Bush: Blinding US With Mad Science

25 March 2004

By Stentor Danielson

Word recently hit the news that the new mercury pollution standards proposed by the EPA were written based on energy industry suggestions, rather than on the standard scientific studies that EPA policy calls for. This should be no surprise to observers of the current administration. From firing members of the President's Council on Bioethics who disagree with Bush's duplicitous rhetoric on stem cells and cloning, to suppressing information on the true costs of the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the administration has shown a disdain for the input of experts.

A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists documents in detail how the Bush administration has ignored, distorted, and suppressed scientific information in order to support its political agenda. These examples have been seized upon by liberal -- and increasingly also conservative -- commentators, who charge the administration with politicizing science. The administration's callousness toward empirical evidence is certainly deplorable, but critics have it backwards. The problem isn't that science is becoming politicized, it's that science wasn't politicized to begin with.

Too often, members of the public as well as government officials can fall into the trap of scientism -- the belief that science can objectively determine all the answers. Experts can be slow to criticize scientism, because scientism justifies technocracy -- government by experts. Politicians bolster scientism in their frequent allusions to "sound science" as the basis for their policies. Scientism allows them to duck responsibility for their decisions by claiming that their choices are dictated by objective science.

In the early days of government regulation, scientism seemed to work. The questions we faced -- is it safe to drink water that's green and stinky with effluent? -- were easy ones for science to handle. But even without any malicious intervention, we've now moved into an era when experts won't always produce an unobjectionable definite answer. The uncertainties are huge, as are the risks of making a wrong choice. In this era, it's not enough to trust the experts, because the experts aren't expert enough. The public must take on questions of science-based policy, understanding both what is known and what is unknown, and biting our own bullet in making policy choices. Legitimacy comes not from objective findings of fact but from an informed democratic decision to accept certain risks.

Unfortunately, the failure of scientism rarely inspires the public to actively engage in the process of considering policy and weighing the science behind it. Instead, people swing into an ultra-skepticism about science, figuring that the experts must not know anything. In the words of Homer Simpson: "Facts, schmacts. You can use facts to prove anything."

My point is not to dismiss science or expert inquiry. The difficulty of the problems facing our society demands a division of labor in which specialized data can be produced by people skilled in scientific techniques. What is needed is for the public to be vigilant about how that data is used. We know how to do this when the decisions to be made are personal ones -- we trust the National Weather Service to tell us how likely they think it is to rain tomorrow, but we don't expect them to tell us whether to lug around our umbrellas. The question is whether we can be similarly attentive data connoisseurs when the decision being made is a public one.

The Bush administration is far from falling into a na´ve scientism. Instead, they gladly exploit the scientism embedded in public opinion and government. They get away with the stunts documented by the Union of Concerned Scientists because science-based policymaking is removed from the sphere of public debate. Internal scientific processes at the EPA and other agencies are expected to generate regulations. The Bush administration prefers implementing changes through the bureaucracy, because doing so shelters them from even the limited debate that goes on on the floor of Congress. It tries its best not to make a splash about things -- instructing Parks Service employees to phrase service cuts in innocuous language, or announcing lax pollution standards on Fridays when they won't be picked up and hammered by the media.

Thus nobody notices when the administration manipulates the process. A public that is increasingly distant from the production and use of science, and increasingly unable to critically evaluate scientific findings, is unable to respond. Complaints from opponents of the administration come off as further politicization of the issue, or as more proof that it's all a matter of opinion.

The worst manipulations are when information is suppressed. If the administration simply rejects scientific findings on climate change, for example, it's possible for an interested public to point to the science and argue that it should be interpreted differently and be used to justify a different policy. But if the administration keeps information out of public knowledge, then the public is deprived of the tools for critically assessing the government's performance.

The long-term solution to the Bush administration's tampering with science isn't to defend the inviolable objectivity of the experts. It's to cultivate an engaged and scientifically literate public that can monitor what we think we know, how we know it, and what we can do about it. If we don't have to trust the experts for everything, devious administrations can't hide their poor policy choices behind the rhetoric of "sound science."

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