Junking science

February 20, 2004

INTERPRETATION OF scientific data to fit a desired conclusion has been going on for eons. That whole flat-Earth flap comes quickly to mind. But the Bush administration has taken the manipulation of government research for political purposes to a perverse new level that denies even the president the benefit of the most accurate analysis.

So says a report released this week by what the White House described as "a distinguished group of scientists and educators," including 20 Nobel laureates and honored veterans of past Republican administrations.

Regular observers of Bush administration policy won't be surprised by the news; federal regulatory policy has been increasingly and brazenly taken captive by the president's philosophical soul mates and supporters in industries being regulated.

Yet the experts and former government insiders were able to illuminate the subtlety and cynicism of the tactics involved in a way that is particularly useful to keep in mind as Mr. Bush makes his case this year for a second term in office.

Research panels are stacked according to ideology, information that doesn't support administration policy is omitted, questions deemed likely to produce an undesirable answer are not asked.

The most famous example of such manipulation involved the White House suppression of an Environmental Protection Agency report on global warming, which the administration is trying to pretend doesn't exist because curbing global warming would be costly to the energy industry.

But there are many more examples that run the gamut from disputing the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS to delaying a report on the dangers of mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants to promoting a phony link between abortion and breast cancer.

The goal of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which wrote the report, was to show the nation "how comprehensive and widespread these practices are," Rice University physicist Neal Lane told The Sun's David Kohn. "It's the overall picture that is most distressing."

So pervasive is the practice among the federal agencies that unvarnished information often doesn't even reach Mr. Bush -- much less the policy-makers in Congress who also rely on government research.

Thus, it was typical that Mr. Bush's top science advisor, John Marburger, dismissed the report as incorrect conclusions drawn from a "random selection of incidents" and said he saw no reason to bother the president with it.

The scientists are seeking new regulations that would prohibit censorship and distortion of government scientific research. But shouldn't Americans whose health, safety and future are threatened by such tactics expect them to already be against the law?

Maybe the Earth is flat.

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