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Dishonesty in Science

Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration’s Misuse of Science

a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists
February 2004, 42 pp.


The founders of the American state understood that the proper functioning of a democracy required an educated electorate. It is this understanding that justifies a system of public education and that led slaveholders to resist the spread of literacy among their chattels. But the meaning of “educated” has changed beyond recognition in two hundred years. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are no longer sufficient to decide on public policy. Now we need quantum mechanics and molecular biology. The knowledge required for political rationality, once available to the masses, is now in the possession of a specially educated elite, a situation that creates a series of tensions and contradictions in the operation of representative democracy.

The problem of the role of elite knowledge in a democracy is an old one. A version of a story in the Babylonian Talmud tells of four rabbis walking in a field, engaged in a dispute over whether an oven of a particular design can be purified. Three hold one opinion, while the fourth has the opposite view. The lone holdout appeals to God, asking that He send first thunder, then lightning, and then that the lightning strike a lone tree in the field. Although each request is granted, the others are not convinced. After all, thunder and lightning are usual natural phenomena and in a lightning storm what is more natural than that a tree standing in the middle of a field should be struck? In desperation the dissenter calls on God to speak directly to them. Sure enough, a voice from above is heard proclaiming “IT IS AS HE SAYS.” “So,” asks the dissenter, “what do you three have to say now?” “All right,” they answer, “that makes it three to two.”

Science has replaced Jehovah as the source of privileged knowledge, but the problems remain. How is the knowledge in the possession of the scientific elites to be factored into a process of decision in which considerations of economy, ideology, and political power also enter? Is elite knowledge to be given absolute priority? Why should we trust scientists, who, after all, have their own political and economic agendas? On the other hand how can we decide by vote when the voters and their representatives have no understanding of the facts of nature?

The American government, like others, has attempted to solve the problem by co-opting scientists into the apparatus of the state in three ways. Most directly it has built an executive apparatus including the president’s science adviser, the Office of Science and Technology, and regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency. Second, it has created quasi-governmental bodies made up of senior scientists, like the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council, that are obliged to provide expert scientific advice and evaluation on request from any government agency. Finally, after the Second World War, the state became the chief patron of science, currently committing about $35 billion annually directly to basic and applied research.

Because of fears that federal support of research would result in political interference with the research process, the pattern established by Congress for the funding of research gave the representatives of the scientific community itself the day-to-day power to decide what research is to be done. Even in funding from the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy (formerly the Atomic Energy Commission), decisions about grants are made by a peer review system in which the reviewers and agency administrators are drawn from the research community and share in its general culture.

As a consequence, instead of producing a mass of grateful recipients of state patronage, public research support has created a large and prospering community of independent investigators—most of them affiliated with universities—with immense public prestige and with effective control over the distribution of funds for research. It is no surprise that attempts by various administrations to make science serve political and economic policy have been met by public opposition from prestigious scientists speaking in the name of disinterested objectivity. The most recent example is the report issued in February 2004 by the Union of Concerned Scientists, whose signers include twenty Nobel Prize winners and, ironically, nineteen recipients of the American government’s version of a knighthood, the National Medal of Science.

Scientific Integrity in Policymaking accuses the Bush administration, first, of deliberately suppressing scientific findings in the interest of its own ideological and political ends and, second, of packing various regulatory and review boards with unqualified members who can be counted on to favor industrial profits or conservative ideologies over public health and safety. Manipulation, distortion, and suppression of scientific findings in the interest of industries, the report shows, have affected research results on climate change, on mercury emissions and other pollutants, on airborne bacteria, on endangered species and forest management. The government’s evidence about Iraq’s famous aluminum tubes is said to have been misrepresented in the interests of building a case for war.

Three examples are given of the way in which education and information about scientific findings have been manipulated to support a conservative religious ideology. In order to demonstrate that abstinence-only programs were effective, the Bush administration instructed the Centers for Disease Control not to follow the actual birth rate for participants in an abstinence-only test program, but only their attendance and attitudes toward the program. In order to hide the effectiveness of condom use in preventing HIV infection, the CDC was directed to emphasize condom failure rates in its educational material. Finally, the National Cancer Institute was directed to post a claim on its Web site that abortion promotes breast cancer although a large study had shown no connection between them.

The report also discusses a number of cases in which government regulatory and review panels were packed with members favorable to the administration. Moreover, it is reported that many potential nominees for federal scientific advisory posts were questioned about their political views and even whether they had voted for Bush. The most transparent manipulation occurred in 2002 when the Center for Disease Control Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning was to consider narrowing the criterion of lead poisoning, so that sources of poisoning that were formerly banned became permissible. A panel of new nominees for the Advisory Committee was proposed by the CDC and, for the first time in the history of the committee, nominees were rejected by the direct intervention of the secretary of health and human services, Tommy Thompson, who replaced them with five persons who were previously known to oppose tightening the standard. Two of the five had financial ties with the lead industry.

In April the President’s science adviser, John Marburger, issued a reply to the Union of Concerned Scientists, providing an explanation for each of the claimed abuses, including the defense that reports were not suppressed but held up pending more complete studies.1 In the case of the abstinence-only program, Marburger says that it was never designed as a scientific study, but as preliminary to long-range evaluation of sexual abstinence. The accusation that seems least easily dismissed is that judgments about political commitment rather than about scientific competence were applied when people were appointed to advisory panels. Obviously each claimed abuse can be explained away, but whether the explanations are convincing or whether a pattern of politicizing scientific policy makes itself manifest will depend on what the reader is inclined to believe in the first place.

In July yet another case of political prejudice was reported.2 When Torsten Wiesel, a Nobel laureate in physiology and medicine, was rejected by Tommy Thompson’s office as a candidate for the advisory board of the Fogarty Center at the NIH, the director of the center was told by an official from the Department of Health and Human Services that Wiesel had “signed too many full-page letters in The New York Times critical of President Bush.” Indeed, the government makes no apology for the use of criteria other than scientific competence in its appointment policy. According to the report in Nature, a spokesman for the DHHS has asserted that, in addition to competence, a diversity of gender, race, geography, and political opinion is a valid goal of appointments to scientific advisory boards.

This assertion brings us back to the original problem of the relation of elite knowledge to the political process. Studies of climate change, endangered species, acceptable pollution levels, or the effect of sexual practices have not been called forth by pure scientific curiosity. Like all processes that are of direct relevance to human physical and psychic welfare, the costs and benefits of decisions will fall differently on different people. Any amount of lead is bad for your health. So what should be the minimum acceptable level of lead in the bloodstream? Whose bloodstream? Acceptable to whom? The worker in a lead refinery who lives in a badly polluted neighborhood near the plant whose family will bear the cost to their health and longevity of too much lead? The owner of shares in the refinery who winters in Sedona and summers on Cape Cod, whose health is not at issue but who will bear an economic cost of pollution control? A popular bumper sticker in Vermont reads “Another Vermonter for Global Warming.” (That, of course, may be a scientific mistake, since general global warming may make Vermont colder.)

My friends who are lawyers insist that the only general rule for deciding legal disputes is “It depends on the jurisdiction,” and that rule applies equally to decisions about scientific questions of public import. It is disingenuous to claim that scientists come to their scientific work without prior ethical, economic, and social values and motivations. Everyone I know who studies endangered species cares about saving them. One never hears that the malarial parasite is “endangered.” To do science is to be political if only because it is a political decision to spend some amount of limited human energy and social resources on a particular question. Most scientists are, at a minimum, liberals, although it is by no means obvious why this should be so. Despite the fact that all of the molecular biologists of my acquaintance are shareholders in or advisers to biotechnology firms, the chief political controversy in the scientific community seems to be whether it is wise to vote for Ralph Nader this time. We might expect, then, that the actions of an administration strongly protective of the interests of the owners of capital and identifying itself culturally with religious fundamentalism should be the cause of protest.

If knowledge about the natural world is to rationally influence the decisions of an informed electorate, then people must believe that scientists tell the truth about nature insofar as they know it. While we might agree that prior political commitment could lead us to ask one question rather than another, or to put more weight on the result of a study that conforms to our prejudice rather than one that refutes it, every scientist must agree that outright fraud is beyond the pale. Putting aside the issue of morality, scientific investigation would be destroyed as a useful human endeavor and scientists would lose any claim on social resources if deliberate falsifications were not exposed. So scientists must be on the alert, ready to detect lies arising from within their institution. But this leads to a contradiction. To survive, science must expose dishonesty, but every such public exposure produces cynicism about the purity and disinterestedness of the institution and provides fuel for ideological anti-rationalism. The revelation that the paradoxical Piltdown Man fossil skull was, in fact, a hoax was a great relief to perplexed paleontologists but a cause of great exultation in Texas tabernacles.

  1. 1

    A report of Marburger’s reply is given in Nature, April 8, 2004, p. 589.

  2. 2

    Nature, July 15, 2004, p. 281.

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