studies in general. For a synopsis of this report and a link to the PDF file, see Andrew Leonard’s October 19, 2006 entry to Salon.com’s “How the World Works.” He writes:

The Committee on Science, and Congress as a whole, also began a war against scientists. As Rep. Doolittle proudly declared, no longer would legislators get "involved in the mumbo-jumbo of peer reviewed documents." McCright and Dunlap analyze witness lists for 37 major congressional hearings on global warming between 1990 and 1997.

·          In 1992, conventional (not including "leading skeptics") natural scientists were responsible for 47.9 percent of all testimonies. By 1997, the figure had dropped to 3.8 percent.

·          In 1993, the percentage of testimonies by "individuals with strong ties to corporate America" was 10 percent. In 1997, it was 53 percent. 

   

Although it is true that politics has always seeped into the realm of informed, science-based policy making, the current administration has created what Mooney says is “…an unprecedented rupture…between the U.S. scientific community and the White House.” Over the past two years the Union of Concerned Scientists has offered an online pledge for signature by scientists and associated policy makers that now includes more than 9,000 names, including nearly fifty Nobel laureatesand well over 200 heads of national medical and scientific research organizations, universities, and recipients of national science medals. The pledgesays, in part:

 

When scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions. … Furthermore, in advocating policies that are not scientifically sound, the administration has sometimes misrepresented scientific knowledge and misled the public about the implications of its policies.

 

Oozy Sweet

As we move through the final two years of the Bush administration, the death of intelligent decision-making will likely continue as a major theme. It’s sort of like science has been buried in many of its forms – climatology, biology, economics, ecology, even history – but the truth is composting underground and there’s no question it’s going to come back in some form or another. Odd fluids and sweet, phlegmy substances are already appearing at our feet in the form of books with titles like: The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrinaby Frank Rich; State of Denial, by Bob Woodward; The Great Unraveling, by Paul Krugman(an early publication in this new genre dealt primarily with the lack of rational economic decision making in the Bush Whitehouse); and Heat, in which British author and activist George Monbiot demonstrates that the campaign to deny the realities of global warming was initially organized not by ExxonMobil, but by the tobacco company, Philip Morris.

Possibly putting a cap on all of this ooze, bottling it into a cultural commodity, Al Gore’s new book, The Assault on Reason, is due out in May 2007. Penguin editor, Scott Moyers, says the book describes how “the public arena has grown more hostile to reason,” and that solving problems is hindered by a political “unwillingness to let facts drive decisions.”

These efforts at enlightening us about the end of rational thought should be appreciated by all independent thinkers and freedom-loving spirits everywhere. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that in some ways Democrats and liberals can only plead innocence because they’ve been out of power for, practically, ever.

It’s not easy making tough choices. George Bush and crew have proven that. But can Democrats do any better? In the face of global warming, there is already extreme confusion in the bleeding hearts of America over nuclear power and wind energy. And the intense efforts put forth by environmental groups to protect the Alaskan National Wilderness Refuge would seem sort of pointless if the Arctic Circle will be nothing but ocean by 2050 (and polar bears will be migrating down into the lower-48).

Liberals are astoundingly good at latching onto hysterical morality and a sort of humanistic sense of doom and gloom that can at times tinge everything coming out of their mouths. There’s a black-an-white sense of the world that’s not much different from George Bush’s “You’re either with us or against us.” A good liberal feels that if you wear fur, you’re immoral. If you try to justify the war in Iraq, you’re a hawk. If you believe in the free market, you’re a card-carrying member of the Cato Institute. If you think the issue of gay marriage was the death knell for John Kerry, you’re a homophobe. And if you make a joke about black people, you’re a racist (unless you’re black). Good liberals can be as hell-bent on being irrational as their conservative brethren.  

It Must Be in Our Water Supply

Messing around with the truth is not, of course, a new concept for those in power. Bill Clinton’s entire legacy was all but destroyed by saying: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”; Lyndon Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkinincident in 1964 was in effect lying to the American people in order to expand the Viet Nam War; Bill Gates and company claimed they were not trying to control your computer and software habits with Windows; and, big corporations like Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom are extreme examples of toying with reality (and innocent people’s lives) using fuzzy math and cooked books.

We have been lied to and cognitively manipulated by the powers that be ever since we started paying attention to TV and learned to read. It’s an American tradition. Politicians and activists alike create false dichotomies like “jobs vs. the environment,” “blacks and whites,” “Christians and Atheists,” “rich and poor,” “liberals and conservatives,” and “Republicans vs. Democrats.” Textbooks claim that Christopher Columbus discovered America, that “white people” are responsible for slavery, and that Ronald Reagan defeated communism. And on our good old TVs, we are treated daily to advertising that is, for the most part, bald-faced lying, distortion, and hype: post a fictitious price, quote “four-out-of-five doctors,” or place a product next to a beautiful woman with large breasts and wait for the profits to roll in. If They say it’s true, you know it’s not.  And yet…

Waking Up

All of this is a preamble to some important questions that need to be asked: How is it possible that the Bush Administration has so brazenly and publicly distorted the wisdom of this nation’s smartest people into messages of self-serving hucksterism and remained in office?  Are the problems that we face as a society so complicated that the distortion of science by politicians is just too easy? Are we now suffering the result of twenty to thirty years of an education system focused too heavily on “the basics” and not on critical thinking and an understanding of the scientific method? Are we really a country – and a world – defined first by wishful thinking and opinions, and only after the-shit-has-hit-the-fan by logic and reason? And, why is it that we forget every lesson we have learned once our feet are out of the fire?

On November 6th, Election Day, we will speak as a nation about what we think of the current administration and the control they have over our lives. The issues of scientific integrity and rational decision making are not really on the table as far as the media is concerned, but they should be. We saw what happened in the Gulf Coast a year ago; we know that the country went to war over fictitious weapons of mass destruction; we listen to endless conservative voices declaim the reality of global warming; and we read in the paper regularly about scientists and career civil servants quitting their jobs because of dismay that their research and recommendations are being ignored in favor of corporate interests. We have a mess on our hands. In a way, this election is a national intelligence test. Whether we pass or fail is beside the point. The real question is whether we are going to wake up.

 

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