Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Bush's War on Science

HOWARD DEAN

I write this week's column as a physician.

The Bush administration has declared war on science. In the Orwellian world of 21st century America, two plus two no longer equals four where public policy is concerned, and science is no exception. When a right-wing theory is contradicted by an inconvenient scientific fact, the science is not refuted; it is simply discarded or ignored.

Egregious examples abound. Over-the-counter morning-after contraceptive sales are banned, despite the recommendation for approval by an independent panel of the Food and Drug Administration review board. The health risks of mercury were discounted by a White House staffer who simply crossed out the word "confirmed" from a phrase describing mercury as a "confirmed public health risk." A National Cancer Institute fact sheet is doctored to suggest that abortion increases breast cancer risk, even though the American Cancer Society concluded that the best study discounts that. Reports on the status of minority health and the importance of breast feeding are similarly watered down to appease right-wing ideologies.

What about global warming? After withdrawing from the Kyoto Treaty, the Bush administration distanced themselves from a climate report the Environmental Protection Agency wrote, because it affirmed the potential worldwide harm of global warming, the existence of which Bush had denied. The global warming section of the 2003 EPA Report on the environment was extensively rewritten, then dropped entirely. Fighting HIV? Bush's initiative to help fund HIV efforts in Africa was trumpeted by the press, while the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control quietly removed information on the benefits of condoms and safe sex education from domestic HIV Web sites.

Presidential scientific commissions have long enjoyed relative immunity from politics. Presidents of both parties have depended on impartial, rational advice from such groups for decades. Yet under the Bush administration, there has been a concerted effort, led by Karl Rove and other political ideologues based in the White House, to stack these commissions with Republican loyalists, especially those who espouse fundamentalist views on scientific issues.

Recently, a scientist and a bioethics professor were dismissed from the blue-ribbon Council on Bioethics when they disagreed with the Bush administration's proposed ban on new stem-cell line development to cure a variety of diseases. In a similar vein and an unusual move, the nomination of public health experts to a CDC lead paint advisory panel were rejected by Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, and replaced with researchers with financial ties to the lead industry. The Union of Concerned Scientists, with 20 Nobel laureates and several former scientific advisers to Republican presidents, has issued a scathing Report on Scientific Integrity condemning these practices.

Is it any wonder that these outrages have been perpetrated on an unsuspecting public and an enfeebled press? Not when you consider that this is an administration that has put forth deliberately misleading proposals like the Healthy Forests Initiative that removes barriers to clear-cutting, and the Clear Skies Initiative that weakens existing safeguards on mercury, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants dumped into the air by power plants. When the oil industry writes national energy policy and the HMOs and drug companies draft our Medicare legislation, who is looking out for truth, scientific integrity, and the public interest?

Will it be long before a prominent panel of fundamentalist theologians, conservative columnists, and a few token scientists take up the question of whether the theory of evolution should be banned from the nation's classrooms? Stay tuned. In George Bush's America, ignorance is strength.

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