Environmentalists have commenced their election-year attack on President Bush.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (search) issued a widely covered report last week condemning the Bush administration for allegedly politicizing science on a number of controversial issues, ranging from global warming to HIV/AIDS to Iraq’s nuclear weapons efforts.
It was quite an ironic charge coming from a self-described activist group whose left-wing, eco-extremist, anti-biotechnology, anti-chemical, anti-nuclear, anti-defense and anti-business screeds embody the very antithesis of the scientific ideal of objectivity.
The UCS accused the Bush administration of a “well-established pattern of suppression and distortion of scientific findings,” particularly with respect to global warming. The UCS, for example, objects to the Bush administration’s position that predicting global temperatures 100 years in the future is fraught with uncertainties.
But contrast the Bush administration’s circumspect approach with how the UCS — according to documents I obtained when researching my book, "Silencing Science" (Cato, 1999) — advised its members to give media interviews about global warming in a 1997 memo:
“1. Stay on message. The message is simple … global warming is a serious problem … we must take action now to fight global warming.
“2. Don’t confuse them with doubt. In other words, don’t talk like a scientist, with caveats and error bars. Emphasize the word consensus.
“3. Don’t talk too much. So practice your soundbites and don’t get trapped into giving the reporter what he is looking for. Set your time limit in advance … so that you can terminate the interview before you are in over your head without appearing to be evasive … Your main purpose is to advocate, not to educate.”
Contrary to UCS’ message, the reality is that global climate is anything but simple. There is much uncertainty. Advocacy with utter disregard to the complexity and uncertainty is tantamount to scientific malpractice.
The UCS spotlighted quotes from former EPA officials that would be split-your-pants funny but for the intellectual and moral bankruptcy they reflect.
“In all my time at the EPA, I don’t recall any regulatory decision that was driven by political considerations,” said Russell Train, EPA administrator under Presidents Nixon and Ford.
And I don’t recall any regulatory decision at the EPA that hasn’t been driven by political considerations. The EPA has always been a highly politicized federal agency.
Even if it was somehow true that Train was never pressured by the White House during his EPA tenure, he was a self-avowed environmentalist and is the chairman emeritus of the eco-activist World Wildlife Fund. And yet, according to Train, only the “other side” is politically motivated.
As part of its accusation that the Bush administration suppressed scientific research and information, the UCS cites Nixon-era EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus as saying that it’s not legitimate to withhold a scientific analysis just because you don’t like the outcome.
Ruckelshaus, of course, had a special talent for dealing with scientific analysis he didn’t like ― he just ignored it.
At the conclusion of the 1971-1972 EPA hearings on whether the insecticide DDT should be banned, the EPA judge concluded that DDT was not a threat to human health or to the environment.
Then-EPA Administrator Ruckelshaus banned DDT anyway.
But Ruckelshaus never attended the hearings, didn’t read the transcript and refused to release the materials used to make his decision. He even rebuffed a U.S. Department of Agriculture effort to obtain those materials through the Freedom of Information Act, claiming they were just “internal memos.”
This wasn’t surprising given Ruckelshaus’ bias. As it turns out, he was a closet environmentalist who personally raised money for the Environmental Defense Fund, an activist group that led the charge to ban DDT.
Last week’s UCS report also criticized the Bush administration for picking people to serve on advisory committees based on their ideology. The UCS quoted Clinton-era EPA pesticide chief Lynn Goldman as saying, “The Clinton administration did not do this … They did not exclude people based on some sort of litmus test.”
That’s flat-out false. In one instance that comes to mind, the Clinton administration was sued for excluding global warming skeptics from meetings of a federal advisory committee preparing a report on global warming.
The UCS report was issued along with a statement — signed by 12 Nobel Prize winners — protesting the Bush administration’s alleged “misuse of science.” I suppose UCS’ hoped the Nobel laureates would add gravitas to its silly report.
But none of the Nobelists have any notable expertise in any of the public policy issues raised in the report. A Nobel Prize for accomplishment in particle physics or retrovirus research doesn’t automatically translate into expertise on global warming and other regulatory issues.
Moreover, public policy controversies usually involve more than just science ― economics, law, politics come to mind ― and are quite different from the basic scientific research conducted in an ivory tower. Nobel laureates certainly have the right to opine on public policy issues, but their scientific discoveries don’t tend to render their opinions particularly valuable.
If the 12 Nobel laureate signatories truly want to fight the politicization of science, they might start by withdrawing their signatures from the UCS report.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).