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Weird Science

By Sasha Post, NEW WORLD (DIS)ORDER

If Halloween didn’t give you enough of a scare, check out “Politics and Science in the Bush Administration,” a report compiled this past summer by the minority staff of the House Committee on Government Reform. At times you’ll feel like you’re reading some conspiracy nut’s pet manifesto. You’re not, but by the time you’re finished, you’ll wish you were.

The plot is easy to follow: Over the last two and half years, the report charges, the Bush administration systematically distorted scientific information, interfered with scientific research and manipulated scientific committees. While the administration’s actions concern issues from condoms to clean air, they have invariably served to promote the interests of social conservatives and industry.

Here’s a typical example: Last summer the Center for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention was preparing to consider a reduction in the level of blood lead necessary for a diagnosis of lead poisoning. The level was set at 10 micrograms per deciliter, but studies had recently indicated that lead levels of five micrograms per deciliter were still harmful to children. Before the standard could be reconsidered, however, two highly qualified scientists, whose nominations had been pending, were rejected from the committee, and another well-regarded expert was removed. They were replaced with scientists known for their intimate ties to the lead industry. One in particular, Dr. Banner, has served as an expert witness for a manufacturer of lead paint, and has asserted that levels of blood lead up to 70 micrograms per deciliter were perfectly safe for children, a claim rejected by most every non-industry expert. Needless to say, the committee decided not to adopt the reduced five microgram standard. Later revelations that the lead industry had exercised considerable control over the appointments hardly came as a surprise. But one can’t accuse the administration of a lack of even-handedness—while the lead poisoning standard wasn’t lowered, standards of scientific integrity have certainly plummeted.

Another CDC example concerned an initiative called “Programs that Work,” which each year profiled a few sex-ed programs that were found to be particularly effective. Last year none of the five sex-ed programs profiled by the CDC initiative conformed to the “abstinence-only” education model (a fact presumably related to repeated studies demonstrating the model’s ineffectiveness). This year the “Programs that Work” initiative was abruptly and unjustifiably—if not altogether mysteriously—terminated. Not to fear, the administration already has plans to replace it with the bravely titled “Programs that Pander to our Constituency” initiative.

Hell, why stop at silencing dissent when you can fabricate agreement? Earlier this year the FDA released a paper addressing the controversial issue of direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising by pharmaceutical companies, which is often charged with misleading consumers. The FDA paper claimed that, according to a recent survey of physicians, “most [physicians] agreed that, because their patients saw a DTC ad, he or she asked more thoughtful questions during the visit.” This claim is actually accurate—if by “most” physicians, the FDA meant four percent of those surveyed. On the contrary, 65 percent of the physicians reported that the DTC ads confused their patients.

When the “Politics and Science” report was released last August, the White House played it off as partisan mud-slinging, and promised to rebut the specific charges. It has now been three months without another word from the administration. I called the White House earlier this week to ask for one: no luck. So, after a quarter of a year, the administration’s official defense amounts to the penetrating observation that the report was written by democrats—a response made all the more compelling given that such notorious partisan rags as Science, Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine, and The Lancet have all leveled similar charges against the White House.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Bush administration’s actions, beyond the deliberate use of misleading facts, is that they effectively deny the keystone principle underlying the doctrine of academic freedom; that academic disciplines must be self-governing communities of inquiry. Philosophers, not politicians, should decide what counts as good philosophy; chemists, not bureaucrats, should be allowed to say when somebody is doing serious chemistry. This is not to say that academics must remain aloof from politically charged questions; quite the contrary. The problem is not the intermingling of politics and science per se, but rather the willingness to substitute political judgment for scientific expertise.

Just last month, 150 NIH-funded scientists found their peer-reviewed research facing a new sort of scrutiny. Because of political concerns over their work on HIV/AIDS and sexuality, they are now being asked to provide additional justification for their research. One fears that such political interventionism will have a chilling effect on further work in the field. As members of an academic community, we should condemn the Bush Administration’s actions. Let’s make sure that next Halloween, we get our scares elsewhere.

Sasha Post ’05 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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