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Republicans, Science and Manufacturing Uncertainty

March 9, 2009

On Monday, President Obama as promised reversed George W. Bush's draconian restrictions on federal support for stem cell research in the United States. But just as important as that key step was its larger message that this White House rejects the politicization of science which has dominated Republican strategy for a generation. And at the heart of that cynical subservience to business interests and social conservatives alike has been one of the Republican Party's most destructive tactics, manufacturing uncertainty.
After eight years of political interference and censorship, doctored reports, stonewalling at the FDA and journalists on the payroll under George Bush, Harold Varmus, Nobel Prize winner and co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, insisted that, "Public policy must be guided by sound scientific advice." Of President Obama's decision Monday, Varmus added:

"This is consistent with the president's determination to use sound scientific practice...instead of dogma in developing federal policy."

And especially since 2001, that Republican dogma has been to dispute basic facts, ignore scientific consensus and above all sow the seeds of doubt to undermine environmental regulation and progressive social policy alike.
Perhaps the most prominent and pernicious effort to manufacture uncertainty has been over greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. To capture the White House in 2000, then-candidate Bush promised to regulate carbon dioxide emissions in an attempt to outflank Al Gore. But in March 2001, only 10 days after EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman publicly pledged to fulfill Bush's campaign promise, the White House reversed course. Later that year, Whitman was rolled again over the issue of "new source review" for the nation's older power plants. The EPA's suggested rule changes were rejected by the administration, she said, because the White House "wanted something that would be more pro-industry."
To provide a smoke-screen for its support of industry, the Bush administration turned to its magical elixir of scientific uncertainty. Despite the overwhelming worldwide consensus on the urgency and man-made causes of global warming, President Bush in rejecting the Kyoto protocols in June 2001 declared:

"No one can say with any certainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming, and therefore what level must be avoided.
The policy challenge is to act in a serious and sensible way, given the limits of our knowledge. While scientific uncertainties remain, we can begin now to address the factors that contribute to climate change."

Often, the ham-handed Republican war on science often went to ridiculous extremes. In May 2002, Philip Cooney, an energy industry lobbyist turned number two man on the President's oxymoronic Council on Environmental Quality, was caught doctoring the Climate Action Report submitted to the UN. Hoping to counter the report's findings that detailed the "far-reaching effects that global warming will inflict" and which "for the first time mostly blames human actions for recent global warming," Cooney personally edited the document - and the science:

On the opening page of the chapter on climate impacts, Cooney inserted a litany of language in bold intended to cast doubt on the science: "the weakest links in our knowledge...a lack of understanding...uncertainties...considerable uncertainty...perhaps even greater uncertainty...regarded as tentative."

Even as the tide of public opinion followed the international consensus on global warming and a year after government scientist James Hansen revealed White House censorship, Vice President Dick Cheney as late as February 2007 insisted there was still uncertainty, and therefore, no need for action:

"Where there does not appear to be a consensus, where it begins to break down, is the extent to which that's part of a normal cycle versus the extent to which it's caused by man, greenhouse gases, et cetera.
But I think we're going to see a big debate on it going forward. But it's not enough just to sort of run out and try to slap together some policy that's going to 'solve' the problem."

Ironically, on the very day President Obama announced an end to Bush's stem cell policy, global warming deniers gathered in New York at an event hosted by the Heartland Institute . Six years after Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe declared global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," even Exxon Mobil has withdrawn its financial backing from industry front groups like Heartland and the Competitive Enterprise Institute it once so lavishly funded.
Of course, the Republican effort to create uncertainty and with it barriers to environmental and health regulation of U.S. businesses extends across a wide swath of public policy. A 2008 report by an inspector general of the Interior Department found that Bush Fish and Wildlife Service appointee Julie MacDonald systematically undermined enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. As the Washington Post documented, "investigators found that she had tampered with scientific evidence, improperly removed species and habitats from the endangered-species list, and gave internal documents to oil industry lobbyists and property rights groups." As it turns out, her deputy and former industry player Steven Griles was sentenced to prison in 2007 for conflict of interest over his involvement with Republican uber lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
But it is Dick Cheney who provides one of the most compelling examples of the dark nexus where Republican partisan politics, business backers and bogus science intersect. Perhaps even more illustrative than his well-publicized role in the secret Bush energy task force dominated by oil and coal executives is Cheney's hand in the mammoth Klamath Basin salmon kill in 2002.
As Republicans approached the 2002 mid-term elections, Cheney along with other GOP strategists grew concerned over the reelection prospects of Senator Gordon Smith in increasingly liberal Oregon. But when federal biologists ruled that to protect salmon there the Endangered Species Act offered no recourse but to cut off water to the cropland and pastures of Southern Oregon, Cheney saw his opportunity. As the Washington Post reported, Cheney personally intervened to trigger another review which ultimately reversed the policy, a change that precipitated "the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River." As one Cheney aide described the Vice President's strategy:

"He felt we had to match the science."

As the history shows, however, the ersatz science of the Bush administration wasn't limited to maximizing the profits of the Republican Party's business backers. Time and again, the GOP also engaged in scientific fraud to appease its religious right base.
Nowhere is the political pandering posing as the pursuit of science more on display than in the never-ending battle over evolution and so-called intelligent design. While polls shockingly reveal that as few as 35% of Americans subscribe to Darwin's theory, campaign '08 showed many evolution deniers among the ranks of the GOP presidential hopefuls. During a debate in May 2007, three of the 10 White House wannabes raised their hands when asked if they did not believe in evolution. And while George W. Bush and John McCain played dumb on the question of teaching public school children so-called intelligent design, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee actively tried to undermine evolution instruction in his state. Putting thinly veiled creationism on the same ground as Darwin, President Bush in August 2005 insisted both should be taught in American public schools:

"I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes."

Despite the long-standing scientific consensus in support of Darwin's theory, the campaign against it continues undiminished by Republican leaders, creationist front groups and GOP rank-and-file alike. Even after their devastating defeat in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case ended the teaching of intelligent design in a Pennsylvania school district, Darwin's foes create new fronts in their war on the theory of evolution. Just weeks ago, the seven creationist members of the Texas school board won a partial victory even as they replaced the state's 20 year old requirement to teach students the "strengths and weaknesses" of all theories. In Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal signed a law which "allows local school boards to designate supplemental curricular materials that science teachers may use for lessons on topics such as evolution, global warming, and cloning." (In response, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology decided to move its 2011 conference from New Orleans.)
The politics of abortion and reproductive rights also are fertile ground for the manipulation and misrepresentation of science by the ideologues of the right. Despite the findings from an expert panel of the National Cancer Institute that "abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer," the Bush administration repeatedly claimed otherwise on federal government web sites aimed at teenagers and pregnant women. As a 2006 Congressional investigation found, 20 of 23 federally-funded "pregnancy resource centers," facilities often affiliated with antiabortion religious groups, incorrectly told women "that abortion results in an increased risk of breast cancer, infertility and deep psychological trauma."
The list goes on and on. Despite near-unanimous approval by career FDA personnel for over-the-counter sales of the Plan B emergency contraceptive, Bush political appointees blocked its availability for years by baselessly claiming Plan B poses a risk to girls under age 18. As for abstinence-only education, which study after study shows not only fails to prevent unwanted teen pregnancies but risks greater exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, the Bush administration continued to support it both at home and abroad. (On that score, the daughter of Alaska Governor and abstinence-only education advocate Sarah Palin may have injected some reality into the discussion.)
As he signed the executive order lifting George W. Bush's limits on stem cell research, President Obama promised that under his administration "scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology." That reassuring announcement came after Dr. David Prentice of the reliably Republican Family Research Council tried to stir up more uncertainty by falsely claiming, "Using embryos is old science, bad health care," adding, "It's the adult stem cells that help patients now."
(For an excellent analysis of the strategies and tactics of the conservative manufacturing of uncertainty, see Chris Mooney's book, The Republican War on Science.)
UPDATE: The text of President Obama's statement is available here. MSNBC rounds up reactions, including the kudos from Nancy Reagan.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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