Putting science in the service of a pre-determined political agenda has become business as usual in Washington. The consequences of this institutional dishonesty have been devastating.
Few people are better suited to assess the current situation than Dr. Malcolm Ross. Dr. Ross is a recently retired research mineralogist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He holds a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard University. Dr. Ross is past president of the Mineralogical Society of America and has published 84 papers and 63 abstracts in peer-reviewed journals. He is currently affiliated with the Science and Environment Policy Project in Fairfax, Virginia and is a research associate with the Environmental Sciences Laboratory, Brooklyn College, Brooklyn, New York.
Cohen: How serious is the politicization of science in the United States?
Ross: It is very serious. Having 40 years experience as a research scientist with the United States Geological Survey, I am appalled at what I refer to as "politically correct science." Scientific investigation continually asks the question--is it true? The role of science is not only to discover new facts and phenomena, but to uncover errors appearing in previous investigations. Science is continually in the process of correcting previous work; no study is fixed forever in time. As the late Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman stated (if I may paraphrase him), the highest calling of a scientist is to show that his or her previous investigation is incorrect.
But this is not what happens in politically correct science. Once a political policy initiative has been introduced, sometimes but not always based on scientific investigation, the initiative persists even when new studies indicate that the premise on which the policy was based is incorrect.
Cohen: Could you give some examples?
Ross: Examples of the misuse of science abound. My own experience is with asbestos and acid rain and how they relate to human health, both of which subjects I worked on as a U.S. government scientist. We have spent nearly $100 billion to remove asbestos from schools and other buildings, despite warnings by many of us that there was no risk to the health of the building occupants. In 1990, EPA finally agreed with our risk estimate, but the damage had already been done, most of it by EPA.
Acid rain is another example. After nearly $600 million in scientific research by many scientists, it was found that acid rain has little or no effect on lakes or forests--despite the efforts of some environmentalists to promote the "politically correct” conclusion that acid rain is poisoning our lakes and killing our forests.
Other examples of the misuse of science are found in the propaganda promoted by the apocalyptics: that trace amounts of pesticides cause cancer, that radon and lead in homes are a serious health hazard, that electromagnetic fields pose risks to those around them, and that the manufacture of chlorinated organic compounds must cease because they pose a risk to human health and destroy ozone.
Cohen: The Clinton administration is actively pursuing policies aimed at curbing global warming. Is this an example of junk science?
Ross: Yes it is. The idea that humans have significantly enhanced global warming is by far the most massive abuse of science that I ever have seen. The prediction of disastrous global warming is used to justify a policy of centralized control of the world's energy resources. Radical environmentalists believe that if the industrial nations do not reverse their economic growth they will destroy the Earth. Scientists who point out that recent measurements of actual temperatures do not indicate anything out of the ordinary--and plenty of scientists have found this--are accused of being in the employ of greedy commercial interests. In fact, they are merely telling the truth. Those pushing the global warming--now called "climate change"--agenda do not want to hear it.
Cohen: Who benefits from the way science is used--or misused--to promote political agendas?
Ross: I like to refer to these people as the power elite. They include high-level bureaucrats eager to expand their budgets and advance careers; CEOs of large corporations eager to curry favor with the bureaucrats who regulate them and to use that relationship to stifle competition from smaller companies; and heads of well-heeled foundations eager to spread their influence by passing out money earned by an earlier generation. The foundations--Pew Charitable Trusts, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Family Fund, among others--regularly funnel money and agendas to friendly environmental groups.
Cohen: How will all this affect the U.S. economy?
Ross: The effect will be devastating, not only in the U.S. but also abroad, particularly in poorer countries. The abuse of science for political purposes will inevitably lower the standard of living for the vast majority of people living on the Earth. To those who believe that industrial economies as we know them are at the root of all that is wrong with the world, curtailing industrial activity in the name of protecting public health and the environment makes a certain amount of sense. But the real consequence of all this will be to harm public health and the environment. Wealthier is healthier.
Cohen: Is government funding of scientific research the problem?
Ross: Yes and no. The problem is the kind of science that the government funds. Unfortunately, funding for basic research is being cut back in favor of more politically correct projects, such as global warming. More often than not, basic research, such as the above-mentioned acid rain study, does not produce the results the elite had hoped for. Critics of politically correct science are generally willing to fund some basic science but are wary of allocating money for applied science, fearing it will be misused.
Also, Congress has no idea what to do with scientific data, and thus for the most part ignores it. If Congress can be convinced that funding a project will save lives or otherwise benefit public health or the environment, it will eventually fund the project. But who does the "convincing" determines which research projects are funded. It's very difficult for a scientist, particularly one challenging the conventional wisdom, to get the ear of a key senator or congressman, or even someone on their staff.
In the last session of Congress, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was abolished. OTA was an in-house Congressional advisory office on scientific issues. Its elimination may have saved money, but Congress must now rely on the President's science adviser or outside think tanks for guidance. Unfortunately, these organizations often have their own, hidden, agendas, and are not necessarily the best source for independent scientific evaluation.
Cohen: It sounds to me as if the problem is bad and getting worse. What would you suggest as a way of avoiding the politicization of science?
Ross: A tough question. Getting people with blatantly political agendas away from the levers of scientific research will, under the current climate, not be easy. But, at least, we must acknowledge that this is the biggest problem of all. Next, we must fund at a reasonable level basic scientific research, giving scientists the freedom to conduct their own investigations and carry out their own experiments. This funding should come from private, government, and corporate institutions. Just like free markets, we need scientific competition to find the best answers in both basic and applied research. Scientists must be absolutely honest in their reporting, giving both the data that support their conclusions, and the data that do not.
This is often not the case with the politically correct science we have to deal with today. Let me give you just one example: The advocates of global warming often ignore the whole earth satellite data that show a slight cooling over the past 18 years. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) omitted satellite data in its report released last summer, the one used to justify measures to combat global warming. The IPCC relied instead on climate models which are notoriously inaccurate, particularly when it comes to factoring in the effects of water vapor and cloud cover on global temperatures.
In more honest times, scientists used observations to test the accuracy of models. Today, models are used to discredit observations.